Musings, philosophy, arguments on vegetarian living, from the heart of Europe (Belgium, that is).

Sunday, February 9, 2014

On meat eating and rationality: Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris

my new blog is at http://vegansapiosexual.wordpress.com

A late professor of mine once said: “if you want to quickly anger even the most reasonable person and make sure that he or she is no longer thinking rationally, start a conversation about eating meat.” 

I have found that this - the part about not thinking rationally about meat eating - applies even to the most rationally thinking people. Even the people that have made it their mission to root out all kinds of irrationality and superstition, seem to have a big blind spot when it comes to reasoning about eating animals. 

Yes, i’m talking about - and selecting by way of example - people like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. In case you’re not familiar with their work, referring to the respective foundations that each of them started should be enough to convince you of the role rationality and reason play in their lives. Richard Dawkins founded the Foundation for Reason and Science, while Sam Harris is co-founder of Project Reason, a foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. Together with philosopher Daniel Dennett and the late journalist and writer Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are among the most important “new atheists” and are called the four (now three) “Horsemen of New Atheism”. These scholars are on a mission to root out all forms of irrational thinking.

Let’s take a look at what Dawkins and Harris have to say about eating animals. First a side note: it is not my intention here to detract to their work in any way. I greatly admire their writing and debating and believe, as they do, in the importance of reason and rational inquiry in our daily lives, including education. I do feel free, however, to criticize their reasoning and behaviour, as they themselves are (in many or most cases rightly I think) never shy of doing that with other people.

In a youtube video called Harris answers the question whether he can ethically defend eating meat. Harris’s answer is that he actually can’t. This is very much to his credit, but he goes on doing exactly that: defending eating meat. He was a vegetarian for six years, but “began to feel that he wasn’t eating enough protein”. So he got back to eating meat and felt much better. He thinks that “it’s hard to be an active and intelligent and fit vegetarian - at least it was hard for me”. He continues to say that he can’t defend the way we treat animals and “the nature of what life is like in an abbatoir”. He adds that he also can’t defend delegating that. He will defend any attempt to make things better and more compassionate, and “the moment that we had a real substitute for [meat], the moment we had synthetic meat, I think we would have an ethical obligation to do that”. It’s unethical to delegate something that you wouldn’t do yourself. If you’d be horrified to kill an animal... to have it done out of sight and out of mind is not an ethical solution.” 
Obviously, Sam Harris is thinking more “straight” and intelligently about this issue than 95% of the population, yet still, the issue I have is that a person putting such a premium on rational thought (and action) might have a more consistent view and behaviour in these matters, and could be better informed. For instance, we really can safely say that a vegetarian or vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate, and that today, certainly in New York (where Harris lives), and certainly for a well off person (which Harris is), it is not hard at all to maintain it and be healthy. The argument that we have the ethical obligation as soon as an exact copy of meat is developed (synthetic meat) is in my opinion false: nutritionally it is not hard to replace meat, so we don’t need that substitute, or at least, we have enough of them already. In case he would also be talking in terms of taste (which a lot people are attaching more importance to than to health in these matters), the statement would boil down to this: we can continue to torture and kill animals by the millions as long as we haven’t developed something that’s just as tasty. This is obviously unethical. Moreover, more and more alternatives appear on the market that are virtually indistinguishable from meat.

Professor Richard Dawkins then. He was asked the following question by Peter Singer
“The darwinian view undermines the basis for some of the distinctions we draw between us and animals. If we get rid of preconceptions like... people are made in the image of god, or that god gave us dominion over the animals, we would take a different view of the moral status of animals, that would require us to treat them in very different ways from the idea that they are just things for us to use as we see fit.” Singer asks if as a darwinian Dawkins shares that view.

Dawkins replies that it is a logical consequence of the darwinian view that there is continuity between the species. I’m quoting/transcribing the rest of his answer in full here:

“It implies that all of us who are eating meat, including me, are in a very difficult moral position. What I am doing is going along with the fact that I live in a society where meat eating is accepted as the norm and it requires a level of… social courage, which I haven’t yet produced, to break out of that. It’s a little bit like the position which anybody, not everybody but many people, would have been in a couple of hundreds of years ago over slavery, where lots of people felt kind of morally uneasy about slavery but went along with it, because... the whole economy of the south depended upon slavery. Of course none of us like the idea of slavery but ‘you can’t seriously consider doing away with it because the whole economy would collapse’... I find myself in something like that situation. I think what I’d really like to see would be a mass consciousness raising movement so that we all become vegetarian and then it would be so much easier for those of us who find it difficult to go along with it. And quite apart from that you’d then have brilliant chefs making wonderful recipes.”

