|April 9th, 2020|
There are many reasons people decide to eat vegan food, from ethics to taste to health, and I'm just interested in the ethical perspective. As a consequentialist, the way I see this is, how would the world be different if I stopped eating animals and animal products?
One factor is that I wouldn't be buying animal products anymore, which would reduce the demand for animals, and correspondingly the amount supplied. Elasticity means that if I decrease by buying by one unit I expect production to fall by less than one unit, but I'm going to ignore that here to be on the safe side. Peter Hurford gives a very rough set of numbers for how many animals continuously living are required to support a standard American diet and gets:
- 1/8 of a cow
- 1/8 of a pig
- 3 chickens
- 3 fish
Now, I don't think animals matter as much as humans. I think there's a very large chance they don't matter at all, and that there's just no one inside to suffer, but to be safe I'll assume they do. If animals do matter, I think they still matter substantially less than humans, so if we're going to compare our altruistic options we need a rough exchange rate between animal and human experience. Conditional on animals mattering, averting how many animal-years on a factory farm do I see as being about as good as giving a human another year of life?
- Pigs: about 100. Conditions for pigs are very bad, though I still think humans matter a lot more.
- Chickens: about 1,000. They probably matter much less than pigs.
- Cows: about 10,000. They probably matter about the same as pigs, but their conditions are far better.
- Fish: about 100,000. They matter much less than chickens.
Overall this has, to my own personal best guess, giving a person another year of life being more valuable than at least 230 Americans going vegan for a year.
The last time I wrote about this I used $100 as how much it costs to give someone an extra year of life through a donation to GiveWell's top charities, and while I haven't looked into it again that still seems about right. I think it's likely that you can do much better than this through donations aimed at reducing the risk of human extinction, but is a good figure for comparison. This means I'd rather see someone donate $43 to GiveWell's top charities than see 100 people go vegan for a year.
Since I get much more than $0.43 of enjoyment out of a year's worth of eating animal products, veganism looks like a really bad altruistic tradeoff to me.