Vegan eatery places ban on dairy in baby formula – is it effective?

The short answer – I have no idea. And you probably don’t either.

The Spanish vegan restaurant El Vergel placed the ban recently, and reportedly asks mothers feeding their babies with cows milk, including in formula, to stop or leave. This has lead to some mothers feeling humiliated, and leaving a negative review.

This is already a very charged debate in my social circles. People are arguing whether it is effective or not, with some very strong opinions in both directions. So far, none really seem that backed by evidence. I would just encourage you all to forget all of your predispositions right now, and think objectively about what is most effective here.

Ultimately, we want to improve the lives of humans and animals. We should only care whether humans get angry at something insofar as it effects future wellbeing of humans and animals. Angering humans in and of itself is not necessarily wrong.

Also consider steelmanning (a super useful technique) the opposite side of the debate from what you think. What are the pros and cons of each side? I don’t think this is being done enough here.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea how effective this is. I simply have next to no information and don’t know enough about human psychology to know whether the positives outweigh the negatives. I do want to list what I think are some pros and cons, though, to get this flowing in a constructive direction. I think these are all accurate, but note I don’t know what the magnitude of their effect is.


  • Gets parents people thinking about the issue
  • Might cause people to realise cognitive dissonance
  • Media attention on animal treatment in dairy industry


  • Might turn people off veganism
  • Might reinforce the belief that animals are less capable of experiencing suffering (some very weak evidence for this)
  • Unwanted negative media attention
  • Might lose non-vegan customers who otherwise would be eating vegan food
  • Might lose vegan customers who disagree with this

The side of the Auckland Airport dog shooting the media refuses to cover

Anger at the small, apathy at the vast

Last night, police shot a dog as it ran uncontrolled across the tarmac of Auckland Airport in New Zealand. The police claimed that it was necessary to shoot the dog, though many are rightly outraged and question why tranquilisers couldn’t be used, or why a more humane solution could not be found. Most people say that we shouldn’t kill or harm for no reason, or for enjoyment, and I agree.

However, it is ironic that most people who are outraged by this tragic event probably went on to eat animal products later that day. 70 billion land animals are killed for their flesh or excretions each year. It’s a mass killing of unimaginable scale, and it’s not necessary. There is no evidence that animal products are necessary in a healthy diet, and there is even some evidence that it is more healthful to avoid it. Animal agriculture is also one of the largest causes of climate change, accounting for some 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, it is the cause of vast suffering.

People love dogs, and in a western country like New Zealand or Australia, we think it’s wrong to shoot or eat one. But pigs are cleverer than dogs, and are as intelligent as a 3 year old human child. It makes no sense to love dogs but pay for an industry to harm pigs just to eat their flesh. How can we be against harming animals for fun, yet continue to pay for animals to be harmed so we can eat them for fun?

Part of the problem is that people just don’t realise how bad life is for an animal in a factory farm. Chickens are crammed in to either cages or sheds with little room to move. So-called ‘free range’ or ‘cage free’ operations are little better, and one only needs to watch the prize-winning documentary Lucent to see what Australian pigs endure.

If you think killing animals for pleasure is wrong, there is an easy way to do something about it. You could simply choose to not pay people to harm and kill animals for you. Consider adopting a cruelty-free, vegan lifestyle or buying more vegan foods, which in our modern age are plentiful, delicious and healthy. Have this conversation with your friends and family, and have an open discussion about the way we treat our fellow earthlings.

This was submitted as an op-ed to a number of Australian print and online publications with no response, including The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Advertiser and ABC News.

My fear: spreading insect suffering to Mars

One thing I’m personally worried about is the spreading of wild-animal suffering to other planets. In the short term, I’m most worried about spreading insects to Mars. I think (and have argued here) that this might happen sooner than we think. The use of insects on Mars for either food or to help terraform seems supported (or at least warranting further thought) by a good deal of the Mars community.

Currently, a potato is in development that looks like it might be able to grow in Mars atmospheric (open) conditions. Biology is a weak point of mine so maybe I’m more worried than I should be. But I fear that if potatoes are solved, insects potentially aren’t that much harder to get to survive on Mars, especially given there are already extremophile insects.

So basically I’d like to loosely propose that shifting public opinion about the use of insects for Mars and anything else is potentially neglected, given the scale here (accidentally or purposefully putting insects on Mars which spread uncontrollably). I don’t know how confident I am about this argument, but wanted to drop it here for discussion.

The morally best action is likely socially unacceptable

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.

Reminding yourself why you’re vegan

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.


Just a product of their time

One of my biggest fears is that, in 200 years, people will look back on my actions and thoughts today and smile knowingly; ‘He was progressive because he cared about poverty, equality, wild animals and the possibility of digital sentience, but he didn’t care about atoms. Oh well, I guess he was just a product of his time, so we’ll be fair to him there.’

