An Analysis of the Animal Suffering Averted by Different Levels of Animal Product Restriction

1.Executive Summary

In this essay I attempt to calculate the amounts of animal suffering prevented by different diets that involve restrictions on some animal products (vegetarian, pescetarian, etc.) relative to a diet that restricts consumption of all animal products i.e. veganism. This is an important topic both for deciding what we personally should eat but also what areas should we focus activism in to most effectively reduce animal suffering. The results in terms of suffering averted, on a scale where vegans avert 100% of suffering and Meat Eaters 0%, are:

Meat Eater 0.0%
“Meatless Mondays” 14.3%
Pescetarian 43.8%
Vegetarian 72.1%
Ovo-Vegetarian 72.8%
Lacto-Vegetarian 99.3%
Vegan 100.0%
“Ethical Meat Eater” 90.4%

There are many limitations and possible inaccuracies in the numbers that make up this conclusion so we should include a lot of uncertainty when making decisions based on these numbers. However, if accurate, these results are surprising, and have important implications that I expand on in section 4

2. Definitions

The categories of animal product restriction is use in this essay are:

  • Meat Eater: Eats meat, fish, eggs and milk. Based on the average US consumption [Link]
  • “Meatless Monday”: Same as Meat Eater but with a 1/7 (1 day of the week) reduction in meat and fish.
  • Pescetarian: Does not eat meat. Eats fish, eggs, and milk.
  • Vegetarian: Does not eat meat and fish. Eats eggs and dairy.
  • Ovo-Vegetarian: Does not eat meat, fish and diary. Eats eggs.
  • Lacto-Vegetarian: Eats dairy but does not eat meat, fish and eggs.
  • Vegan: Does not eat meat, fish, dairy, or eggs
  • Ethical Meat Eater: Eats beef, pork, and dairy. Does not eat chicken, fish and

The final category, “Ethical Meat Eater”, is based on a hypothetical person that wants to reduce animal suffering but still wants to consume animal products. They choose to only restrict the most harmful animal products, chicken, fish, and eggs, and to make up for this by increasing their consumption of beef pork and dairy.

3. Results

Table 1

Suffering per kg Avg consumption kg(rounded) per year Suffering caused by consumption per year Percent of total suffering caused by diet
Beef 1.2 29 35 1.3%
Pork 3.7 22 80 2.9%
Chicken 46 24 1104 39.7%
Fish 114 7 786 28.3%
Dairy 0.07 269 19 0.7%
Eggs 63 113 7144 27.2%

Column one shows different animal products. Column 2 shows the amount of suffering per kilogram of food produced. These numbers are from Brian Tomasik’s essay How Much Direct Suffering Is Caused by Various Animal Foods?,and is calculated by the following formula:

suffering / kg = [(days of life / animal) + (equivalent days of death pain / animal)] * (suffering / day) / (kg / animal).

Column 3 is the average yearly consumption of the average person from the US taken from chapter two of the Agricultural Fact Book by the US Department of Agriculture. Column 4 is column 2 multiplied by column 3 to arrive at the amount of suffering caused by the yearly consumption of the average US person for each food item. Finally column 5 shows column 4 expressed as a percentages of the total suffering caused by consumption to more clearly show the relative harm caused by consuming each category of animal products. Table 2

Diets Suffering caused Percentage of suffering reduction relative to Meat Eater
Meat Eater 2,779.69 0.0%
“Meatless Mondays” 2,382.59 14.3%
Pescetarian 1,560.81 43.8%
Vegetarian 774.83 72.1%
Ovo-Vegetarian 756.00 72.8%
Lacto-Vegetarian 18.83 99.3%
Vegan 0.00 100.0%
“Ethical Meat Eater” 268 90.7%

In table 2, column 1 shows various possible diets (see Section 2 for descriptions). Column 2 shows the total amount of suffering caused by 1 year of eating the diets, calculated from Table 1. Column 3 shows the percentage of suffering of reduced by someone following that diet, with Meat eating being set at 0% and vegan at 100%.

5. Implications

There are several implications that we can draw from these results, regarding both our personal ethical choices and how to improve the effectiveness of animal welfare advocacy.

  • More than twice as much suffering is prevented by a meat eater becoming vegetarian than a vegetarian becoming vegan. Being vegetarian does about 70% as much good as being vegan. The relative difficulty of convincing someone be vegetarian or vegan is unknown but if it twice as hard or more to make someone be vegan than focusing on advocating vegetarianism may have higher expected utility.
  • There is a very small difference between a Lacto-Vegetarian and a Vegan diet in terms of reduction in suffering. This suggests that for people who find dairy hard to give up relative to other animal products it might be best for them to be Lacto-Vegetarian and try to help animals in other ways, such as convince their friends to reduce their consumption of animal products. It also suggests animal advocates should not focus resources on convincing people to give up dairy relative to other animal products.
  • Fish represent 28.3% of the harm of a meat eating diet, the third highest after chicken and eggs. This suggests that going from a Pescetarian to a Vegetarian diet is most likely worth it unless it would be very hard for them to give up fish. Animal advocacy focusing specifically on encouraging Pescetarians to become vegetarian or having a larger focus on the suffering of fish in aqua farms (which in general is given less attention than factory farming) may also be valuable. (Note: the suffering numbers for fish have the highest amount of uncertainty so we should be more hesitant to draw conclusions form this than the other results.)
  • As we can see from the “Ethical Meat Eater” row, it is possible for someone to maintain roughly the same consumption levels of animal products but reduce the animal suffering they cause by 90% (more than a vegetarian!) simply by choosing which animal products that cause the least suffering, eating more beef, pork and milk, and no chicken, eggs, and fish. This is an outstanding opportunity for people who want to reduce the amount of animal suffering they cause but find it too difficult to be Vegetarian/Vegan. It is also means that focusing animal advocacy on getting people to reduce consumption of the most harmful animal products (chicken, fish, eggs) may have high expected value.