Again, much like Sam Harris’s treating of this topic, Dawkins’s reply is much more conscious and intelligent than how 95% of the population would reply. Dawkins admits that not being a vegetarian is a difficult position for a darwinian, yet much like Harris goes on to defend (or at least explain) his position as a non-vegetarian, with rather weak arguments. Think, for a moment, about his comparison with slavery. Should we not be able to expect from people at the forefront of rational thought, ethics and fairness (which Dawkins undoubtedly is)  that they are among the first to adopt practises that they see as fair and abandoning practises that they see as unethical, instead of being, so to speak, laggards? Indeed we might expect from Dawkins that he is part of the mass consciousness raising movement that he is waiting for (and which is actually going on presently). And a person who has the social courage to talk and write very controversially about religion, islam, pedophilia... wouldn't find in himself that same social courage to quit steak and porkchops?

Perhaps all of this might sound unfair to Dawkins and Harris , as one cannot be an early adopter in everything, but this goes so directly to the core of their work and life that I cannot interpret it as anything else than a very meagre defense. Here are people who expect people to consider the irrationality of religion and consequently give it up, while they themselves are unable, for social reasons, to give up a practice as abhorrent as meat eating, even though they are rationally convinced they should. At the very least they might go for a “mostly vegetarian or vegan” diet, and make exceptions when they feel these are acceptable. 

I would try to explain these inconsistencies by means of the framework created by the psychologist Melanie Joy called carnism. Joy calls eating meat an ideology, up to now mostly invisible. Three major components of that ideology are what she calls the three Ns of justification: meat is natural, normal and necessary. Most of us are so deep into this invisible ideology that we have absolutely no idea to which extent these false ideas are influencing our reasoning and our behaviour in this area. 

 People do not change their behaviour by reason alone. Dawkins referred to the importance of having good chefs creating great dishes. What our environment has to offer in terms of alternatives is certainly a paramount factor in behaviour change, in any field. Yet thinking is obviously important as well. I venture to say that we may expect of great, rational minds that they start thinking things through about meat, and start wondering whether meat is indeed natural, normal or necessary. And perhaps it might even be expected of them to act upon their conclusions. 

42 comments:

  1. We are all Earthlings
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCRspwfKHmI#t=1878

    ReplyDelete
  2. Is it ethical for us to spend money on anything that's not absolutely necessary for survival, on gadgets, home decorations, cookies,... while somewhere in the world a child is starving to death and perhaps could be saved with the money we are spending on these things? I don't think so, and yet, virtually everyone in the developed world (I suspect including you) is doing this.

    ReplyDelete
  3. BB, you're right, that's why i don't' want to be too forcefully condemning. but I see a huge inconsistency between, like i wrote, the importance people like them attach to the power of rational thought and the lack thereof in their eating habits, and that's what I wanted to write about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I see, and about this I absolutely agree with you. Nicely written by the way!

      Delete
  4. I agree that there's an inconsistency between the rational ethical reasoning and behavior. I'm don't think Harris or Dawkins should be actually blamed too much for it. People can defend important truths and still abide in inconsistent behavior. To see the importance of reason doesn't suddenly make you a perfectly rational being. As you said, people do not change their behavior by reason alone. This doesn't mean reason is less important but it does show that sorting it out in a rational way isn't enough to make behavior more rational. We are equipped with an evolved aparatus that leads to irrational behavior in many situations. Therefore, many pushes and pulls, on different levels, are required to change behavior effectively. I'm sure comments like yours, Tobias, count as a decent push. And if, on the other hand, 'reason promoting' people do manage to overcome their meat loving impulses, I'm sure they are to be praised for that.

