On meat eating and rationality: Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris

Edit May 2021: the piece below was written in February 2014. As far as I understand Richard Dawkins is by now a vegetarian and has spoken positively on the topic. Sam Harris’ thinking on the topic seems to be constantly evolving (this is a piece I wrote in 2015).

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.

16 thoughts on “On meat eating and rationality: Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris

  1. Well said Tobias. Whilst I appreciate their honesty, I can’t help being disheartened by the fact that such brilliant minds, so ahead of the curve in every other way, could try to justify their morally dubious behaviour using moral relativism – their pet hate!!! It’s as if they’re resigned to the fact that they’re just “men of their time” and so, are absolved from any responsibility. If great thinkers such as these cave to social pressure, what hope do we have of convincing mere mortals?! Maybe we’re relying to heavily on reason. Maybe we should target the limbic system…
    I love this quote by Soren Kierkegaard: “…for man is a social animal – only in the heard is he happy. It is all one to him whether it is the profoundest nonsense or greatest villainy – he feels completely at ease with it, so long as it is the view of the herd, or the action of the herd, and he is able to join the herd.”

    1. thanks lou, that’s a very nice and relevant quote. i will save it and use it in my presentations 🙂

      btw, maybe you find https://vegansapiosexual.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/making-compassion-easier/ interesting. I don’t rely on rationality (or even empathy) too much, and i think both are partly switched off when the consequences of thinking or feeling are too annoying. so we have, in my view, to make it easier to feel compassionate, and, for that matter, easier to think rationallly, by reducing its annoying effects. well, that short text makes clear what i mean by that.

  2. I’m so pleased you can use the quote! (Btw, I had the cheek to correct your spelling and then used the wrong “heard” and the wrong “to” – DOH!)
    Can I give you another of my favourite quotes? You’ve probably seen this one…

    Cowardice asks the question, “is it safe?”
    Expediency asks the question, “is it polite?”
    Vanity asks the question, “is it popular?”
    But conscience asks the question, “is it right?”
    And there comes a point when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor polite, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him that it is right…
    – Martin Luther King, Jr

    1. yes well, let me tell you why i find this one less interesting in our movement (though of course it makes much sense). or at least, let me show you another side.
      this is (parodying bentham) a quote of mine:
      the question is not: am i right, nor is this true, but: does this work?

  3. With this behaviour these two men who feel comfortable to act against their own rationality demonstrate a level of laziness and selfishness that undermines their own credibility. Particularly in the case of Dawkins. It’s pathetic.

  4. Thank you for the article. I have a few questions, but first I would like to disclose my position. I’m definitely in the “omnivore’s dilemma” situation. I do not like how the modern food industry treats animals simply so that it can mass produce to cater to people’s taste. However, I haven’t, yet, become a vegetarian. Here then are my questions.

    1. As human “animals,” what makes us morally different from non-human animals in our consumption of meat? In other words, we see animals kill and torture as the basic rule of nature, so why are we placed in a different moral situation? Is it because we can reason, and therefore, know that other animals suffer? Is it because we are capable of surviving on a vegetarian diet (unlike some carnivores)? What exactly makes the human ANIMAL doing what other animals do every day in nature immoral?

    2. For most of human history, humans have consumed meat. Many of them did it to survive. It’s only in our modern times, and arguably, only in affluent cultures (you mentioned New York City) that we have enough options in our diet to avoid meat in a healthful way. So, are we only NOW morally culpable because we live in an affluent society and have vegetarian options, or have humans ALWAYS been morally culpable for eating meat?

    I have many more questions, but these are two that I find the most relevant in terms of the moral debate of meat consumption by human animals.

    1. Humans have worked hard to keep ourselves alive (industrialising food to the benefit of human feeders and detriment of other ‘wild species in the same regions – which is now almost everywhere – and immunisation, antibiotics etc) so we are now massively over-populated compared to when we lived in the Stone Age ie as equals within the animal kingdom- so now that we have manipulated all things in our power to benefit our own species it is, reasonably argued, that it is our obligation to eat a plant based diet- as this frees up land and food for other species plus, us humans eating meat means many billions of sentient beings living captive, uncomfortable lives solely so we can slaughter and eat them…. when this is not a nutritional necessity.

    2. Jonathan, I’m sorry to sound so blunt, but I think you already know the answers to your questions, for they exist within the points you yourself make.

  5. Jonathan, I can’t speak of all vegans; I’m almost certainly a minority among vegans, but I’m of the opinion that eating meat is contingently, and not inherently bad. I’m also pro-vegetarian, pro-reducetarian, and think that the hard-core abolitionist camp do way more harm to animals than good.

    1. We have moral agency. This is distinct from those worthy of moral consideration. Some people view morals as a contract of sorts between moral agents. I think this is rather limiting, and also counter to how we actually intuit and behave towards animals who can clearly suffer. A garden variety view in the West is that dogs/cats are worthy of moral consideration, but clearly pigs, cows and chickens are not. The view that non-human animals aren’t in the sphere of moral consideration is actually *more* consistent than this standard view. People will have different views (even among vegans), but I think it’s best if you think through them and come to your own conclusions.

