Almost Vegan

About a year and a half ago, I decided to stop consuming animal products, because of the intense suffering on factory farms. (Why focus on this problem among myriads of others? Jacy from Animal Charity Evaluators explains.) For the most part, I actually found being vegan easier than I thought it would be, though it still wasn’t easy. Hands down the hardest part of this is being able to eat with other people. When I go on vacation with my family, we often go to places where vegan food is just not available. When there are free meals for grad students, there often aren’t any vegan options. What am I to do then?

Stronger people than me take principled stands. One of my friends, Linda, will simply not eat the free meals she gets as a grad student, and will go hungry until she can buy vegan food elsewhere. Many activists I know have taken the Liberation Pledge — they won’t even eat at a table where meat is also present, even if their meal is vegan. These people really are causing change — I’m pretty sure that some of the Berkeley CS grad student meetings have vegan options solely because of Linda. I’m probably capable of being like these people, but I really don’t want to be. I really don’t like confrontation.

Luckily for me, there’s an alternative approach that I think is better. Traditionally, the argument is that by taking a stand, you cause change, and so that should be done. However, this doesn’t take into account one fact that applies to my case — taking a stand costs me money, because I give up free lunches and have to buy myself food. You can accomplish a lot with money — many people argue that you should try to donate more instead of changing your personal consumption. (For example, Jeff argues that you shouldn’t worry about consuming dairy.) So my policy is to just eat the free meals and donate the money saved ($3 for breakfast or a snack, $5 for lunch or dinner) to the most effective organization I can find (which may not be an animal charity). This comes out to quite a lot of money — last year I donated $686 because of this, and this year I’m already at $803.

I’m worried that I’m just doing this because it lets me off easy — not only do I get to avoid confrontation, I even get to have non-vegan food once in a while! It seems too good to be true, which means that it probably is. But even after thinking about it a lot, I’m still pretty convinced that it is the right thing to do. Here’s what I’ve thought of so far — please tell me if there’s something I’m missing!

  • This is similar to “ethical offsetting” — the idea that you can do something bad (such as eating meat) as long as you do something at least as good to offset it (such as donating ~$100 to an animal charity). One argument against ethical offsetting is that you could both not eat meat and donate. Here are some other good arguments by Claire against ethical offsetting. However, what I’m doing is not ethical offsetting. When I eat a free meal instead of paying for a vegan one, I’m increasing the amount of money I have available, which gives me a greater capability to donate. I don’t think of this as paying for the ability to eat non-vegan food, I think of this as eating non-vegan food to have more money that can be donated. This seems more like earning to give in a potentially harmful job for the sake of donating more.
  • You could argue that it is simply wrong to be a part of a system that inflicts horrible suffering on animals, just like it is simply wrong to murder someone. My response is simply that to me, the only things that matter about an action are its consequences. There are (highly theoretical) cases where it is not wrong and in fact very right to murder someone — would you or would you not kill the person about to start World War 3 if that was your only option? In practice, we are really bad about thinking about all of these consequences, and so rules like “don’t murder” are good to follow, even if it seems like the consequences justify it. But I think in this case the consequences do justify it.
  • Perhaps if I stuck to strict veganism, I would care more about animals and be more motivated to help. I think this is likely true, but I don’t think it would make a huge difference. I’m already fairly committed — I have gone vegan and tried activism, and would do more activism if convinced that it was worth the time costs.
  • Perhaps other friends of mine would also become vegan if I took a strong principled stand, but don’t because I’m a hypocrite for sometimes eating cheese and so they can continue eating meat too. This seems highly unlikely — I think most of my friends think I’m a strict vegan, just because this topic comes up so rarely. Whenever I have brought it up, people were fairly positive about it, thinking that it was a good thing to do. I’d guess that this actually makes me more effective at convincing others to be vegan, because I’m not conforming as much to the stereotype of the preachy holier-than-thou vegan.
  • Perhaps all the places that currently don’t have vegan options will start to add them. I think this is likely to be true in some cases, and in those cases I do ask the relevant people to provide vegan options. For example, I asked for vegan options when I was working in Berkeley. At UW, there are already tons of vegan options 🙂 But in other cases, this is not as useful — for example, the Palantir puzzle hunt only happens once a year, so an act of defiance there is not likely to lead to any changes. (Of course, I did ask for vegan food on the feedback form.)