    ReplyDelete
  5. i agree lode
    i guess what i want to say is that dawkins shouldn't be surprised that people act irrationally (re. religion etc) if he is so irrational in his eating behaviour :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Excellent post. I enjoyed reading it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Excellent article. I've long been vexed by their blind spots as well.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I don't see anything 'irrational' here. A Darwinian view places humans within the animal kingdom where animals are brutally killed and eaten daily, there is no rational incentive for humans to act outside of their omnivorous nature.

    There is nothing rational about choosing to become vegetarian (outside of specific conditions such as sustainability and environmental damage), it's a moral choice based on empathy rather than pure rationality.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I want to add scope to what Bob GutSmasha stated; albeit without diminishing the relevance of his comment. There is a distinction between deliberately being cruel and deliberately killing unnecessarily which is what we agree to when we eat meat. The operative is the word "unnecessarily," as it is a fact that humans don't require any nutrients from animals. Humans are the only species that indulge themselves in this way. So, we can conclude that it is irrational from a Darwinian view to harm and kill an individual for no other reason than habit or social conformity. Ethically, no one who is intellectually honest would disagree that humans should be vegan.

      Delete
    2. outside of specific conditions such as sustainability and environmental damage? Why the 'outside of' ? I find it pretty rational to want to help save the very Earth I live on from melting away beneath my feat by contributing 1/3 less greenhouse gas by not eating meat.
      Of course, the rational decision depends on a) if you are not a climate-change denialist, and b) know that eating meat contributes a huge amount of direct and indirect greenhouse gas.

      Delete
  9. thanks your post contributed greatly to me becoming a vegetarian! I'd like to add that while some famous freethinkers haven't gone down this road (yet?) others for example Einstein have so that's a certainly encouraging sign from a prominent humanist/scientist. http://nirmukta.net/Thread-Vegetarianism-Morality-and-the-Stance-of-Famous-Sceintists-Dawkins-vs-Einstein?pid=9653#pid9653

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is so great! I just watched the interview you mentioned of Sam Harris and googled him just to know more about him. Because It was really confusing to me that he has no arguments to defend meat eating, yet he uses a pretty lame argument to defend his practice in eating meat.
      I'm glad that I'm not alone in this confusion about his arguments. Some of the people I hang out with are nice critical thinker, however, when it comes to the eating meat issue, they're not able to discuss it impartially, without taking sides and some might even get heated during the argument.

      Roberto.

      Delete
    2. thanks for your feedback, glad you liked it :-)

      Delete
    3. Yeah, what is more even confusing is how come is hard being vegan in the USA? I'm from El Salvador, Central America, where getting substitute products, restaurants, etc is really hard. But I just got rid of the desire to replace the meat taste, so I think there's no excuse to give up meat if you've already reasoned about how indefensible this practice is.

      Delete
  11. Very Interesting post. I have been wondering about this and your written in such a way that it is clearly understood. Thank you.
    I have some relevant information you can review below.
    paleo recipe book
    paleo diet
    vegan diet

    ReplyDelete
  12. SAM HARRIS & RICHARD DAWKINS

    Reason alone is never enough to make people do right rather than wrong.

    A felt, empathic component is necessary too, so you feel why it’s right or wrong.

    Sam Harris seems to have some, but not yet enough, of either (the reason or the feeling).

    It is definitely not rational to start eating meat again because you develop an anemia, rather than to check why you got the anemia and do something about it.

    (A B12 and B6 supplement, or a more balanced choice of plant-based foods would definitely have fixed the problem — and, to be rational, Sam Harris should have looked into that and done it from the very beginning.)

    The felt, empathic component is still weak too, otherwise Sam would have had the motivation to look at causes and alternatives rather than going back to eating meat.

    Being just a vegetarian is also not what is dictated by reason — nor by feeling. The dairy and egg industry are a part of the meat industry and cause horrific suffering. (mMilk-givers and egg-layers are all eventually killed for meat, and so are all their young, except the ones kept for milk-giving and egg-laying, and their lives are short and extremely wretched).

    Vegetarians are also continuing to eat animal protein, which keeps their metabolisms dependent on and desirous of meat. Once you become completely vegan, your metabolism changes, your appetite for plant-based food increases dramatically, plant-based food becomes much more tasty and much more efficiently metabolized, and your appetite for meat disappears.

