Self-interest can make the world a better place—for animals, at least

If empathy won’t stop you from ordering the steak, your health should.
If empathy won’t stop you from ordering the steak, your health should.
Image: Getty Images/Susan Woody
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William MacAskill’s recent Quartz article makes a good point:  the media often jumps to conclusions on health issues, most recently on the exact health benefits of vegetarian eating.

Still, large-scale diet studies do make clear that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters. They are also at reduced risk of certain diseases. Meat reducers—those who cut back significantly on chicken and other meat—share some of the benefits, though not all.

I stopped eating animal products after seeing the shocking cruelty that farm animals endure. The 10 minutes of pleasure I got from eating a chicken sandwich was clearly not worth the days of suffering it caused to a smart, curious individual—especially with all the delicious animal-free foods I could eat instead.

But while my choice was based on ethics, many people who ditch meat do so out of self-interest: They want to be healthier.

I don’t worship at the altar of Ayn Rand. I know that in many cases self-interest can conflict with the greater good. For example, a person who gives up red meat for health reasons and replaces it with chicken will cause nearly three times as many animals to suffer. (Chickens are small, so you get far fewer meals out of one than you would out of a cow.)

Does that mean the public shouldn’t be told about the health benefits vegetarians enjoy, for fear people might change their diet in a way that harms more animals? No. If we drew a conclusion like that, we’d be using another logical fallacy: selective use of evidence. Consider the following:

Since 2006, meat consumption in the US has dropped by a whopping 10%. Americans are moving on from meat, and farmers are raising nearly a half billion fewer animals each year. Most of the drop in consumption was caused by meat reducers, not vegetarians. And most meat reducers are motivated by health concerns. So it is a specific pursuit of health that is sparing these animals from a life of misery.

Meanwhile, data suggests that health vegetarians are almost as likely to stay meat-free as those motivated by ethics; that they are almost as diligent at keeping meat off their plate (see here, here and here); and that many of them later adopt ethical motivations as well.

And those troublemakers who give up just red meat? The data suggests that as a group, they eat the same number of animals as regular meat-eaters (see for example here, here and here). Not a victory for animals, but not a loss either.

The bottom line is this: there are millions of people who would cut out or cut back on meat to improve their health, but who wouldn’t do so just to help animals. Publicizing the health benefits of ditching chicken, eggs, and other animal products reduces the number of animals living in misery.