Tag Archives: Wild Animal Suffering

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.

Reductio ad Absurdum is Absurd

Reductio ad Absurdum is a form of argument that looks like “But if we accept X, then we also have to accept Y, which is clearly wrong/crazy/absurd/ so therefore X can;t be true.” Now there are possible times when this argument is perfectly valid, both for deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoing it is called modus tollens and looks like:

If A then B
Not B
Therefore, not A

The inductive form is also valid (although of course induction can only be used to give probabilistic arguments):

“If A then B, but observations X Y and Z all make B seem very unlikely, therefore probably not A”

But there is a third type of Reductio ad Absurdum where the conclusion is not ruled out by logical rules or by observational evidence, but my seeming absurd. “If A then B, but B is crazy/absurd, so obviously not A” This clearly seems like invalid reasoning to me. Absurdity is in the Map not the Territory. No where in reality will you find absurdity particles floating around, it is only a part of our model of reality where we label come things absurd and others regular.

It seems like absurdity is just what something disagreeing with your fundamental beliefs feel like from the inside? To someone who believes in god, the idea that when people die they just stop existing, and that this has happened to every person who has ever died would probably seem really absurd. To someone who is is not a consequentalist/utilitarian, the idea that every single action that a person makes is morally required to be the best possible action they could make at the time probably seems absurd (one of the main objections to utilitarianism is that it “requires too much” unlike deontology which says “don’t do a bunch off obviously bad things like murder and rape” and virtue ethics which says “try to be a nice person”).

To illustrate this further imagine how many scientific discoveries must have seemed absurd at the time they were a being debated. “If your theory is true, then the sun would have to be a million times larger than earth, that is absurd, so you must be wrong.”

Again remember I’m only talking about the feeling of absurdity not the apparent logical contradiction of incompatibility with other observations. But based on the fact that a false belief that contradicts your true belief and a true belief that contradicts your false belief, will both produce the feeling of absurdity, that sense of absurdity can not be used as evidence for the truth of either of those beliefs.
Another separate form of argument is Appeal to Hypocrisy, and is in the form of:

“Group A says X, but based on there reasoning for X, they should also believe in Y, but they don’t; believe in Y so they are hypocritical/are not following  there assumptions to their logical conclusions. therefore they are wre wrong about X”

Put in this form it seems like an obvious mistake, so to make sure no readers think they would not do this im going to use an example of when i used this line of reasoning a few years ago, it still seems very wrong to present!Nick but hopefully it will be a tad more subtle

“Vegetarians/Vegans are against animals suffering in factory farms. But if that is a bad thing then all animal suffering must be a bad thing, any moral framework that says its ok when other animals hurt each other but not when humans hurt each other would be even more removed from my own then a vegan moral framework. So vegans should also care about suffering of animals in the wild. predation stands out as a horrible animal death, I would have to do some math but it’s probably worse than factory farming. But vegans don’t focus on that at all (none that I’ve met anyway) and many I’ve talked to actively justify it. This is absurd. Vegans don’t even have a consistent morality. Therefore eating meat is morally okay”

Now that I am a a Veg*n (still consume some dairy products but in the process of cutting back) and as someone who care s about wild animals suffering this argument seems obviously wrong to me. Carin about animals welfare does imply caring about wild animal suffering, so what? There is no logical contradiction or observational evidence that contradicts caring about animals suffering. So the fact that at the time it seemed absurd that there could be this giant problem that even people who should care about it don’t wasn’t evidence it wasn’t a problem. And now that i have accepted both the disvalue of animals suffering in factory farms and the animal suffering in the wild, the fact that the majority of other Veg*ns doesn’t matter, they just happen to be wrong about this area. Unfortunately, getting one question right doesn’t mean you are able to get them all right. This argument from hypocrisy is also a subclass of trying to Reverse Stupidity to get Intelligence.

So based on my experience using Reductio ad Absurdum and argument from hypocrisy before and being wrong, it makes me more skeptical of these types of arguments in the future. So i tried to think about arguments that i currently reject for reasons that could be the same as the above:

  • Simulation argument
  • Doomsday Argument
  • Theories of consciousness that imply that all things including steam engines and rocks are in some way conscious
  • Modal Realism

All of the above I think still have problems (except the simulation argument which i will talk about more in a future post) but i think part of the reason i don’t believe them is a incorrect use of Reductio ad Absurdum, so while writing this i attempted to increase my subjective probability of these being true (but like I said, I still don’t believe them.)