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!