On meat eating and rationality: Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris

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.