6. Limitations and Inaccuracies

There are many limitations and inaccuracies in these numbers that I will list here:

  • I have not included veal, lamb, turkey or any other animal products not seen in Table 1. According to USDA these are small relative to the amount of other animals consumed (for example veal and lamb together are around one 50th of beef.) If it was included it would likely not have much of an impact but might make the harm of meat slight higher.
  • Tomasik’s essay does not include the suffering of calves and male chicks killed during egg production. If these were included it would most likely slight increase the relative harm of dairy and eggs.
  • These results do not consider other foods derived from animal bodies that vegans do not eat such as gelatine, rennet etc. and also does not include non-edible animal products such as leather and fur. I currently think that these are negligible compared to the animal products in the table so not including them does not substantially change the result.
  • These results just consider the direct animal suffering caused by animal product consumption and not the environmental damage caused by animal farming. I estimate that animal suffering due to the environmental harm caused by animal farming is most likely very small relative to direct animal suffering (I plan to expand on this view in a future blog post) so do not expect this to change the relative values, although it might make beef slightly worse.
  • Determining the suffering caused by eating fish is very challenging. The USDA source does not make distinctions between fish and other types of seafood, some of which, such as oysters and mussels may not experience pain. On the other hand, according to Tomasik’s essay consuming farmed fish, about half of all fish consumed by humans, causes the more suffering than any of the other animal foods. Another factor is that the fish that are not farmed are not caused to exist by humans (unlike cows, pigs, and chickens that would not exist if humans did not farm them) and it is not obvious that the death of a fish caught by humans is significantly worse than being eaten or slowly dying of hunger. Because of this it is possible that eating non-farmed fish is net neutral in terms of animal suffering. My solution to all these uncertain factors is to take the suffering per kg number for salmon (which I think is a more representative figure than catfish) and divide it in half. This is clearly a very rough approximation and I encourage readers to come up with a more precise number for fish suffering per kilogram (I may try to in a future blog post).
  • Tomasik’s essay calculation for the amount of suffering caused by different animal products might be wrong. Currently he adds the pain of death to the amount of days of life and then multiplies the result by the level of suffering per day. But I do not see why the painfulness of death should be affected by the quality of life of days where the animal does not die. It seems to make more sense to multiply the length of life by suffering per day and the after add the additional suffering caused by death. I have decided not to change these numbers for this essay but may update the numbers with a different calculation.

The Real Problem with Inequality

Lots of people who talk about economic inequality will often list reasons why inequality is bad. Inequality causes crime. Inequality causes bad health outcomes. Inequality could lead to a revolution. Bringing up these justifications for the harm of inequality doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like writing an article about why being set on fire is a bad thing and giving reasons like you won’t be able to catch public transport.

 
I think there is a core feature of inequality that makes it a bad thing and in comparison the above problems seems like minor side effects. I almost never hear this problem being mentioned. And it is a fundamental concept in economics so the pro free market economists should be very familiar with it.

 
The problem is diminishing marginal utility. In this case the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. Giving $100 to a person with an income of $1000 a year will give that person more utility than giving that $100 to a person with an income of $100,000. And taking $100 from the first person will harm them more than taking $100 from the second individual.
Because of this, most form of unequal distribution of resources (represented by wealth) lead to a lower level of utility overall. So if we could costlessly redistribute wealth to decrease equality that could increase overall utility.

 
There are several exceptions to this. Firstly some inequalities are justified by different resource requirements to reach the same level of utility. For example, if there are two people who spend the same amount on all goods and services, except one has to spend an additional several thousand dollars a year on medical expenses to keep them alive, that person needs more resources to achieve the same level of utility as the other person.

 
Secondly, there is the argument that inequality motivates people to work, and if there was one standard income that everyone received it would distort the market and resources would not be allocated most efficiently. This is probably true, and figuring out the best trad off between efficient use of resources and utility maximization (which are not the same thing) is a hard problem.

 
But I think that this is the kind of conversation that should be going on when we talk about economic inequality instead of pointing out other side issues like the correlation of inequality with other negative societal outcomes. It can be hard paying for a funeral, but that is not why death is bad.

Maybe Everyone Is Actually Super Rational!

Back when I was reading through the sequences I noticed that several times after Eliezer Yudkowsky had explained some example of people being irrational a commenter, most commonly Robin Hanson, would say that it is possible that the behaviour is actually not irrational at all.

My favorite example is a post (which I can’t find right now) claiming that when people are confronted with arguments against their position they end up being more certain of the beliefs they already hold and that this is irrational because they are not properly updating when receiving new evidence. In the comments someone said that the subjects could be observing that the argument against their position is weak and be reasoning that in a world where their beliefs were wrong, they would expect there to be better arguments for the true position, so he weakness of the arguments is evidence that their position is correct.