When we look back on people 200 years ago who accepted human slavery, we sometimes grant them leeway because they lived in a world where slavery was so normal. But what difference is there between someone who was pro-slavery 200 years ago, and someone who is pro-animal exploitation today, in the eyes of someone 200 years from now?

When we think about whether an action is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, we shouldn’t think about it in terms of what people accept today, but in terms of what people would accept in 200, 1,000 or 1 million years. Or even better, what is actually the best choice for the well-being of sentient minds.

Understanding utilitarianism

I want to share a thought/question I have about applying and understanding utilitarianism. A few days ago, someone posed me this question:

Utilitarianism judges the ‘goodness’ of an action based on its consequences, right? But imagine two scenarios involving a driver who knowingly drove under the heavy influence of drugs. In one scenario, they got home safely. In another, they hit and killed someone. By utilitarianism, the latter seems to be more bad than the first. But they both made the same choice, one just got lucky. So do we say they made equally bad choices?

I think the answer should be that the goodness of an act shouldn’t be its actual outcome, but its expected value. In other words, the average outcome. In that sense, both drivers in the above scenarios made equally bad choices.

But what about people who made a bad choice without realising? For example. Paula donates $100 to X charity. She did a bit of research and thinks its a good charity. Unfortunately, it turns out the charity actually made things a lot worse, and so the effect of her donating was bad. Since it was a bad charity before she donated, the real expected value of her action was negative. But Paula didn’t know this – do we say she did something wrong?

I would get around this by proposing that the goodness of an action should be based on what the actor thought the expected value would be. Paula thought that the expected value of donating to that charity was positive. Surely we can’t hold it against her?

This is where I’m up to, but I still have some concerns about this that I’m not sure how to address. What about someone who is either wilfully ignorant, or is otherwise unwilling to do research to find out the effects of their actions. Do we excuse them for their actions?

Take someone who consumes meat but doesn’t know the reality of factory farming. Say someone approaches and tries to inform them, but they don’t want to hear it. They don’t know what the impacts of them eating a steak are, but they aren’t interested in knowing. Are they therefore bad people for eating steak? Or does it not affect how we might see their moral character from a utilitarian framework?

As often happens, I find my philosophical questions have already been answered, sometimes hundreds of years ago. If you know this has been answered, or you have an answer, or you think I’m talking nonsense, let me know by leaving a comment.

On terraforming, wild-animal suffering and the far future

Full essay available here.

I’m pretty excited to announce that I won the 2016 Sentience Politics Essay Prize for my essay ‘On terraforming, wild-animal suffering and the far future’. In this essay I explore some concepts that many would consider quite ‘weird’. However, they are becoming increasingly key in discussions about ethics and effective altruism. I’ve copied my conclusions below, but I encourage you to read the full article.

“This essay sought to provide an overview of the literature relevant to wild-animal suffering, terraforming and the far future. Suffering of wild animals and invertebrates in the wild is likely a large source of pain, and spreading wild animals to other planets is expected to be astronomically bad. Even the risk of this dictates extreme caution. Some of the ethical considerations important for discussing wild-animal suffering were also covered, and some new insights were offered. In particular, some recommended actions and a research agenda were proposed. Some key conclusions of the essay are outlined below.”

  • “Discussion of the best underlying philosophy is critical, as several different ethical codes (including negative and classical hedonistic utilitarianism) each arrive at different answers to the question of what to do about the far future.
  • Without AGI, terraforming of Mars and the spreading of wildlife to other planets may be possible in 150 years. It is highly likely, but not a foregone conclusion, that AGI will reach an intelligence explosion by that point.
  • If Mars is terraformed, it is plausible that it can eventually become home to almost as much wild-animal suffering as there currently exists on Earth’s land.
  • Values spreading is one of the most high impact ways to positively impact the far future, although we first need to be confident we are spreading the best values.
  • There is a limited amount of time for solving the value spreading problem for spreading wild-animal suffering, e.g. encouraging concern for wild animals, utilitarianism (or otherwise finding the true or best moral theory given normative uncertainty), and spreading concern for spreading wellbeing. These problems are also critical for determining what values to load to an AGI.
  • I have proposed some reasons for why person-affecting views and negative utilitarianism may be flawed and argue in favour of classical hedonistic utilitarianism though I am not 100% certain about this (nor will I ever be, due to normative uncertainty), and this is meant to create dialogue as well as to criticise.
  • We will never be 100% certain that we have identified the best values, and therefore we should consider how certain we want to be before we switch to primarily focusing on spreading values. Once the majority of society has values that we believe are best with some degree of certainty, we can then focus further on ensuring that the values we have chosen are the best ones. A thorough investigation of this is well beyond the scope of this essay, but is strongly called for.”

