For those who don’t know him, Sam Harris is an author on philosophy, religion & atheism, rationality and a lot of other topics, and has quite a large following. In his latest podcast, Sam Harris talks with psychologist Paul Bloom about “the dark side” of human nature. One of the topics under scrutiny this time is vegetarianism/veganism.
I have written before about Sam Harris’ dietary choices and his at the time not very convincing arguments for not being vegan. I don’t require people to be vegan, but in his case, as someone really adamant about following rational argument to wherever it leads, I couldn’t help pointing out some inconsistencies.
Listening to this recent podcast (from min. 1.14 to the end), I was impressed and moved by Harris’ statements and philosophizing on our behaviour towards and thinking about animals, however. Harris wants to take the idea of going vegan seriously. I’ll go over some of the ideas exchanged between Harris and Bloom below, before drawing some conclusions.
Harris and Bloom both both agree that future generations will see us the way we see slaveholders today and that they will consider our present treatment of animals as monstrous. They both agree about their own complicity “in the horrific suffering of many many creatures”, and that they “are participating in a system that is on some basic level indefensible.” Bloom: “We can ask ourselves what it’s like to knowingly do evil. And this is what it feels like”. Bloom doesn’t want to call it hypocrisy but rather weakness of will.
While Bloom seems to be willing to defend “humane” meat, saying the suffering is the problem rather than the killing, and that the world would already be a much better place if we only produced humane” meat, Harris doesn’t want to buy into that so easily. He says:
“I know that I’m not going to kill a cow to get my next hamburger… and the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly more or less condemns me as a hypocrite. (…) I know I wouldn’t kill them myself, and I wouldn’t like myself if I became so callous as to be ok with doing it. I don’t want to be that person.(…) My first ethical concern is: if you know that you would find it ethically repugnant to kill animals, day after day so as to secure your protein (…), if you much rather pet a cow than kill it (…), if you know you are that kind of person and you wouldn’t want to be any other kind of person, doesn’t it seem just transparantly unethical to be willing to delegate that process to others and just keep it out of sight, out of mind and just go on eating meat however raised?
Bloom believes that if Harris thinks this way, if he finds it morally repellent to kill animals, then yes, he shouldn’t delegate it.
Harris seems to be entirely aware of both the suffering going on and of the inconsistency between his beliefs and his actions. He names two factors that keep him from being vegan: “(1) the pleasure to which I think I’m marginally attached (…) and (2) the feeling that we don’t understand human health and nutrition enough… ” Harris doesn’t want “to have what I eat and what I feed my kids such a life consuming project. It’s just easier to eat meat and fish sometimes.” He admits, however that “that laziness, given the magnitude of the suffering we are imposing on animals, is a horrible thing about me. That laziness is not justifiable if you actually look closely at the details.”
Both Harris and Bloom agree that it would be a lot easier if some things were imposed from the top down. Bloom compares it to the following: he isn’t really prepared to give away a big part of his income, but is in favor of taxes taking a share. Harris, in this respect, talks about “getting up each day and having to rely on your own heroism and commitment and some sort of discipline.” Still, he acknowledges that “we obviously can’t keep killing and emiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us. We can’t abdicate personal responsibility here.”
I think we can draw several lessons or conclusions from this dialogue:
- People who are committed to rational thinking can come to the conclusion that eating animals (at the very least factory farmed animals) is wrong.
- They won’t necessarily put that belief into practice.
- Some of the ways to bridge the gap between attitude and behaviour (at least in this case) are 1. showing the nutritional adequacy of vegan diets (preferably in a rational way and without exaggeration) and 2. as a movement, by stimulating the development of alternatives.
- What’s also clear is that Harris seems to think that it is all much more complicated than it really is. Most people who have been vegan for a mere couple of months will realize that it doesn’t require much “discipline” or “heroism”, even though getting there might be less easy or obvious.
- We can see that they haven’t done much thinking (especially Bloom) and are probably quite misguided about “humane meat”. I am definitely not saying that there are no differences between different ways of raising animals, but as far as we can see, “humanely” raised meat (if we would agree that it exists at all) is very hard to come by, would be very expensive and its production is not generalisable. What Bloom has in mind when he talks about “humane” meat is probably a far cry from an actual improvement.