I did realize that this gives me some perverse incentives. When I’m offered a free meal with both vegan and vegetarian options, it’s tempting to go with the vegetarian option and justifying it with “I’m donating money so this is okay”, since I wouldn’t donate if I took the vegan option. This wasn’t really a problem until recently because there were so few free vegan meal options. But now, at UW, all of the free grad student meals do have a lot of vegan options. Because of this, I’m thinking of changing my policy so that I always donate money for free meals regardless of whether they are vegan or vegetarian. This way there’s no monetary incentive for me to have a vegetarian meal when a vegan one is available.

You could also take this argument further — perhaps I should just not be vegan at all since it typically is more expensive than being vegetarian. Or perhaps I should just order cheap food whenever I eat out, even if it’s vegetarian. The main reason I don’t do this is because I could no longer honestly say I that I’m vegan. I think a lot of the benefit to animals comes from convincing other people to reduce meat consumption, and being able to say “I went vegan” helps to make that case.

So anyway, that’s why I’m almost vegan. Do you think this is a good stance to take? For all of you vegans out there, would you do the same thing yourself? Let me know!

  • If they run out of food regularly, perhaps by choosing to get the free food, an omnivore will miss out on the free vegetarian meal and then go buy chicken wings? Also it could promote vegetarianism to omni students if they are able to get that meal, and in turn they might choose to go vegetarian then vegan.

    I think it is probably correct to think of it as paying for the ability to eat non-vegan food, because its not as though they will throw away the vegetarian food if you don’t eat it. You are encouraging the demand for vegetarian rather than vegan free lunch – so its not that different to having a sausage from a “Free sizzle”.

    Just a few points to add to the table.

    • Rohin Shah

      Sorry for the late approval and reply, I’m still getting used to WordPress and didn’t realize you had left a comment.

      I think in the case where it’s a one-shot free meal, like at the Palantir puzzle hunt, you are right that it’s basically equivalent to getting a non-vegetarian meal. (This is probably true even if they don’t run out of food, because they usually give away excess food, and it will probably go to an omnivore.) I would probably still bite the bullet and say this is worth the money saved. For example, if I were to give to an animal charity, the extra $5 donated to the Humane League is estimated to save an additional 65 (!!) animals.

      In the case of recurring free meals (which is most of my free meals), I don’t think it really applies. People will simply learn that they don’t need to buy so much food and will start buying on average one less vegetarian meal.

      For your second point, you’re absolutely right that I am encouraging the demand for vegetarian free lunch. I don’t deny this at all, and I agree that this is a harm that my policy causes. My policy can be thought of in two ways — paying (or donating) for the ability to eat non-vegan food, OR eating non-vegan food to have more money that can be donated. (This is not true of ethical offsetting, which is inconsistent with the second view.) My point is that the inherent, deep-down reason that I do this is the second one — I do this because I want to have more money to donate, not because I want to eat non-vegan food. As some evidence for this, I have at times eaten free meals that I really do not like (eggplant sandwiches come to mind) because they are free and allow me to donate more money.

  • Brendon

    I am a strict vegan myself, but I really admire your additional donations to animal charities per free non-vegan meal eaten. In fact, because of the donations, it’s likely you are saving many more animals than me and other strict vegans! I have friends that are mostly vegan and only eat animal products when other options are not really available or whenever it doesn’t increase demand for meat—I think that’s a very reasonable way to go about trying to reduce animal suffering with one’s diet.

    • Rohin Shah

      Thanks for your comment! One note though — I explicitly don’t require myself to donate the additional money to animal charities, I donate it to the most effective organization I can find. (Last year this happened to be the Humane League, but it’s looking like that may not be the case this year.) It seems wrong to donate to animal charities on the basis of “undoing the harm I did” — why undo that specific harm instead of doing something else that does more good?

  • Synced from FacebookShoutout to Jacy, Linda, and Jeff who are mentioned in this post!

    • Ajeya

      Synced from FacebookAlso Claire Zabel on arguments against offsetting

  • Jeff

    Synced from FacebookSubscribed to your feed!

    • Synced from FacebookThanks!

    • Jeff

      Synced from Facebook(I really like it when people have blogs, so I can subscribe to them and have their writing cached offline automatically for reading later.)

  • May

    Synced from Facebookgood read!! i like your policy

  • Madeleine

    Synced from FacebookI’ve been feeling the same way about all the free grad school pizza, haha. And your accomplishments are so impressive!! Hope all is going well in Seattle!

    • Synced from FacebookThanks 🙂 It is so far! The grad student community here is so much more active!

  • Linda

    Synced from FacebookHehe thanks for the shoutout! I loved hearing your thoughts.