Engaging the Only Reasonable Meat-Eaters

Originally published December 1, 2014

People who have even slightly non-terrible and reflective reasons for their decisions are so rare they statistically don't exist. Even so, I pay attention to a really select crowd, so among them I have discovered an entire three people whose nonvegetarianism is reasoned and principled: Robin Hanson, Katja Grace, and Paul Christiano. It's no coincidence that they are these; they are deeply influenced by each other.

Make no mistake, dear reader: I am talking about you. You do not have good reasons for eating meat. If you don't eat meat, you almost certainly have terrible reasons for that. I am not interested in engaging with terrible people and their terrible reasons. Yes, this does mean I am not interested in engaging with almost anyone.

I am socially (though not epistemologically, you'll note) obligated to explain something in the previous paragraph. I am not an advocate nor an ideologue; I just want myself and others to make the right decisions for the right reasons. I will not try to be convincing as opposed to correct. Almost all vegetarians are vegetarian for stupid reasons, like "dignity of animals", or an aversion to intentional killing. As a rule they don't even know their true reasons. Even David Fucking Chalmers has crazy reasons for his vegetarianism. Getting the right answer for the wrong reason scores zero ethics points. That's just moral luck. Of course, meat-eaters have even worse reasons. I am not interested in engaging with terrible arguments that seem good. Just actually good ones. Now then.

Actually I'm going to put yet another caveat here. You won't find in this post a single argument that eating meat is wrong. Only arguments that these people's arguments that eating meat isn't wrong are wrong. Please try to understand this.

From Hanson's Vegan Compromise:
Let us seek principles that can account for most of our acts, then try to change the other acts to conform with such easier principles.
This is explicit that his conclusions are based on weaker, easier principles than ones he could have adopted. I'd be tempted to remove Hanson from my short list of reasonable, principled nonvegetarians if not for a much stronger reason of his. Anyway one of his weak principles is "We don’t care much about most animals, even smart ones." It's wrong to use this as an unexamined principle. By default you should care about things that can suffer. This is a basic is/ought confusion.

But that's not Hanson's strongest argument. This is. Hanson believes animals live lives worth living. I strongly disbelieve this. Humans don't even usually live lives worth living. Suffering in the world outweighs joy. Arguing the previous sentence is beyond the scope of this post. Don't believe the opposite because I'm not doing so. Robert Wiblin posted a cursory examination on Robin's own blog. For more see The View From Hell and Utilitarian Essays. It is possible for reasonable people, such as Hanson, to agree with Hanson and not me here.

So much for Robin Hanson.

Katja Grace:
The real question is not whether the cost to you is small, but whether you could do more good for the same small cost.

Similarly, when deciding whether to donate $5 to a random charity, the question is whether you could do more good by donating the money to the most effective charity you know of. Going vegetarian because it relieves the animals more than it hurts you is the equivalent of donating to a random developing world charity because it relieves the suffering of an impoverished child more than foregoing $5 increases your suffering.

My imaginary vegetarian debate partner objects to this on grounds that [I, Grognor, will not be using]


However whether you can trade being vegetarian for more effective sacrifices is largely a question of whether you choose to do so.
Read the post; I can't do it justice by summarizing and cherrypicking.

I agree with the premise that a limited inconvenience budget should be spent as wisely and efficiently as possible, modulo something about the inconvenience of spending more effort on allocating inconvenience. (Although it's not clear to me that inconvenience is really so limited; a better model might be that vegetarianism is a "one-time cost" of a transition period after which things return to baseline level of ambient inconvenience.) But this is absolutely the wrong way to frame the problem. Here is an alternative framing:
Be the change you wish to see in the world.—Someone
Yes, I am employing that quote. Not every cliche is wrong. The way out of an enormous collective action problem isn't to ignore it and focus on less terrifying and less inconvenient problems. It's to stop contributing to the collective action problem. Activists love to compare meat-eating to slavery, so Hell, I'll do it too. Slavery didn't end just because technology rendered it obsolete. There were people at various points in history who, for various reasons some of them moral, consciously decided not to participate in slavery. And because there were those people, others were able to abstain. A VIRTUOUS CASCADE. There was a virtuous cascade.

No, this is not a great framing. And yes, there is a nonzero but non-negligible extent to which this is orthogonal to Katja's... point. It's still a much better framing than the one she chose, and it's easy to see classes of framings which would be better than hers. Another framing is that the extra inconvenience from vegetarianism as opposed to other things strengthens the ethical bargaining position, which Grace herself explained. Consider this:
Another way you might accidentally lose more value than you save is in spending little bits of time which are hard to measure or notice.
Miraculously, the post attracted an actually good comment, by kpier.

I get the impression that she subconsciously chose this rare framing instead of the mainstream one or a different rare one as an amazingly subtle rationalization for her newfound nonvegetarianism. It's a very well hidden in her case. So much for Katja Grace.

Paul Christiano is someone who is so many levels above me that I can't actually comprehend how much better at reasoning he is than I am. If I were a lesser man I would confuse this situation with him valuing the wrong things. Christiano (and Hanson) has spent a lot of time thinking carefully about the degree to which we are in a causal bottleneck. I get this from his blog. In particular see My Outlook and Against Moral Advocacy but I would recommend the whole blog wholeheartedly if his writing style weren't stupefyingly boring.

My unjust and misleading summary is: Paul Christiano really thinks that long-run values won't be influenced much by the social fashions we can easily influence in standard ways, e.g. by being a social justice warrior or whatever. I don't have a strong response to this. My response is to say that there's enough structural uncertainty that moral improvidence is unjustified. But if there's anyone who's given the question its due, it's Paul Christiano. So much for him.

This post was written mostly in anger. It is mostly unedited. It's not written well. I am just hopelessly shouting into the void. To get it on the record. This post will never convince anyone of anything.

By the way, I know of two people who have good and not just socially viable reasons to be vegetarian: Brian Tomasik and Robby Bensinger.

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