This seems possible but unlikely to me. I think this is valid reasoning and if I was observing for the first time arguments against a belief I had and those arguments were very weak (especially if they were coming from people who I have observed make strong arguments in the past and I know have put a lot of thought in to the issue) I would definitely update towards my beliefs being more likely. But despite that, I still think it is psychologically unrealistic to think this is what is happening in the majority of people’s brains when they are presented with evidence against a belief and end up being even more confident*.

There are other psych experiments where we can apply the same reasoning. For example in the Asch’s conformity experiment, we could reason that when subjects conform they are actually updating on the evidence of other people in the room apparently having different views about the length of the line.

Two possible models that can be used to explain observations of human irrationality are, firstly, “Yes, that’s because humans are irrational, which is exactly what we would expect form what we know about evolution” and secondly “What appears to be human irrationality is actually people behaving irrationality but, for example, trying to achieve different goals then they appear to be. ”

My prior from the inside is that the first is much more likely and that it is exactly what I would predict if I had not observed human behaviour but was told about evolution. The only reason I can think to have a prior that favors second model is a belief in the Neoclassical models of perfect rational self-interested human agents**. The first model also seems simpler so gets Occam’s Razor/Solomonoff’s Induction points.The worst part is that these models are usually used to explain the same observation so it is hard to think of evidence that would be more likely to exist if one was true and not the other.

The second model seems to be connected (conceptually in my head, if not in the reality) with both the idea of revealed preferences and the signalling model of human behaviour. I am skeptical of both of these concepts and will hopefully be writing posts in the future about why.

* Taking the outside view, its possibly that this is just elitism of the “Well I am smart enough to reason like that, but most other people aren’t ” Because of this thought, I am going to update slightly away from the “People Are Irrational” Model.

** Either the extremely unrealistic Econ 101 version or the more nuanced version held my more knowledge Neoclassical economists

Read Through of A Very Short Introduction to Post Structuralism: Intro + Chapter 1

One of my current research projects is to try to understand a cluster of ideas that I don’t have a name for but includes [Post modernism, Post Structuralism, critical theory, deconstruction, queer theory, etc.] (I am aware that those things are all very different and putting them under an umbrella likes that probably reflects my lack of knowledge on these topics.)

As part of this project I am going to read the book A Very Short Introduction to Post Structuralism by Catherine Besley. As an experiment I am going to try live blogging my reading of the book by posting my notes and thoughts on my Tumblr. If successful it will make me more motivated to read the text, act as a precommitment to take notes and engage with the material rather than just read, and help others correct my misunderstandings.
The format of the read through will be me attempting to summarize point the author makes (or directly quoting the text) and the giving my thoughts on that point or quote. My summaries and rewordings will likely be incorrect and because this is edited from my personal notes I can’t guarantee being as charitable as I should. I highly recommend reading the text alongside my notes.

