Indulgences Rough Draft


I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this sometime but haven’t gotten around to it. Constructing a fully general argument against “offsetting” is tricky because it depends so much on what moral framework you operate under (“you’re not cultivating the moral virtue of compassion and nonviolence” might be more persuasive to a virtue ethicist than a utilitarian, say). But some quick thoughts, likely repeated from elsewhere in this thread or others:

1. the whole argument involves exploiting a weird psychological quirk of “personal responsibility” via artificially coupling consumption and donation. If the marginal benefits or “utility” you receive from consuming meat outweigh the disutility incurred by creating it, you should eat it. If you can get more bang for your marginal buck donating somewhere other than to “effective animal charities”, or by buying yourself frappuccinos every day, or whatever, you would act more in accord with your values by doing that. If your net utility of eating animals/incentivizing animal agriculture and failing to donate are both negative relative to all alternatives, you should both abstain from meat consumption and donate (where convenient, keeping an eye on costs and benefits at the margin).

2. you could try to reductio ad absurdum it by analogy to murder markets or harvesting organs from healthy strangers or w/e and show how that conflicts with your moral intuitions. Though this would at least partly entail a general argument against consequentialism.

3. a lot of these offsetting arguments make rather overconfident, optimistic estimates regarding our ability to actually persuade others to abstain from animal products — the actual impact of pro-veg*n ads might be much smaller or negative (i.e. they persuade people to eat more animals, not less), and they typically don’t distinguish things at higher resolutions (persuading someone to less meat by exchanging cow consumption to less chicken consumption might be bad). Abstaining from eating meat yourself is much more certain.

4. Also, say the ads you fund reach nobody, because it’s all probabilistic — what do the net actual deaths there look like morally, even if the expectation was negative. And how you treat different sources of death might be relevant in some more deontological sense (driving somewhere and playing russian roulette on a crowd both risk killing people with some probability, but actual deaths from one are treated differently from actual deaths from another).

5. Making a moral argument that persuades someone to stop eating meat risks moral licensing/replaceability, so that the net consequences of pro-veg*n ads are more neutral even if they do successfully cause people to eat less meat (though this also applies to abstaining from meat consumption yourself). Especially if they make it less likely that people targeted will donate to pro-veg*n charities! ;] Although it can also plausibly have the opposite effect — persuading someone to donate to a place that convinces other people to adopt vegetarian diets might make them feel sufficiently inconsistent that they themselves adopt a vegetarian diet.

6. If you’re thinking about stuff like this, maybe you can reach more people by leading by example and other 2nd order stuff relative to some “funded” reducetarian. Also, symbolically abstaining from meat consumption might affect you psychologically — you’ll be more inclined to help animals in the future if you don’t dine on their flesh, or something. Also, aesthetic reasons.

7. Possible failure to account for a changing “marginal-cost-to-create-a-new-vegetarian” — the price might change through time.

8. The whole personal responsibility thing again — how responsible are you for “good deeds” that others do, even if you helped convince them to do them? How far removed from a good deed do you have to be before you have to stop taking credit for it? If by donating to an animal charity you’ve claimed for yourself all the positive juju generated by the behaviors affected by that donation, it seems you’ve left none for the person actually making the change (since obviously both the persuader and persuadee can’t claim all the moral goodness, as only so many animals have not been eaten). Is it the person who stops eating meat who’s prevented 60-ish odd animal deaths (or w/e) a year, or the person who funded the outreach with their donation (or the person who created the ad? Or the person who founded the organization? Or Peter Singer’s grandmother? Or the bus driver who was late that day, causing the would-be veg*n to linger on facebook 5 minutes longer, leading them to see the ad in the first place). It seems if everyone claims responsibility, much more would need to get done than actually is.

8.5. Likewise if we just work with expectations and multiplier effects and meta-charities — donating to animal orgs directly seems inefficient compared to donating to organizations that try to convince people to donate to animal orgs, which itself might move less money in expectation than donating to places that convince people to donate to meta-charities. Hell, why donate it all — can I just trivially spam links to metacharities in a few hundred places, claim all donations in expectation from those, and discharge the equivalent or however many thousands of bugnets might be distributed in expectation relative to the counterfactual where I spammed nobody (ignoring the possibility of my having turned anyone off). This isn’t necessarily an argument, just a goofy implication.

9. The marginal animal product is likely not very expensive (e.g. free meat, heavily discounted meat, etc.), but the average meat is probably more expensive than the average veggie, so reducing meat consumption can usually free up money that can go elsewhere

Anyway, that was wordier than I’d anticipated, and I think I forgot a few things. Doubtless these points are variable in their goodness and have been made better elsewhere (personally, I think 1. is the strongest argument against “offsetting” per se, given my own metaethical assumptions). I can also think of objections to each but did not include them in the interests of space all that said, I’m still in favor of making the offsetting argument to the general population as a way to exploit their uneasiness w.r.t. consuming animal products, especially where that uneasiness is itself not sufficient to make personal dietary change (or they are not susceptible to arguments in favor of personal dietary change), the alternative being that they do nothing (in a sense, I don’t think it’s a good argument, but I think it might be a good one to make). Though overall I prefer phrasing it in positive terms (e.g. you can maybe help these animals with a donation of just $XX!!).


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