I leave the word to Harris before drawing conclusion number six:
“We are two people [Harris and Bloom – VS] who have admitted to participating in a system that is not only in some sense objectively bad but perhaps so bad as to be the kind of thing that would be on the short list as to be an embarassment to our descendants. (…) We’re both conceding that the way we raise and treat and consume anmials is probably a moral scandal (…) analogous to slavery and yet we are to some degree participating in it and not really signalling much of a willingness to change. I’m gonna signal my own willingness to change. I’m appealing to my listeners to send me some streamlined info on how to idiotproof this process.”
So here’s conclusion number six: sometimes change is a slow process (I know it was for me) but, even though Sam Harris hasn’t reached the vegan “nec plus ultra” yet, change seems to be possible for everyone. It would be good not to write off anyone on the basis that they are not vegan yet, and encourage them, especially when they are showing intellectual honesty, and are mustering the courage to honestly examine their belief and draw honest conclusions. Sam Harris wants to really investigate what he can do. I applaud him for that and wish him good luck. I’m sure he’ll soon be a formidable ally to the movement for compassion for animals.
70 thoughts on “How to veganize Sam Harris”
I don’t understand, Tobias. Isn’t the way forward to launch an internet campaign to attack and vilify Mr. Harris? Isn’t being the subject of personal slander the way everyone has gone vegan?
In all seriousness, I fear for the kind of feedback Mr. Harris will receive, given how so many vegans believe bogus nutrition information, and only want to promote their particular type of veganism.
i’m sure both will happen, so that’s why i’m adding my encouraging comments to the mix. and i’m happy to have heard from Jack (Norris) that he’s sending Sam a copy of Vegan for Life 🙂
I’m sure sam will be able to distinguish the nice vegans from the less nice ones 🙂
I think you really pinned down a great obstacle to our progress for animals. Here we have 2 quite sophisticated thinkers who, at times hide behind possibly dishonest reasons for eating animals. That is, we are a lot more comfortable having legitimate seeming reasons such as health concerns that we can state as our reason for continuing to eat animals rather than admit the ugly truth, that we are ok with causing others to suffer and die for our own pleasure. Allowing people to feel safe enough to honestly examine their own dishonest discourse, to move from excusitarian (term coined by Barbara Bear) to a more honest and concerned examiner of our treatment of animals, seems more promising advocacy than loudly calling “bullshit!” although less cathartic. Perhaps both Harris and Bloom can be more effectively invited onto the slippery slope of sparing animals by sending them a One Step booklet versus asking them to move from meat eater to full vegan enchilada? Just by avoiding consumption of chicken and turkey the typical consumer can move from eating over 24 farmed land animals a year to less than 1, even if they replace that spot on their plate with pig and cow flesh. Get that, even with no actual decrease in meat consumption (which may seem more doable to current meat eaters) over 95% of the animals they would have eaten are spared!
or they COULD actually live the values they claim they believe in and choose not to willingly harm and kill non-human animals in the name of pleasure and convenience. the cows and pigs being tortured and murdered would not agree that choosing not to consume birds while continuing to consume the flesh of other sentient beings is a legitmate compromise. killing 5 people instead of killing 100 people may be causing less harm but neither act is morally acceptable.
So I read the comment by Joe Espinosa before looking at who wrote it. When I saw Joe Espinosa’s name, it was no surprise. Good on you, Joe. Said it all. It seems weird, but even these “great thinkers” are no different than the guy on the street who goes to Whole Foods to buy “happy meat”. No different than the people who don’t want to look at the “bad pictures” because it bothers them. It appears carnists will resort to any excuse, any lie, to keep being carnists.
I think Joe meant it differently than you interpret it…? 🙂
‘Harris doesn’t want “to have what I eat and what I feed my kids such a life consuming project. It’s just easier to eat meat and fish sometimes.”’