Chapter 1: Creatures of Difference

  • Besley brings up the example of the dialogue between Humpty Dumpty and Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Humpty uses words as if they had different meanings saying “when I use a word it means what I choose it to mean.” Besley seems to agree with Alice that Humpty Dumpty is wrong saying “Meaning is not at our disposal, or we could never communicate with others.” I feel meaning is going to be an ongoing theme in this book. At this point I don’t really understand how meaning works. It is one of many things that I am confused about. But I will try to understand the Post Structuralist view of meaning fully before I try to critique it.
  • Besley says that language is used to both signal understanding of a subject (an economist using words like inflation and supply and demand) but also contains embedded cultural values (words like dictatorship and democracy). She says language is “also a source of social values” but I assume she is suggesting that we express social values in the way we use language rather than social values spontaneously emerging from language without human input.
  • Besley says that we can’t use whatever meaning we want (i.e. Alice is right) because the meanings have already been assigned by our culture (or previous generation’s culture). But she also suggests that we might want to use words like Humpty does, saying “to reproduce existing meanings exactly is also to reaffirm the knowledge our culture takes for granted, and the values that precede us – the norms, that is, of the previous generation.” I’m unsure whether I agree with this. People are able to say sentences like “dictatorships are good” which preserves the meaning of all three words but expresses a sentiment/value that is at odds with our society. On the other hand, the author might be arguing (and iff so I agree with her) the fact that we have categorizations like “dictatorship” and “democracy” is because we happen to care about the difference between those two things (whether the government is controlled by a very small minority or a majority.) Otherwise we wouldn’t see a need to have to words for them. A hypothetical society that strongly cared about whether the government was controlled by people with left hands or rights hands would most likely have words that translate to “government controlled by left handed people” and “government controlled by right handed people” whereas we don’t need these words.
  • The author goes on to say that the language we use controls us. “Meanings control us, inculcate obedience to the discipline inscribed in them.” Again assuming that the author is using the “categorization is caused by values” position above, I agree. If a person has different values to the majority of people who speak their language (or past generations that developed it) it will be harder for them to express and even think about things that are important to them. I sometimes notice this when I try to write about EA/Utilitarian concepts and find several things that should have words for them but don’t.
  • Besley talks about how early feminists (a group that had different values than most of the society around them) faced the same problem and the difficulties they faced with trying to modify language (e.g. Not being able to just change master to mistress because of sexual connotations)
  • “Poststructuralism is difficult to the extent that its practitioners use old words in unfamiliar ways, or coin terms to say what cannot be said otherwise. This new vocabulary still elicits some resistance, but the issue we confront is how far we should let the existing language impose limits on what it is possible to think.” I have definitely noticed this (If I had a dollar for every time I hear a friend say the word “body/bodies” when I would use “person/people”…).
  • Although I now feel I have a better understanding of where the Post Structuralists are coming from. I would argue that in order to effectively communicate ideas to people you should try to use words in a way they are most likely to understand. I now think a Post Structuralist would reply (translated in to how I would phrase their response) “While communicating ideas and advocating for those ideas is one way to change society, because the categorizations that words make are heavily influenced by the values of the present society (the values we want to change) so if we also try to change how human brains naturally categorize things (by changing language) that will make it easier to change people’s values” This is a good point and I feel it’s an empirical question as to which force dominates and which tactic is best.
  • So we have a definition of post structuralism “Poststructuralism names a theory, or a group of theories, concerning the relationship between human beings, the world, and the practice of making and reproducing meanings.” This definitely sounds like a useful set of knowledge to have (no sarcasm).
  • “On the one hand, poststructuralists affirm, consciousness is not the origin of the language we speak and the images we recognize, so much as the product of the meanings we learn and reproduce.” So I’m not sure what this sentence means. I think the author must not be using “consciousness” in the same way I usually see it being used. I don’t see how the phenomenon of subjective experience could be a product of learning the meanings to words. The only thing I can think of is that the author is using the word “consciousness” in a similar to phrases like “class consciousness” so the intended meaning is closer to awareness or knowledge. That still doesn’t really fit thought, hopefully it will get clearer.
  • Author: Language is very important, we use it all the time, and while ii may be less important than food or shelter it is used on both of those areas (e.g food menus and dexribing houses). Words that appear to refer to the same things can have different connotations and they would be used by people trying to do different things (“old, or quaint, modern, or minimalist, “ vs “decrepit, poky, brash, or bleak” )
  • “Poststructuralism proposes that the distinctions we make are not necessarily given by the world around us, but are instead produced by the symbolizing systems we learn.” Ok so I totally understand this and if this is an accurate description I feel like I understand Post Structuralism a lot better. I am also going to assume that the actual proposition brought forward by PS is weaker than this and claims symbolizing systems have a strong influence on the distinctions we make, rather than being the only thing that determines them. The strong version seems like it would not account for how language came into existence (if we can only see differences between things through language than how did we start using different words or different things), 2) how new words come into existence and 3) how animals and babies that don’t use language can still make distinctions between things.
  • The author says that instead of the conventional view that language gets meaning from our ideas, PS says that it is the other way around, ideas are the product of the meanings that already exist in language. Again, a feedback model, where ideas affect meaning and meaning affects ideas seems more intuitively likely to me than one directional causality. But I will wait and see Besley’s reasoning for endorsing the latter model.
  • In the next section Besley asks what is meaning. She notes that a meaning to a word seems to very with the context that word is in and asks how this can be the case when we can still use the word easily.
  • Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed that ‘in language there are only differences without positive terms’ From context I think this means that language can only divide things in to categories.
  • Saussure argues the meaning of words cannot come from the world because if they did then all words would have exact equivalents in other languages, which is not the case. Besley gives the example that there is a continuous spectrum of colour on a rainbow that we divide up into 7 colours. After thinking about this for a while I think I agree. But I think because there are clusters in thing space  it is instrumentally rational to use language in this way, as long as we are careful to carve reality at its joints (where to draw the boundary). But we should definitely be aware of this and when we find examples of language making bad categories or categories we don’t care about we should feel free to change them.
  • Besely says that language is differential rather than referential. I’m not sure why it can’t be both. Why can’t the word “apple” both refer to a cluster of things that all seem to have similarities, and also differentiate between a cluster of things and a cluster of things we consider different. I guess if by differential we mean drawing conceptual boundaries then you can’t refer to something without that boundary already being drawn, but it seems wrong to say that words don’t at all refer to things.
  • Sign/signifier doesn’t just mean words it means anything we use to communicate from traffic lights to yawns.
  • Saussure makes a distinction between a signifier (a set of sounds spoken from a mouth or some lines written on paper) and the signified which is the meaning of the sign. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.
  • “If language is not ours to possess, but always pre-exists us and comes from outside, and if poems issue from language, not from the ideas which are language’s effect rather than its cause, there is no final answer to the question of what any particular example of language in action ultimately means.” I’m not sure I agree. If language
  • I think the correct way to deal with the question “which reading of the text is correct” is to dissolve it. There are several possible things someone could mean when they use the word “correct reading.” They could mean “the authors reading” or “the agreed upon reading my the majority of readers” or “the majority of academic readers.” I don’t think there is any reason to call any of these correct, unless the two people talking both already agree on what they mean by the word correct.. I guess that makes me agree with post structuralism?
  • Roland Bathes argued that “the author is dead” because the word “I” refers (although the author is careful to not use the word refer in this paragraph because of the previous discussion on reference vs difference) to different people based on how it is used. If someone writes “I am hungry” and I read that sentence out loud than it has changed who it was referring to. This seems like a weak argument to me. Firstly, what about writing in third person? Secondly, if there was a language without these words that shift reference depending on who speaks (like a language with no pronouns) the author would still be dead right?(based on what I think post structuralists mean when they say that term?)
  • “We should not, therefore, try to get ‘behind’ the work, Barthes argues. There is nothing there. Instead, ‘the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced’ (and the metaphor suggests that the quest for intention generates a kind of violence). We should look at the text, Barthes urges, not through it. And his manifesto concludes with a ringing declaration: ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’.” I’m not sure exactly what this means. My guess is “we shouldn’t try to figure out things about the author from the text.” So if this is the correct meaning, then I’m not sure why not? I think we can treat the text as evidence about the author of that text’s brain. If the authors brain is something we happen to care about then I don’t see why we can’t do this. Of course it’s possible that we don’t care about the author’s brain, in which case we shouldn’t.
  • Kesley says Barthes didn’t like how literary critics took the author’s interpretation as the final interpretation of a text. Again I think this question should be dissolved and the people who care about what the author thought about it should talk about that and the people that care about something else about the text should talk about that and neither side should fight over the word “correct”
  • “Instead, his reader is not an individual, not a real person at all, but ‘the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost’. Such a ‘space’ does not exist, except as an ideal type, a timeless, utopian, model reader. In practice, some of us will see some of the possibilities, some others, and the text itself keeps its secret about which is ‘right’. Indeed, it becomes unclear just what ‘right’ would mean (though it’s still possible, if we don’t know the words, or we don’t pay sufficient attention to them, or we miss a citation or mistake the genre, to be wrong).”
  • So if I understand this correctly, Barthes is positing a hypothetical reader with a set of qualities (“Timeless”? “Utopian”?) And saying that the reading that this hypothetical reader would make is the correct reading of a text. But this seems just as arbitrary to me (actually much more arbitrary to the extent there are different degree of arbitrariness) than taking the authors interpretation. How did Barthes choose the qualities of this reader? Why did he not choose a hypothetical reader that thinks every possible text means “I like fish”? (Which is a possible mind in mind space.) It seems Barthes chose these features arbitrarily, based on what he prefers. This is fine, but like I said I don’t see any reason to favor this over the “Author is Alive” theories except for personal preference about what you are interested in. The next paragraph refers to all signs as “undecidable” so at least the author seems to agree with me that Barthes is also arbitrary.

