Nick Beckstead argues “what matters most (in expectation) is that we do what is best (in expectation) for the general trajectory along which our descendants develop over the coming millions of years or longer.”
I agree with this. If you think that someone is worthy of moral consideration no matter where or when they are born, and that the universe will be around for a while, the effect of today’s actions on the far future probably outweigh their effect on people alive today.
However, it is possible that the action to take today that is morally best over the life of the universe is not the same as the action to take today that benefits people most, or is most publicly acceptable. In fact, the two are extremely unlikely to be similar.
Take an easy example. Many agree that animals are deserving of equal or near-equal consideration, and that we shouldn’t exploit them to eat them. It seems fair to say that, from a simplified perspective at least, the best thing to do is to not eat animal products, and encourage others to do the same. However, much of the world today disagrees with this, and thinks veg*ns are annoying, unethical or pushy for suggesting that.
In the same way, we can imagine many scenarios where someone works out with reasonable certainty that the best way to maximise the utility of universe in the long run is to do X, which happens to be a very controversial thing in today’s terms.
As someone who wants to make the universe as good as possible, but also cares somewhat about what people think of me, this really sucks. I’m forced to balance these two desires.
I think it very plausible (49.99% likely if I had to put a number to it) that the action today that creates the most good in the universe is one that would be frowned upon (to put it very, very lightly) today.
I’ve been vegan for about 2.5 years now. For me, it’s a part of living an ethical life where I seek to reduce suffering in the universe as much as I can. It might surprise you to know that I watch videos about factory farming about once every 6 to 12 months, despite already knowing full well the horror.
Some people worry about desensitising themselves to violence or traumatising themselves if they watch too many videos about animal exploitation. These are very valid concerns. If you are worried about this occurring, you shouldn’t rewatch them. But I think there can be value in remotivation, despite the short term pain and discomfort (I don’t want to downplay this, I usually cry for the full 90 minutes when I watch such a documentary).
But sometimes, when I feel myself getting slack, I need to remind myself why I dedicate so much of my life to fighting animal cruelty and suffering. It was also useful to watch Lucent for the first time yesterday and get a good grasp of how factory farming works in my own country.
It’s definitely not for everyone. It can be hard. But it can be worth it.
If you haven’t seen such footage before, you should definitely watch. Everyone should know the direct impact of their daily actions and inactions. I’d recommend Thousand Eyes for a short version, Earthlings for a longer documentary style piece on farmed animal suffering, or Lucent for a more recent and Australia specific one.
If the horrors of what happens to farmed animals is new to you, I’d encourage you to consider matching your actions with your beliefs and go vegan. Here’s my favourite guide on how to do just that, and here’s my own write up on why to do it in the first place.
In keeping with my theme of publishing rejected op-eds and letters to the editor (because why let that writing go to waste) I’m posting here a letter to the editor submission to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 2017.
It’s difficult to say whether the latest heat wave across Australia is the result of climate change, but it does serve as a good reminder for how individuals can make a meaningful difference to the environment. Many concerned citizens have taken steps to make their lives more green by getting solar panels and replacing cars with bikes and buses. However, one of the most effective ways to reduce environmental impact is often overlooked.
A vegan will produce on average 50% less carbon dioxide, use 1/11th the oil, 1/13th the water, and 1/18th the land compared to an omnivore, considering only food related use. Being vegan is easy and is more impactful than getting solar panels, taking less showers, buying locally and riding a bike.
Not to mention it lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many cancers. It’s even much better for the health of the animals. An average vegan will spare thousands of animals over their life from an existence of pain, cruelty and abuse.
If you want to be an effective environmentalist, sure, get solar panels. But make sure you go vegan as well.