I think this is a really important point. A lot of people are concerned not necessarily for their own health, were they to go vegan, but about forcing that diet on their kids and, at least as they see it, their kids not getting enough protein, vitamins etc. It’s one thing to change your own diet but quite another for that to impact upon your kids, too.
Another angle on that is to do with convenience/ inconvenience: if you’re not the main cook in your home and you’re the only one to go vegan, maybe then having to put upon someone else to prepare a vegan meal for you alongside the main family meal. You end up the outsider, then. And while that may appeal to rebellious teenagers, it’s not going to cut it for an (I presume) older family man such as Harris.
personally, i see the Harris thing in a different light. Harris is guilty of exactly the same things which he levels at the religious fundamentalists-buying into myths and lies, the lack of critical thinking, contributing to violence for “the greater good”.
veganism is about MUCH more than a dietary choice-it is a moral position rejecting violence and exploitation along with doing the least harm possible. one does not even have to accept the philosophy of animal rights to be vegan-one only has to acknowledge that treating other sentient beings as economic commodites is the same as treating other human beings as property. it is only the extreme prejudices of speciesism and human exceptionalism which allow humans to limit their compassion to a select few species.
even if despite the facts it were somehow healthier to consume the flesh, mlik and eggs of non-human animals, morally and ethically it would be no more acceptable than using the organs of a healthy human to save the lives of several critically ill humans.
here is a great, short article about veganism without animals rights by Gary Francione:
i have no love for francione at all, markgil. if you want to see why, click the francione tag.
you don’t have to like the man but did you read the article he wrote? just about everything he says about veganism and the large welfare corporations is spot on imo.
the one’s who are REALLY harming the movement and the non-human vicitms are groups like hsus, vegan outreachand mfa. here is but one example of many examples of how they promote the consumption of animal products while considering veganism as “extreme” and “not for everyone” while sponsoring events like Meatopia and the Hoof Haul in Colorado:
Markgil, one of the reasons i wrote this blog is to counter the kind of talk you write here. You are welcome to give your opinion, but i don’t think this is a place where you will like much of what you read
actually, mark, let me rethink that last comment. nonsense like “the one’s who are REALLY harming the movement and the non-human vicitms are groups like hsus, vegan outreachand mfa.” is really NOT welcome on this page.
markgil, I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but some of it confuses me. Could you help me understand?
I really like where you wrote, “to choose to do nothing because one cannot do eveything is a feeble false justification”.
But I don’t understand how this plays out in relation to where you write, “the one’s who are REALLY harming the movement and the non-human vicitms are groups like hsus, vegan outreachand mfa.”
I’ve seen a lot of real and tangible improvements in the lives of animals due to these groups. This is especially true for MFA and the undercover investigations they do. Of course this is far, far from the ideal world we’d like to see, and there is still a long, long way to go.
If in the real world, people are not going to change their behavior just because somebody speaks the truth to them, what should be done differently instead? I don’t think that you’d say nothing, because you wrote, “to choose to do nothing because one cannot do eveything is a feeble false justification”.
Please bear in mind that I’m thinking of this in terms of the reality of our world, where changes sadly just don’t come about because people are simply made aware of the truth. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part this is true…people cannot be depended upon to change simply because they have been made aware of the truth.
So, if all we do is make people aware of the truth, as far as effectiveness in the big picture, isn’t it pretty much just doing nothing and a “feeble false justification”?
p.s. markgil, please know that I don’t mean what I wrote as attack in any way. I believe the whole world should be vegan, too.
But what I’m confused about is I’ve seen over and over again where people are made aware of the truth, but that sadly isn’t enough to get them to then go on and make changes in their lives which translate into a better and more humane world.
I agree that what groups like HSUS and MFA are doing don’t give us ultimate and ideal results we’d like to see. But at least what they are doing is creating some tangible changes. What do you propose as an alternative(s) that will create tangible results?