“Some of the conclusions of this essay are tentative, and would benefit from significantly more consideration and research. This essay was meant to suggest some solutions and insights to important questions and encourage discussion.”

“I argue for caution towards terraforming Mars or otherwise colonising space due to the risk of spreading wild-animal suffering (or suffering in general in the long term), and instead I recommend undertaking high impact research to determine the expected value of the future. I also strongly urge discussion to determine the best ethical theory, and then to determine the best values to spread for that theory, followed by researching the best ways to spread them, and finally enacting on their spreading.”

“Surely (assuming I am right about the normative issues), the best outcome is spreading the maximum possible wellbeing throughout the universe, with the worst outcome being spreading the maximum possible suffering. These are the realisation of Sam Harris’ best and worst possible worlds. We are in position now to set up the future such that the best possible world is a reality, and it is imperative that we do so. Nothing else, save perhaps ensuring that there is a future for sentience, is more important.”

Is Ben & Jerry’s an ethical company?

A video version of this article is available here, though it is largely out of date.

See also the end of the post for updates from 2020.

Recently I saw a talk by one of the staff at B Corporation Australia. I’d sort of heard of the B Corp certification, and knew a few companies that had achieved it, and was vaguely convinced that it was a good thing (with a small level of skepticism). After seeing the talk, however, I was almost totally convinced that it meant not very much.

If you aren’t already aware, to become a certified B Corp, your company is compared to others in the same industry, and must achieve a certain score across a number of criteria (80 out of 200), including governance, employees, community and the environment. Apparently, despite sounding low, this is actually very hard to achieve.

The benefits of being a certified B Corp are that your brand is seen as being ethical and becomes one that people want to buy, and also people will want to work for you.

My first main point of skepticism was at the end of the talk when I realised the speaker had not mentioned animals as being part of the criteria, both in terms of animal welfare and in terms of environmental impact. My worry was confirmed when she said that neither of these factors were taken into consideration during the evaluation process.

This means that implementing a company cafeteria program that encourages a plant-based diet, which is significantly more environmentally friendly than an omnivorous one, does not get counted. On the other hand, less effective ways of reducing environmental damage, like having solar panels, are rated relatively highly.

Also, it leads us to the obvious conclusion that a company can participate in as much animal cruelty as it likes and still become a certified B Corp, as long as it treats its employees well.

In particular, it’s worth noting that Ben & Jerry’s, a company which produces ice cream primarily from dairy (cow exploitation and cruelty) is a certified B Corp. In my mind, the certification at this point becomes almost meaningless, given the scale of suffering experienced by the cows probably outweighs the happiness of the employees of Ben & Jerry’s.

Does this photo (not shown here due to extreme graphic content) look like the source of milk used by an ethical company? This could very well be from the floor of a factory farm producing dairy cows which B & J’s eventually source their milk from.

To their credit, B & J’s do have a vegan product line slowly being released (not in Australia yet!), but until 100% of their products are vegan, I would argue that they shouldn’t be able to achieve the certification.

I was recommended to contact the B Corporation headquarters and suggest that they add animal related factors as a requirement, however haven’t heard back yet. I hope that they will do so, to make the criteria more meaningful in terms of actually producing positive outcomes for the wellbeing of individuals.

I also have other concerns about the criteria not covering the most important considerations for the wellbeing of employees and stakeholders, though I haven’t done enough research to determine whether this is a problem.

I’ve added this at the end, as the article was starting to look like an attack on Ben & Jerry’s specifically. I do want to make it clear that I think they are just one example of a company that probably shouldn’t get to call itself ethical.

It irks me that Ben & Jerry’s tweet things like “Black Lives Matter. Choosing to be silent in the face of such injustice is not an option.” without recognising that they are also contributing (in a big way) to another injustice to another species.

Their motto is ‘Peace, Love & Ice Cream’. I’m not sure they know what half of those words mean.

Edit – 04/06/2020 

I just wanted to revisit this and give a little update. Ben & Jerry’s now have a delicious vegan ice cream range and that’s great. My impression today is that they’re probably more conscious of animal and environmental than most food companies.

I want them to transition to be fully vegan, but I appreciate that won’t happen until the demand for vegan ice cream increases substantially. They are a corporation and corporations don’t do things without a profit incentive.

I want to reiterate that I singled out B&J here only because it was a useful example of a B Corp I had been thinking about at the time. There are many B Corps (and organisations more generally) that are somewhat reasonable when it comes to the treatment of humans, but atrocious when it comes to the treatment of non-humans. I will always be critical of these, though I will encourage progress in the right direction where I can.

In the same way that I don’t stop shopping at Woolworths just because they don’t only stock vegan products (instead I thank them and ask for more), I’ll do the same for companies like B&J.