    2. I don’t think anybody (perhaps excepting the most frothing at the mouth vegans) argues that obligate carnivores like cats are “immoral.” In the same vein, say the Inuit communities that ate 99% meat (they live where there’s no plants) are not immoral, and it would be silly for an affluent 21st century vegan to call them out on that. After all waste (something like 1/3rd of food is wasted), is just as big a problem in terms of putting extra demand for meat.

    Most underdeveloped countries eat close to vegan. It’s pretty intuitive that it’s cheaper and more efficient to eat the food directly than to make animals eat it and then eat the animal. Meat has always been inefficient, and a luxury. The West ate far less meat 50 years ago; it’s only relatively recently that meat became a part of every meal and the main part of it. With it came obesity and a host of “Western diseases” as well (obviously there are other factors like processed foods, sugar, sedentary lifestyle).

    It’s tougher for “food desert” residents to eat vegan compared to Los Angeles or New York obviously, both in terms of options as well as culture. For most of us though, I’d say that eating meat the way it is produced, in fact, at the price we demand it at, is unequivocally immoral.

  6. I have some situations I would be intrigued to hear your opinion on.

    A farmer’s crops are being ravaged by rabbits. There is a myriad of rabbits and my dad has a gun and likes to eat rabbits and has the farmer’s permission to shoot on his land. The rabbit’s die instantly and everything edible is eaten. There is no waste. Is this wrong?

    A family I am staying with say that the meat in the fridge needs to be thrown away soon so I eat it instead of my usual vegetarian option which can be saved for another day to save wasting food. Is this wrong?

    My parents own hens. They sourced these hens from a battery farm and the hens were going to be slaughtered. They eat the hen’s eggs and keep them in a ample sized chicken coop. is this wrong?

    I find these men who are big influencers rather lazy when they have so much money and can afford to eat delicious vegan/vegetarian food. However, I suppose one would call me a flexitarian because I think if the consumption of meat will not contribute to the promotion of the meat industry or the fish/meat is sourced by independent veeeery small farms/fishermen. Obviously my vegetarianism is for reducing environmental impact rather than considering animal cruelty.

    A final point I would like to raise for discussion is what was quoted in this article about Christians, the image of God and ‘dominion over animals’. I would like to defend the Christian faith by highlighting that the word dominion translated from the Hebrew means to nurture and act with responsibility over. Therefore while the consumption of meat is not prohibited by scripture it is our obligation to be stewards of the earth and in a western society where meat production is insanely unsustainable it is very important that we make our dietary choices with the conviction of looking after the earth and the animals. I do not believe though, (obviously as I am a Christian) that to kill an animal is wrong so long as you do it for a purpose like satiating hunger… not killing for pleasure. I realise that this last point is highly contrary to what you believe and if I did think that humans were just animals with more complex reasoning abillities I would fall in line with your opinion about what we do with animals. However, I do not.

  7. Unfortunately it seems that often the thinkers are not the doers. Hence cliches such as ‘practice what you preach’. Authenticity is hard. At least, as you say, these thinkers are not entirely defensive about it.

  8. Eating meat, is not in and of itself immoral; animals killing and eating each other for sustenance is part of the natural world. When I die, my remains will be ‘eaten’ by the grass, trees, and other animals that graze the land. The only immorality going on here is the way in which animals are harvested en masse by inhumane factory farms, and pumped full of hormones, etc. THIS is what’s immoral. And for the record, although we do not yet understand precisely how, plants are just as alive as animals; they communicate with each other and defend themselves against predators. All you vegans out there who believe you have the moral high ground are grossly misled. Have we, as a society, digressed into an immoral form of meat consumption? Yes, but eating meat itself is not the issue

    1. Animals have central nervous systems and demonstrably feel pain. Plants do not have central nervous systems and to the best of scientific understanding do not feel anything. It is a pretty clear distinction.

      As an animal that has developed the reasoning, and the ability, to prevent suffering that would be inflicted upon other animals, with full knowledge that suffering for ourselves is unpleasant, and by extension unpleasant for those other animals, we should exercise empathy and take all steps within our means to prevent that suffering (not just ‘no factory farming’, but not breeding the animals in the first place).

  9. “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.”

    ― Paul McCartney (Beatles)

    But that would be very inconvenient, so I guess carnism is for even the most rationale of people to justify that what happens inside slaughterhouses is, as Douglas Adams put it… an SEP. An SEP is Somebody Else’s Problem.

    “Any object around which an S.E.P. is applied will cease to be noticed, because any problems one may have understanding it (and therefore accepting its existence) become Somebody Else’s Problem. An object becomes not so much invisible as unnoticed.”

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