« Beeminder home

Beeminder Blog

A skeptical cow

Ok, there’s “technically” and there’s “technically”. If your definition of a vegetarian is “someone who never eats meat” then I’m pretty stuck on making good on this title. But someone who ate meat in the past and doesn’t anymore counts, of course. So maybe there’s wiggle room here? Someone who eats meat only at Christmas dinner and never any other time is arguably almost a vegetarian. So far so fair, right?

If you are a vegetarian on odd days of the month, fastidiously, do you count as half a vegetarian? And if you eat no meat during spring, autumn, and most of summer, can you round yourself up to “vegetarian”? Probably not really, but that’s the technicality I’m angling for.

Personal Interlude

Quick rewind to 6 months ago. [1] Our just-turned-10-year-old (the one featured at age 5 in our Explain Like I’m Five explanation of Beeminder) decided, totally on his own, that eating animals felt wrong and, despite the skepticism and mild discouragement of the whole family (and no encouragement from friends), he has stuck to a strict vegetarian diet ever since. [2] I’ve been really impressed at how principled he is. He’s put in work and sacrifice — helping cook, forgoing food he loves — and I really couldn’t be prouder. Well, unless he’d come up with this idea of beeminding meat-eating, of course. (He does beemind various other things. See also his sister’s post about all the things she beeminded when she was 8.)

Here are Cantor’s thoughts after reading all this:

My friends say things like, “I could never be a vegetarian because bacon just tastes too good.” I mean, I agree it tastes good but it doesn’t matter to me anymore. After a while you just get used to it. It’s like quitting smoking. It’s really hard for a while but then it’s fine. (Wait, that sounds weird because it makes it sound like I’ve smoked before. [We’re pretty sure he hasn’t. —ed])

The beauty of being an actual vegetarian is that it’s an unambiguous constraint. “I can’t eat that because I’m a vegetarian.” Everyone gets that and accommodates it. If you don’t go whole hog, so to (unfortunately) speak, then it’s pretty hard to not slide down a slippery slope of carnivoracity. I mean, there’s the concept of Meatless Mondays but it hasn’t caught on as far as I can tell, so “I can’t eat that because it’s Monday” doesn’t feel compelling. But “I can’t eat that because I’m a vegetarian today because Beeminder” works great!

Because of what now?

“It’s pretty hard to not slide down a slippery slope of carnivoracity”

Oh, hi, welcome to the Beeminder blog! We sometimes call Beeminder “safety rope for slippery slopes”. It’s a commitment device app that lets you specify a quantifiable, graphable goal and holds you to it under threat of monetary penalty.

Of course identifying as a vegetarian is also a commitment device. It’s what prevents “one hamburger just this once” from becoming ALL HAMBURGERS ALL THE TIME. (Or whenever one is offered.) Being a vegetarian prevents that by ensuring you never set foot on the slippery slope to begin with.

Beeminder prevents it by being a Schelling fence that only lets you slide so far down the slippery slope. How far? However far you precommit to! Mine is committing me to average 3.6 [UPDATE: now 5] vegetarian days per week:

Danny's vegetarian days Beeminder graph

That way I can technically say I’m “mostly a vegetarian”. My fine print is that I can enter a 1 at the end of the day if I had no meat. If I only had fish then I can enter a 1/2. [UPDATE: I’m fine with fish now.]

And why?

To eat less meat! Because of your health maybe? To set a good example or otherwise align yourself with fighting climate change? Because it’s hard to be certain that cows and pigs don’t count as sentient? Or because factory farming is cruel.

Let’s say you’re philosophically on board with being vegetarian but psychologically / gastronomically it doesn’t feel realistic for you.

Well, Beeminder is a way to make a meaningful partial commitment to the cause. Without Beeminder, your choices were probably all or nothing. If, in practice, “all” was off the table, then Beeminder is better than “nothing”!


Thanks to Adam Wolf for the idea of beeminding vegetarian days and to Cantor Soule-Reeves for convincing me to do it.



[1] It was March 11, 2019, which I mention in case Cantor ever wants to memorialize it.

[2] Actually he’s been on the fence about fish and has been ok with eating it rarely or on special occasions. Fish don’t seem very sentient I guess.