Thoughts on Chapter 1: I actually am understanding (or at least think i am understanding) this much more than I expected. I am finding this form of note taking is working well.  Looking forward to next chapter.

How Much Should Vegans Focus on Purity?

I recently found out that most brands of condoms and birth control pills are not vegan. They both contain animal products and are tested on animals. Sigh. One more way I will never be a perfect vegan. But I’m okay with that. I think focusing on vegan purism unhelpful, unrealistic and harmful. It is not an effective way to help animals.

Firstly, when you start cutting out animal products from your diet you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns in reduction of animal suffering. This is because of the lesser known animal products that vegans try to avoid like casein, cochineal, gelatin, isinglass, lanolin (thank you Wikipedia) are by-products of the meat industry. Factory farmers only make a fraction of their profits from these products, the majority comes from the more well know products like meat, eggs, and dairy. If no one ate these by-products*, there would still be factory farming, it would just be slightly less profitable meaning the meat would be more expensive and a smaller percentage of animals would be saved. If everyone stopped eating meat but continued to be fine eating by-products, factory farms only of making money would be by selling these by-products. This would mean there fixed costs would remain about the same, but there revenue would be much smaller, causing the by-products to be so expensive that cheaper non animals products alternatives would likely be used instead.

Secondly, and tying into the first point, it is completely unrealistic to be 100% pure vegan. Unfortunately, animal products or products that involved animal cruelty are everywhere. Sugar, orange juice, [more stuff here] wheat and harvested grain kill field mice and other wildlife, almost ever pharmaceutical drug or medical producer was at some point tested on animals.

The time requirements and reduction of quality of life to be 100% pure vegan is much higher than just not eating meat, dairy, and eggs. And while it makes me so happy that people are willing to work that hard to help animals, I don’t think it the most effective use of their altruistic budget. One way of helping animals that I think is extremely neglected in the vegan community is donating money to effective animal charities. An example would be Vegan Outreach that produces leaflets and coordinates their distribution by volunteers at university campuses. I have not yet researched the exact numbers, but it is entire possible that donating a few hundred dollars to an effective animal charity would cause the same reduction in animal suffering as being vegan for a year. So if your primary concern is reducing animal suffering, I think this is a much better path to go down than vegan purism.

Another reason to avoid purism is the risk of relapse. For psychological reason humans tend to have an all or nothing mentality to begin vegetarian or vegan. I don’t know anyone who only eats 3 meat meals a week. When my friend quit being vegetarian, she didn’t try having meat a few days of the week to see if she could manage that, she went straight back to full meat consumption. There are also terrifying statistics on vegetarian/vegan recidivism. According to a study done by the Humane Research Council “86% of people who go vegetarian lapse back into meat-eating, and 70% of those who go vegan lapse.” Even adjusting for people who go vegetarian for health reasons and then decide to stop, those are scary numbers. So if there is even a small chance that trying to be pure vegan will make you burnout and give up and go back to eating meat, then you shouldn’t do it. Long term thinking is important here, think about you impact over your whole life time not just this year.