I reread this and was surprised to see I had mentioned B&J’s Black Lives Matter tweet. It’s by coincidence that I am revisiting this post now when this issue has resurfaced. I checked B&J’s Twitter account and saw that they have made another BLM tweet in the last week. To my surprise, the response on Twitter was largely positive (anecdotes only from here on!).

I was surprised because I’ve seen people being critical of companies in the last week speaking out in support of the movement. The message can seem hollow and there only to capitalise on the issue and show how great corporate citizens they are. For B&J, people seemed to suggest that they are always speaking in support of social justice issues, and so they feel more inclined to believe the sincerity of B&J’s. 

Am I too harsh on B&J’s? Let’s consider this from the perspective of their CEO. They are bound to the board of directors, who are bound to the shareholders, who are bound to their bottom line. Within this frame, what can the CEO do, even if they are the staunchest human/non-human rights advocate in the world? Consistently speaking in support of social justice issues and creating more vegan products might be a good start.


Edit – 05/06/2020

I was looking in to this some more this morning and found this article on B&J from last year.

“Last month, Ben & Jerry’s revealed that it will no longer claim on its product packaging that its ice cream comes from “happy cows.” The company’s statement comes after being sued twice for deceiving consumers about its animal welfare policies.”

“Although companies state in court that consumers are not misled by their advertisements, the reality is that industrial food producers are knowingly exploiting animals and deceiving consumers.” [it’s unclear here whether or not this refers to B&J as several companies are mentioned]


Edit – 10/06/2020

I’ve updated the title from ‘Why do people think Ben & Jerry’s is an ethical company?’ to ‘Is Ben & Jerry’s an ethical company?’ to more accurately represent my current views on the organisation, which is to say, I’m just not really sure.

This edit was prompted by a claim I’ve seen on Facebook that B&J’s hire ex-convicts. “the reason their ice cream is so overpriced is because they hire ex-cons and pay them $16+ which is OVER the minimum wage.” – source of claim.

I checked, and couldn’t find any direct evidence that B&J’s hire ex-convicts. However, I did find that the bakery that makes the brownies that go in their ice cream does hire ex-convicts. From this article:

Greyston, which is located in Yonkers, New York, has made it their mission to hire ex-convicts, the homeless, recovering addicts, and anyone else with a rough past who has had trouble finding work.

I couldn’t find anything about them being payed over the minimum wage, but it may well be the case.

The person also claimed that the founders of B&J’s (Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield) were arrested in a protest. This seems to be true (they were apparently arrested in 2016 and 2018 at protests about money in politics and F-35 jets due to noise pollution respectively), however it should be noted that Ben and Jerry do not own B&J’s as of 2000. I’m unsure what involvement they have had with the organisation since then – possibly none.

Why is fair trade worse than free trade?

Recently I’ve been asked this question a lot after casually mentioning in conversation that fair trade is actually worse than free trade. I decided to write out my thoughts here in full so I can refer back to it in the future. Feel free to use this to do the same!

Full credit for the original work is to Will MacAskill – many of the points here are originally from his book Doing Good Better.

The ‘Fairtrade’ licence is given to producers that have met specific criteria, for example meeting certain safety requirements and paying workers a minimum wage. People assume that this means it is better overall for the world’s most poor and exploited workers. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Because Fairtrade standards are so rigorous and difficult to meet, producers in the poorest developing nations are often unable to fulfil them and get the certification. Much of the Fairtrade production comes from moderately affluent nations (by relative standards at least), and so the money from purchasing Fairtrade is typically not going to the countries  and individuals that need it most.

Also, Fairtrade products cost more, but very little of the extra money ends up in the hands of the actual farmers. Most of it is taken by middlemen. To quote some independent estimates provided in Doing Good Better:

Dr Peter Griffiths, an economic consultant for the World Bank, worked out that for one British cafe chain, less than 1% of the additional price of their Fairtrade coffee reached coffee exporters in poor countries. finnish Professors Joni Valkila, Pertti Haaparanta and Niina Niemi found out that, of Fairtrade coffee sold in Finland, only 11% of the additional price reached the coffee-producing countries.

The list goes on.

In addition, the small amount of money that actually reaches the producers doesn’t necessarily result in greater wages for the employees. One study showed that Fairtrade workers in Ethiopia and Uganda consistently had lower wages and less desirable working conditions that those working in similar non-Fairtrade companies.

Finally, MacAskill concludes by saying:

Even a review commissioned by the Fairtrade Foundation itself concluded that ‘there is limited evidence of the impact on workers of participation in Fairtrade’.

A much more effective way to improve the lives of the most poor would be to buy the cheaper, non-Fairtrade products and donating the savings to an effective poverty charity.

In short, buying fair trade instead of free trade redistributes money from the most poor to the moderately poor, it is a very ineffective means of getting money and positive outcomes to the poor in the first place.

Check out Doing Good Better for a lot more research on counterintuitive ways to do more (or less!) good in the world.