    So any yearning to start eating meat again is gone, and if you discover you need to take more of some supplement — like B12 or Calcium or D2 or iodine, or omega-6 — you just go ahead and take the supplement instead of using it as an excuse for going back to meat eating.

    Richard Dawkins seems to wish we all didn’t eat meat, and thinks we will one day look back on it as having been as awful as slavery. Yet he still eats meat. A speaker as prominent and influential as him could do a lot more good for animals if he set the right example. Rationality would seem to dictate that too.

    On Chomsky on animal rights, see: http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/skywritings/index.php?/archives/255-.html

    (The notion that only those individuals who have responsibilities can be accorded rights is irrational, since we accrod rights to bot infants people who are severely ill or handicapped. But instead of thinking it as our according rights to victims, we can think of it as all of our having obligations not to cause any feeling being needless suffering. This has nothing at all to do with whether the victim of the suffering has responsibilities.)

    ReplyDelete
  13. Excellent article. I'm reading The Blind Watchmaker now and, as a vegan myself, find it hard to believe that Dawkins isn't.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thank you Tobias. That's a very well written and respectful article. It's a silver lining among the kind of articles that shoot us with hatred, rather than peacefully expressing opinions.
    I'm a vegetarian and I was always wondering how is this viewed by people like Dawkins and Harris.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Have you considered posting this on freethoughtblogs it is very informative and would get a lot more views from its target audience!

    ReplyDelete
  16. I really REALLY hope your article comes under both their radars. Thank you for such a well written piece on a subject that has preoccupied me for a long time.

    Two well respected scientists who have followed through on what their thinking has led them to are the neuroscientist Christof Koch, who is an ethical vegetarian on account of his work on consciousness:
    http://christofkoch.com/misc/
    And, Brian Greene the theoretical physicist, who has been an ethical vegan since '97:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/04/AR2011020403214.html

    ReplyDelete
  17. It is a nice article.This problem has long bothered me too since I eat meat.I have found myself to be making desperate arguments and just employing rhetoric for the defense of non-vegetarianism all the while having a secret realization that I am on the losing side here(even if the other person doesn't know it) and that i am defending the indefensible.Sure there's the good old cliched argument given by non-vegetarians that plants have life too and while its not an entirely superficial argument since some people like Carol Kaesuk Yoon have elaborated on that, it still seems a little desperate.But there is one problem though (and its a genuine one) the burden of resolution of which lies not necessary only on vegetarians but specially on vegetarians, the problem being that where exactly do you draw the line on what to eat and what not to eat? And what is the standard criteria of defining that line?

    ReplyDelete
  18. If mankind has been eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years, and we have proof of this, then there is no reason for stopping. Eating meat is something which has helped us to survive and which our bodies have biologically evolved to do. Vegetarianism has grown with the cities, where people have a distorted outlook on killing animals because they would never have killed a chicken or seen animals being killed for eating, like our ancestors would have done. Biologically we are omnivorous, not vegetarian, so get over it!

    ReplyDelete
  19. If mankind has been eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years, and we have proof of this, then there is no reason for stopping. Eating meat is something which has helped us to survive and which our bodies have biologically evolved to do. Vegetarianism has grown with the cities, where people have a distorted outlook on killing animals because they would never have killed a chicken or seen animals being killed for eating, like our ancestors would have done. Biologically we are omnivorous, not vegetarian, so get over it!

    ReplyDelete
  20. If mankind has been eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years, and we have proof of this, then there is no reason for stopping. Eating meat is something which has helped us to survive and which our bodies have biologically evolved to do. Vegetarianism has grown with the cities, where people have a distorted outlook on killing animals because they would never have killed a chicken or seen animals being killed for eating, like our ancestors would have done. Biologically we are omnivorous, not vegetarian, so get over it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cheers dude, appreciate the input. Perhaps some logic would be useful next time.
      Ta

      Delete
    2. If mankind has been (eating meat) (keeping slaves) for hundreds of thousands of years, and we have proof of this, then there is no reason for stopping. (Eating meat) (slavery) is something which has helped us to survive and which our bodies have biologically evolved to do. (Vegetarianism) (abolitionism) has grown with the cities, where people have a distorted outlook on (killing animals) (enslaving humans) because they would never have (killed a chicken) (worked a field) or (seen animals being killed for eating) (seen the 'necessary disturbances' of our existence), like our ancestors would have done. Biologically we are (omnivorous) (superior), not (vegetarian) (equal), so get over it!