>Harris is guilty of exactly the same things which he levels at the religious fundamentalists-buying into myths and lies, the lack of critical thinking, contributing to violence for “the greater good”.
this is a good point. it’s also worth noting that the Abrahamic religions are themselves a huge catalyst for and justification for meat eating – every time I table someone comes up and points out that “god put the animals here for us to use” – and so whenever Harris eats meat he’s complicit with the religious systems he abhors.
hah, maybe that’s a good argument to move harris: telling him that the fact that he’s still eating meat is probably the result of christian indoctrination 🙂
in regards to your last paragraph-using similar reasoning, in some countries Harris would be stoning to death women who were raped since the majority of people in those societies consider it natural and normal to do so.
when considering injustice and acts of violence, it is critical to look at things from the vicitms point of view. eating the flesh, milk and eggs of non-human animals is a social justice issue and NOT a mere personal dietary choice any more than killing a human being to take his or her clothes is a personal fashion choice.
Just to be clear: I myself am vegan. I guess I’m just trying to put myself in Harris’s shoes in order to identify the barriers for him in best making the transition to veganism.
As I see it from the article, Harris accepts the argument. He agrees it’s unethical to continue to consume animal produce. He just needs advice and help in order to make the changes needed to adapt himself and his family to a vegan diet.
So, the question, I guess, is this: how do we best provide that advice? And what form should it take?
this is what is so frustrating and ironic-guys like Dawkins and Harris freely admit that consuming animal products is immoral and unethical yet are reticent to aligning their actions with their values. as i said previously, they are just as programmed by their culture and society as they accuse the fundamentalist religious zealots they are so often condeming.
i semailed Harris some info on veganism but there is no way to be sure if he gets it or will read it. one can only hope that Harris will make the connection himself and go vegan as veganism is a required philosophy for any true humanist imo. great to know that you are vegan yourself btw!
Re: Feeding your kids
Are you saying it is wrong to impose vegan diet on your kids? How is it right then to impose meat diet on your kids? Just recently the WHO announced that processed meat is carcinogenic, and red meat is probably carcinogenic. Is it right to feed it to your kids? I was fed meat when I was a kid, and I wish my parents had imposed vegan diet on me.
Re: Being an outsider
So what is the alternative? Having the morality of the majority imposed on you? You are a moral agent. You are morally responsible for your actions.
For your points:
3.) This is problematic, at least in the case of a pure vegan diet, because there hasn’t been many long-term studies conducted on vegans and conducting studies is a bit problematic because you have to deal with suvivorship bias. Personally when my wife got pregnant I looked at the available research and found nothing that made me comfortable with raising a child on a 100% plant based diet (vegetarian diets, on the other hand, are pretty well studied). In terms of “alternatives”, these rarely have the same nutritional value as the original and most are highly processed and therefore aren’t going to be of much interest to people that eat healthfully. And frankly, I can’t think of a single (non-veg) person that has a favorable view of meat, dairy, etc alternatives with the exception of almond milk which isn’t trying to duplicate the taste of milk.
4.) Maintaining a vegan diet is difficult and complicated, for example, you have to check ingredients all the time. Now some of these difficulties will vanish if you are just a “macro-vegan”, that is, ignore small amounts of animal products in prepared products……but even this is difficult because our society is not oriented around plant-based foods (not to mention, few vegans would consider you vegan). Few restaurants have reasonable plant-based options, grocery stores don’t stock a lot of the products you’d want to eat (both whole foods, processed and prepared and the vast majority of the people you know aren’t vegan. And what exactly is gained from a commitment to a vegan diet even if you grant, as Harris did, some of the ethical issues with animal agriculture? Little to nothing, your purchases have no measurable effect on the aggregate demand for meat products and not only because its such a small fraction of total demand but because demand isn’t static. The meat industry, etc can respond to reduce demand in one demographic (veg*n) by increased demand in another (paleo dieters). Again, assuming you agree that animal agriculture is largely wrong, there doesn’t appear to be any compelling reason to commit to a vegan diet……at best you could give an argument for purchasing plant-based foods when they are readily available as this would create a market for such foods.