The final reason why I think vegan purism is unproductive is how it effects the perceptions of meat eaters. Converting meat eaters to veganism should be a big priority for all vegans. If you convert one meat eater to being vegan for the rest of their life you have doubled the impact you have on animal welfare from being vegan yourself. So anything that makes the meat eaters in your life less interest in veganism, for example the vegans they know obsessing over minute traces of animal products or refusing to eat birthday cake at an office party, will probably do much more harm to animals than buying something with gelatine in it once a month.

I think the intentions of purist vegans are positive reinforcement worthy but I think they are mistaken that vegan purism is the best way to help animals and that it is in fact unproductive relative to a more relaxed form veganism. But different things work for different people so if you feel vegan purism is right for you than go for it. Just remember to focus on what will help animals, not what will make you personally feel better. Valuing the personal good feeling you get from vegan purism over animals lives isn’t that different to what meat eaters do.

* To avoid misinterpretation, I am not making a argument from universalizability. You should base your actions on their marginal effect rather than the hypothetical world where everyone does the same as you. I am talking about what would happen if everyone stopped eating animal by-products to illustrate the economic affect more clearly

First Episode of My Podcast

I am experimenting with making a podcast. I am going for a 1 on 1 interview/conversation style trying to emulate podcasts like Econtalk and Hello Internets.The purpose of the podcast is similar to the purpose of this blog, to improve my communication skills, to help me reflect on my ideas and what I believe, to have a record of my past self to be able to clearly see my growth. Another motivation behind the podcast is to be able to able to have a social acceptable way to ask smart people I know to have fun intellectual conversations with me.

Because it is my first attempt i don’t feel the quality of the podcast (how i talk, saying like and umm, the editing etc.) is very high and definitely not the standard i eventually want ot reach but i am trying to  look at it from a Growth Mindset perspective using motivational phrases like “no one is good at something on their first try” and “I have learned a bunch of ways to make the next one better.”

I am going to aim for about one episode per month, but it depends on many factors (school work, blog writing, how long it takes me to edit) so it could easily be more or less than that. The working title is Empty Space which came from a joke during this first episode, but I may change that later too.

So anyway here it is, hope you enjoy, and as always constructive criticism very much welcome:

Why I Am A Vegan (Short Version)

A commenter asked me to make a post about why I am veg*n/think factory farming is immoral. I am planning to write a super long post on this topic in the future but that probably won’t be posted for ages so here is a quick rundown.

Firstly, suffering is bad. If a person is punched in the face chemicals will be released in their brain that is experienced from the inside as pain. They will also likely feel fear at being punched in the future and other negative emotions. This is bad and I don’t want it to happen. Although I don’t think the reduction of suffering is the only valuable thing I think it is really important. If I could press a button that would protect people from being punched in the face I would.

Secondly, discriminating against people based on irrelevant differences is wrong. I mean wrong in more of an epistemic sense than a moral one. An example of an irrelevant difference is distance . In general if someone is suffering physically near to you, you would feel a stronger desire to help them then if they were on  the other side of the planet or the universe. While this can be justified by practical arguments (e.g. it is easier to help people nearer to you than people who are further away), and it is possible to create a mind that does intrinsically devalue other minds as they are moved further away, I think most humans would on reflection not endorse valuing people differently based on the persons physical proximity. Other examples of irrelevant difference include gender, race, sexuality. Keep in mind that there are also relevant distinctions that can affect morality. For example rocks can’t experience pain, so punching a rock is not wrong

So let’s apply these two beliefs/concepts to animals. The questions we should be asking are one, do animals suffer, and two, is their any relevant difference between human and non human animals that can justify not caring about animal suffering?

Firstly, it seems obvious that animals in factory farms suffer. Some people I talk to actually don’t know this which I always find surprising because even when I ate meat I knew exactly the conditions that the animals were being kept in. If you are not aware of the suffering caused to animals by factory farming watch this video for a quick look.

Secondly,I don’t think any of the differences between human animals and non human animals mean that suffering to the latter group is not bad. The experience of pain is chemically identical in humans and pigs,. There is no reason not to think that the feeling you feel when you are punched in the face is any different from what a pig feels when it gets kicked.

A good thought experiment at this point is to imagine the person you love most being infected with a disease. The disease doesn’t kill them but does change them. There are many different strains of the disease and they all change the infected patients in different ways in different ways. Many of these changes don’t change the moral value of your loved one. For example if the disease changed the skin colour or sexuality of your loved one, it wouldn’t suddenly be okay to stop treating them and let them die.

But what if the disease took your loved one ability to speak? Not just their vocal cords but the part of their brain that can process complex language? Would that make it okay for me to to torture, kill and eat them? What if the disease lowered their intelligence to the level of a two year old human? Would that make it okay for me to torture kill and eat them? What if it changed their appearance so they no longer physical looked human? Would that make it okay for me to torture kill and eat them?

Obviously some changes would justify lowering the rights of you loved one (if they have an intelligence of a two year old they shouldn’t be able to vote) but I am not advocating for animals having equal rights to humans, just for us to not torture and kill them.