      I second the cheers!
      It's a great template. Just shift around a few words and you have your basic statement of any oppressive ideology!
      Try it out! Works for a whole bunch of them....
      Read it out loud, to yourself or a friend!
      Sit for one minute, and marinate in the implications.
      Yum.

      Delete
    3. NGd - great comment! How easy is it for many to defend something just because "we've always done it this way".

      Delete
  21. Dawkin's is at the front of rational and ethical thought? That's news to me.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I honestly do not believe that logic will ever bring about a system of morals. Why should murder be wrong under an evolutionary point of view? Is not the story of man's existence nature "red in tooth and claw?" If it is not logic, but subjective feelings that give morality its meaning, how shall we say that one system of morality is superior to another?
    Youtube: Ravi Zacharias "What if I don't need God"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps it isn't a question of morality, just a question of game theory. If a person chooses to kill another person, what is to stop that person's family from retaliating. If a human chooses to kill a member of a different species, (dominance in terms of intelligence preventing that species from retaliating) when humans come into contact with alien species with superior technology, how will we justify not wishing to be enslaved by them?

      Delete
  23. Great article, and a great analysis. I love Dawkins' work but for better or worse I find myself in the same position now as him; I'm beginning to truly understand all the ethics about and specifically against eating meat... but it's something very difficult to break, a little like a drug user who realizes that they're digging their own grave but can't stop. At this point, especially in college, I don't think I even have a practical substitute available to replace all the nutrients, but I have decided to at least cut back on eating meat as I'm able to. Maybe I'll become a vegetarian someday, but for now, I'll have to take baby steps :P

    ReplyDelete
  24. If Harris says he felt weaker, then he did. I don't think you can just claim to know that his diet in no way affected his work, which, weighing the pros and cons, is far more valuable than his vegetarianism or lack of thereof.

    That being said, I am considering being a vegetarian myself. I don't think your counter-arguments here were very strong, but it was an interesting read and I'll have a look at the rest of the website! :)

    ReplyDelete
  25. Thank you for writing and sharing this. It is probably the most genuine and respectful conversations I've read in support of veganism. I was also very impressed by that most of the comments are respectful, reasonable and intelligent, which is extremely rare on the Internet. After being moderately non-vegan for decades, I evolved into a near vegan, though I occasionally do yield to seafood or succumb to the odd forbidden treat. This article helps hugely in refocusing me and renewing my motivation to continuing along the vegan path, which I'm convinced is right. I'm a huge fan of Dawkins and also agree with a lot of what Sam Harris says. Curiosity about the food choices of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens brought me to this article. I'm glad to note that while I'm not surprising at their human failings, I'm heartened that their excuses for eating vegan, while weak, are nowhere as ridiculous or flippant as what I hear from the average person. Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Hi Tobias, very well written.

    We can and should be a vegetarian, but we should no longer ignore the 'blind spot' of consuming milk, eggs, leather, etc and be part of the cruelty it entails.
    I do believe that being human is different than most animals (an argument consumers of animal products so passionately make), however I believe that it is so - in the sense that we can actively show compassion to other species. Thus I believe it is our moral duty and obligation to show this virtue - the quality that makes us different. In other words - while meat consumers think we should or can eat meat because we are different from them should refrain from eating meat for that VERY reason - we are different.
    Future generations - will look back - and think of us collectively as no different than the people who brought Nazi party into power. (Please note, I am not comparing them to Nazi people, rather I am comparing them to the German civilians of that time) The people who got Hitler into power democratically; the people who did not protest his ways as activists - Many of those people were aware of his attitude towards jewish people, gays, disabled, etc however they 'went along' with it - the same way Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris sadly do.

    “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” - Gandhi

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. this is phenomenal and quite dramatically in line with my everyday thinking.

      Delete
  27. 1. There is nowadays in industrialized nations no need to kill animals for food. We have alternatives and supplements to satisfy our needs.
    2. Therefore enslaving animals to our appetites is no more moral than enslaving people to our need for labor.
    3. Future generations will surely say, "Why didn't they see it was wrong?"

    ReplyDelete