Also veganism is, of course,more than just a diet but other components are more problematic, For example, many of the arguments against meat, etc consumption don’t work for animal testing. Also even on the diet component, there are some inconsistencies that are going to be problematic for educated people. For example, the vegan position on insects is incoherent and I don’t think the “vegan leaders” have done much to address this issue. They pussyfoot around it or enforce it.
you are making things MUCH more complicated than they are-if you would not like something done to you, it is not moral or ethical to force it upon others. the exploitation of cows to steal their milk is a great example of this. you chose to support the violence, suffering and murder of other mothers and children due to your concern for your own child.
the evidence is very clear that there is NO health risk what so ever for those who follow a well balanced vegan diet. even the notoriously conservative Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the ADA) recognized this fact in 2009:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes. “
Re: Long term studies
Have there been any long term studies on meat? Just recently the WHO announced that processed meat is carcinogenic and red meat is probably carcinogenic. And people have been eating such meat all their lives and did not worry that there were no long term studies. So why worry about long term studies on plant-based diets? Also, what is in meat that is not found in plant food (except for vitamin B12)?
Re: “Maintaining a vegan diet is difficult and complicated, for example, you have to check ingredients all the time.”
If you are eating whole foods, which is what most of your diet should be, then there is not much complication. For the occasional processed food product, just check the ingredients, and then stick to the brand for next time.
Re: “many of the arguments against meat, etc consumption don’t work for animal testing.”
The main animal rights argument works for every issue. The conclusion of this argument is: Non-human animals have a right not to be used as a means to an end.
Re: “the vegan position on insects is incoherent”
Insects are animals. They are sentient and most of them are autonomous (meaning, they don’t live inside the body of another sentient being as a parasite). So the main animal rights argument applies to them too.
You seem to be mixing moral and empirical issues. How difficult it is to maintain a vegan diet in a given country is an empirical question and I think the high failure rate of vegans points to what I’ve suggested, namely, that its difficult to maintain a vegan diet in many cultures. On the other hand, whether or not its moral to allow someone else to “exploit” cows for their milk or for meat is an entirely different sort of question. My argument is that, even if you think its wrong, there isn’t a compelling reason to adopt a vegan diet because such actions have little to no impact on what happens in society. The problem here is that the relationship between one’s action and what happens in the economy is very indirect. Now you could argue, as was being done in the blog post here, that an act is immoral whenever it has an indirect relationship to an act that you wouldn’t commit yourself…..but that would have far reaching consequences that extend well beyond veganism. For example, the extraction of fossil fuels causes a wide variety of harm to animals…harm that one wouldn’t commit directly. So then the use of fossil fuels should be immoral and all vegans should be just as committed to ending fossil fuel use as they are animal products. That is a major problem I have with arguments for veganism, they seem to be attempts to justify something that is dogmatically given and the full consequences of the argument aren’t explored. This isn’t a mistake most philosophers are going to make.
Its true that the available evidence on vegan diets doesn’t point to any serious red flags assuming the diet is “well balanced” (but….that is rarely spelled out and there are no official dietary recommendations for vegans in most nations). That isn’t the issue, the issue is the lack of studies on child development, on long-term vegans, etc. So how exactly does one plan to convince educated folks, who understand science, that vegan diets work for all stages off life when there is a lack of studies that confirm the hypothesis? Quoting a professional group isn’t going to cut it, these groups have made a number of erroneous recommendations over the years.
interesting thoughts. i too (as a vegan myself for 17 years) think that we make some sort of holy cow of veganism (you can’t do anything wrong when you’re vegan, you can’t do anything right when you’re not). which, predictably, leads me to being called anti-vegan 🙂
Re: “the extraction of fossil fuels causes a wide variety of harm to animals”
Yes, but we don’t use animals as a means to our ends. We don’t exploit animals by using fossil fuels. It is a different problem. It is not a problem of violating the rights of animals as is meat, egg and dairy. But it is a problem, and we should look for a solution, such as moving away from fossil fuels use.
Re: “Quoting a professional group isn’t going to cut it, these groups have made a number of erroneous recommendations over the years.”
So what are you going to go by? If you don’t believe what medical science says, whom are you going to go to? A priest? Yes, mistakes were made, but we have to go by what the most current scientific evidence says.