So to summarize, animals suffer just like humans do, and there is no reason to care about their suffering less, just like there is no reason to care about the lives of black people less than white people.

So after we decide that animals suffering is bad, how can we reduce it? Well one of the easiest ways is to stop buying animals products. By buying meat you are paying a group of people to breed, torture and kill animals and then deliver them to you so you can eat them. If you change your purchasing habits the amount of animals that they torture and kill will be lower.

Going vegan is much easier than most people think. You don’t need to make the transition right away. I would recommend first becoming a vegetarian for at least 6 months while you research and learn more about how to help animals and eat a healthy vegan diet. If going vegetarian seems like to much to start with 2 days a week of eating vegetarian, and then after a few weeks go to three days and so on. If you think “I could never go vegetarian because i love bacon to much” Why not try to cut out all meat except bacon? Giving up 90% of your meat intake is almost as good as giving up all meat.

So that is about all i have to say. In a future post I will go into much more detail and try to address all common counter arguments and give much more advice on the practical side of how to become vegan

A Moral Dilemma Dilemma

The following quote by Peter Singer presents a moral thought experiment:

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance

So Singer presents two situations, saving a drowning child and donating to a charity to save the life of a child in a developing country, and then argues that we should take our moral intuitions in the first case and apply them to the second case because the differences, such as physical location, are not morally relevant.

This is the basic strategy I have been using for as long as  can remember when thinking about moral questions. If two intuitions contradict, I think of hypothetical situations and use them to analyses what it is I value. Another example of this is the trolly problem.

Unfortunately I am feeling less confident in this method than I used to. My problem is that there is no good way of knowing which direction you should universalize your moral intuitions/values in. What if a student responded to Peter Singer with:

Well clearly there is a contradiction between my intuitions that I should save the child and my intuition that I am not obligated to give to charity. So I will universalism my intuitions and because there is no morally relevant difference between the child in the pond and the children in developing countries I clearly shouldn’t care about the former, just like I don’t seem to care about latter.

Another way of stating this problem comes from a less wrong comment that I read a while ago but can’t find anymore. The user was saying how he cares a lot when he hears about one person dying or being injured but doesn’t seem to care as much when he here about a million people dying (definitely not a million times as much). The commenter was wondering whether they should “Shut Up and Multiply” meaning that they should take the intuitive value that they assigns to the individual and multiply that by a million to find the actual value of the million or whether they should “Shut up and Divide” meaning they should take the value of the million and divide it by a million to reach the actual value of the individual.

One way I can think of solving this is by letting the stronger intuitions win. But often intuitions are very close to being equal (otherwise the contradiction would have been solved by now) and I am worried that initial conditions in my reflection (the react details of the hypothetical, how it would affect my other beliefs and life decisions, even how I am feeling that day) may have large affects on the conclusions I reach.

Another way is to go with the “Near” intuitions, the intuitions that are generated by using smaller numbers, more real world/practical examples etc over the “Far” intuitions, the opposite of near intuitions based on the justification that we are better suited to reason about things Near us due to evolution . This is a good approximation of what i have already been doing so has the emotional upside of agreeing with most of my  intuitive reasoning I have so far done. But my moral intuitions that suffering is bad was also produced by evolution, and I don’t believe that the source of someone’s values alone should affect whether or not they endorse them.

Finally, I can just accept that just in the same way that values are subjective, so if one person values happiness and another disvalues happiness neither is wrong but just have different subjective preferences, strategies for reflecting on on values are also neither right and wrong but are determined by subjective preferences. I rejected objective morality to long ago to remember if I felt any emotional loss at no longer being able to tell people who want to torture  and kill babies that they are wrong, but I think I feel a similar feeling in not being able to tell someone who chooses to not ignore the child in the pond/the “Shut Up and Divide” side that they are wrong.

But I want my beliefs to match reality, not what I wish reality was like.

One Step Closer to Understanding Gender

So after reading the Slate Star Codex essay The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories I think I actually understand gender now. Well, I understand it a bit better than before.

I don’t know why it didn’t click with me before. I have read the Less Wrong sequence on words that Scott builds on and I even remember telling myself I should apply it to something that I’m more interested in then AI, like gender. To summaries in my own words:

We can visualise a Gender Space (check out the Wikipedia page on Vector Space to help understand what I mean by Gender Space) where every possible thing we associate with a gender (chromosomes, physical genitalia, appearance, identification, gender roles etc) on an axis (gender space has dozens of dimensions) and then place people at points in that space. We will observe clusters in this space, for example the cluster [XX chromosomes + Feminine gender presentation + Identifies as a woman] will be populated by people more than [XX chromosomes + Masculine Gender presentation + Identifies as non binary]. This doesn’t mean the later is wrong or bad, there are just empirically more members of the first cluster currently on earth than the second cluster.

This is the same with everything. For example planets have many characteristics (round, big, have moons, clears a path in space) and some [things in space] have some of these properties and not others. We then decide where we want to draw an imaginary line around a cluster in Gender Space and label these clusters things like “men” and “women” and “non binary.” But where we choose to draw this boundary is completely subjective so if someone draws the boundary somewhere differently to you they are not wrong.