” For example, the extraction of fossil fuels causes a wide variety of harm to animals…harm that one wouldn’t commit directly. So then the use of fossil fuels should be immoral and all vegans should be just as committed to ending fossil fuel use as they are animal products.”
this is an invalid, all or nothing example. the VAST majority of non-human animals who are abused and murdered are done so by the flesh, dairy and egg industries-10 BILLION a year in the USA and about 60 BILLION a year around the globe, and these are only land animals who are murdered directly for food and does not include other forms of exploitation such as research, entertainment and the ones killed indirectly. veganism is a starting point of doing the least harm possible and is the LEAST on can do if one accepts the fact that non-human animals matter morally. once people stop DIRECTLY murdering other sentient beings for pleasure and profit, the other INDIRECT harm can be worked on such as fossil fuels and farming methods. to choose to do nothing because one cannot do eveything is a feeble false justification which would never be accepted if the vicitms were humans as opposed to non-humans.
it is also very telling when one questions the health of a vegan diet due to a “lack of studies” when not too long ago in this country physicians were endorsing smoking and prescribing cigarettes to their patients to treat various conditions, paid of course by the tobacco industries to do so.
there is not ONE medical condition CAUSED by a balanced vegan diet while the hostipals, directly related to their consumption of flesh, dairy and eggs-estimated at several million people a year. this excellent video goes into more depth about the issues using only the peer reviewed studies you are alluding to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0IhZ-R1O8g
finally, with regards to this comment: “My argument is that, even if you think its wrong, there isn’t a compelling reason to adopt a vegan diet because such actions have little to no impact on what happens in society”
i guess it is OK to beat one’s wife and children then because not doing so has litte impact on what happens in society. this is a typical view of an oppressor discounting the violence and suffering they are forcing upon innocent, helpless others. not willingly contributing to violence and exploitation of sentient beings in the name of pleasure, habit or convenience is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to leading a moral and ethical life. i think this quote from Einstein says it best:
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.” – Albert Einstein
I think we really need to be careful when it comes to comparisons with slavery…using it as part of the animal ethics movement (although I can understand why it’s easy to use this kind of comparison to call people up on their morals!) when it’s not your own (hi)story to be using can be kind of alienating for many black people who feel that their history is being used for someone else’s gain. Otherwise love your article, v. interesting. ANIMAL LIBERATION
Yes. I have written some posts here on using that comparison
Re: Comparison to slavery
Just because I am white does not mean that my ancestors were never slaves. There was slavery in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. And it is Alice Walker, who said, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.” She said this in a foreword to the book, “The Dreaded Comparison: Animal Slavery and Human Slavery” (1996) by Marjorie Spiegel.
it’s true. But often comparisons to slavery are to black slavery.
You don’t seem to be responding to the argument in my post. My point is two part, firstly if one is going to make a moral claim they should fully explore the consequences of it and not just whether it seems to justify what one believes. In this case insisting that an act is immoral if it can be indirectly associated with an act you deem immoral is problematic since such relationships can have numerous variables and almost everything we do in the modern world be morally blameworthy, that is, it becomes an argument against modern life. And I obviously disagree that veganism is the “least one can do”, I think its entirely arbitrary, but that is a different topic.
In terms of the healthfulness of the vegan diets, again, my issue isn’t that there are any major red flags that have been discovered but rather that it hasn’t been sufficiently studied. Greger is a doctor that promotes vegan diets and I have no reason to take him anymore seriously than I do the doctors that promote meat-rich diets, low-carbohydrate diets, etc…..what matters here is the actual science and unfortunately its lacking in this case. Citing vegan gurus isn’t going to convince us here, one needs to refer to legitimate science.
Domestic violence is a direct relationship and as such isn’t the same as what is being discussed, the issue here is that the relationship between ones actions (avoiding meat, etc) has an indirect relationship to what happens in the economy and government and an individual can avoid every gram of animal products without anything ever changing.
Re: The vegan diet “hasn’t been sufficiently studied”
Has the meat diet been sufficiently studied? Obviously not, since only recently the WHO announced that processed meat is carcinogenic and red meat is probably carcinogenic. So why do you assume that the meat diet is safe, even though it has not been sufficiently studied, but the vegan diet is unsafe for the same reason?