Gender is more confusing than planets because  there is an axis in gender space called “Gender Identification” which is what people say when they ask themselves what their gender is. There is also another axis which we could call “external gender identification” which would be what they tell people their gender is, which for some people would be different from their internal gender identification and would be different depending on the person.

This is even more confusing when you are trying to put yourself in gender space (find where you are in gender space?) because it causes a recursion. If I self identity as a woman that means on the axis of self identification I am at the point labeled woman, which makes me a member of the cluster that I have drawn the label around called woman, which means I am a woman, which means I identify as a woman, which means on the axis of gender identification etc.

I first was confused about gender when I learned that after you separate gender of biological sex, there are two separate things, gender identity and gender presentation. Gender presentation (clothing preferences, mannerisms, gender roles, pronouns)i completely understood and could understand people with any biological sex (which also is obviously not a binary) wanting any combination of those. Andi I understood what it meant to identify as a gender in the sense of saying “I am a [Gender]” But surely there must be something influencing that right? Like some kind of internal experience or set of facts that cause one person to identify as one gender and one person to identify as another.

I asked my friend (a cis woman) what she meant when she says she identifies as a woman (my memory will be inexact when recalling this conversation). She said she “feels like” a girl/woman. I had absolutely no idea what she meant by that. Up until this point i had identified as a man because my biological sex is male and I fit most (though not all) of the male gender presentation criteria. But I had no idea what she meant by “feel like a woman.” I didn’t feel like a man, just like I didn’t feel like a left wing person, i just surveyed my political beliefs and chose the label that fit. Unlike “feeling hungry” or “feeling sad” I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to feel like a gender.

After asking more people and doing research I asked my original friend if by “I feel like a woman” she meant “I have a preference for and/or feel happy when people use feminine pronouns to refer to me, and other forms of feminine presentation” she said yes but there was also a part beyond that where she felt like a woman. While I could understand the former part the latter still made no sense to me. After a while I started identifying as Agender due to fact I didn’t seem to feel what other people felt.

(although what i found interesting is that at least a third of my cis friends that I asked felt the exact same way as me, and didn’t really understand what it meant to “feel like” a specific gender. Later I learned about people who are Cis by Default which is a cis person who doesn’t feel a strong gender identity.)

But I’m still not sure if the gender you feel like is an axis in gender space or if it is how an algorithm feels from the inside, and in the same way that words feel like they have meaning or Pluto still feels like a planet even after we know every characteristic about it.

I think that if I knew everything I know now about gender when I first asked myself what gender I am, I would have said I’m probably a cis by default man. But at the same time now that my self identification is Agender, am I stuck in a recursive loop of being Agender because i identify as Agender and identifying as Agender because I am Agender?

I also don’t know how this affects my gender abolitionist leanings. Like the same arguments that apply to abolishing the category of gender seem to apply to abolishing a lot of other categories, so to be consistent would I have to be an abolitionist about every category? I have more thinking to do.

So to sum it up gender is still confusing, but slightly less than it was before. Progress!

Social Justice and Gold Stars

While i am extremel pro-equality, I disagree with many beliefs that are held by the ideological cluster Social-Justice-Tumblr-Feminism (obviously not all people who talk about social justice and feminism on Tumblr believe these things). One relatively minor idea that is held by Social-Justice-Tumblr-Feminism that I disagree with is the concept of Gold Stars. That when a person does something that helps an oppressed group they are not deserving of praise and are merely fulfilling the bare minimum requirement of being a decent human being.

My first problem with this is consequentialist. When someone has told me they did something positive (relative to the alternatives they could have done) my reaction to them will likely affect how they act in the future. If I give a positive reaction like “Good job for doing that Good Thing, High five!” it will likely reinforce the behaviour, making them associate the behaviour with positive emotions and reinforce that a member of their social group approves of the behaviour. If I react with “You did a Good thing? What do you want a gold star? A cookie? Good job meeting the minimum requirements for not being a horrible person” it will likely have the opposite result. So on purely consequentialist grounds if what we actually care about is people doing the positive things than we will want to react to people in a way that encourages that action.

My second problem is that drawing a line at some point on the moral spectrum and declaring that anything above that is merely a decent human being and undeserving of praise is arbitrary and I think makes a moral error. No person in there entire life has made 100% correct moral decisions (given their knowledge at the time) and no one ever will. No one has done all the good they could possible do. Even if someone is completely in compliance with every social justice rule, the still need to give all of their surplus income to the most effective charity possible. So declaring that here is a minimum standard that everyone has an obligation to be higher than seems to make less sense than simply promoting the pursuit of getting as close to perfect as possible. Because of this any step upward should be encouraged.

Steel manned counter arguments:

Firstly giving people praise may not actually encourage them. If they think they have done their one good deed for the day they may do less to be good in the future not more. Secondly while there is no objective way of drawing the line people may respond psychologically better to having a line that he need to be above (that we slowly raise at roughly the same pace as the social average but set higher) rather than a general direction.

These arguments ma be right, I’m not sure, I will need to think more about it. There are also some areas where I definitely endorse a No Gold Star attitude, for example if someone is using the fact they did one Good Thing as an excuse for not doing other Good Things. I have a fairly strong feeling that friendly encouragement is better in general for a social movement than sarcastic mocking (Effective Altruism movement vs Tumblr Social Justice) but I may just have a very large difference in opinion and emotional reaction to those two groups.