Re: “an individual can avoid every gram of animal products without anything ever changing.”
An individual eats hundreds of animals during his/her lifetime. Every individual is morally responsible for his/her actions.
The sad fact that’s often left out in these discussions is that human beings are notorious for doing things they know are wrong and are immoral. Murder, rape, genocide, torture, stealing…I believe that all human beings know intuitively that these things are wrong, yet they still happen.
We can’t depend on changing human behavior by simply presenting them with the truth, then leaving it their own devices to do the right thing. A person can’t be depended upon to follow their conscious, even when their very own logic brings them to those conclusions.
When you look at this way, and if your goal is to see real and tangible changes towards the world you’d like to see, what’s more important than being right, is being effective. Whether you are right, or whether you are wrong, in the end it simply doesn’t matter unless you are effective.
Hitler and the Nazis weren’t right, but they were effective at getting people to believe as they did. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right, and he also was effective at getting people to believe as he did.
Imagine how different history would have played out if the Nazis or King had chosen to simply speak their truth, then stood back and waited for everybody to simply change after that.
If we want to be more than a mouthpiece for the truth…if we want to see tangible and real changes for the animals and a more humane world…after we speak our truth (in a manner that will be receptive to those we are speaking to), we then need to take the next steps of encouraging people to do what it takes to create those changes.
Well said 🙂
Thanks, Tobias. That means a lot coming from you. 🙂
Re: “We can’t depend on changing human behavior by simply presenting them with the truth, then leaving it their own devices to do the right thing.”
Exactly! That is why, when we have the majority on our side, we will use democracy and pass laws banning meat, eggs and dairy (as well as other forms of animal exploitation).
Re: “we then need to take the next steps of encouraging people to do what it takes to create those changes.”
That is not necessary because it is obvious from our arguments, which lead to the conclusion that killing non-human animals is murder. What we need to do is pass laws.
I agree completely about the need for passing laws, Barbara. I’m sure there would still be people in the U.S. who would own slaves if it weren’t for laws against it.
Unfortunately, even though we may know that killing non-human animals is murder, not everybody agrees with us yet…not everybody sees it as obvious. So, we need to encourage people to understand that, and to also encourage them to do what it takes to pass laws against those murders.
I agree. But I also think that maybe we don’t need the majority on our side to pass a law. The suffragists did not have a majority on their side when women got the right to vote. Also, there could be other pressing issues, like for example the fact that there won’t be enough water: http://www.cattlenetwork.com/cattle-news/Well-all-be-vegetarians-by-2050-scientists-say-167746295.html
In response to:
“Christine said, “That’s fine if we don’t mind things staying the way they are.”
Of course I don’t mind. Why would I mind?”
I think we tons in common, but there might a point on which we differ, so I should probably explain that I come from a point where the most important thing to me is creating a more humane world and less suffering for animals. I don’t care what my “label” is… “vegan” or “animal activist” or “tree hugger”…I don’t care one way unless it’s helping the animals.
So when I wrote about things “staying the way they are”, I meant it in terms of coming from a place where I don’t want things to stay the way they are. It’s a horrific and extremely cruel world for billions of animals the way it is now. I want to see real & tangible results of a more humane world for all the beings on it. So that’s what I meant by not wanting thing to stay the way they are.
Christine, you said, “I don’t care what my “label” is… “vegan” or “animal activist” or “tree hugger”…I don’t care one way unless it’s helping the animals.”
I care. I certainly would not want to be called a “tree hugger”. How would it help animals if animal rights advocates were called such names and reduced to ridicule? Other labels I hate: “animal lover” (we are not zoophiles!), “animal person” (animals are persons, and humans are animals).
Sam has the strength to commit to daily meditation practice (and encourages others to adopt this practice for evidence based neurological and psychological health reasons) You’d think he could muster a bit more fortitude to eat a cruelty free diet… I have hope for him yet.
yeah, that’s true. i have never been able to make a steady practise out of meditation, despite some serious good attempts 🙂
There is no “cruelty free diet”…..and one shouldn’t expect educated folks to respond well to euphemisms.
There may be no cruelty free diet (after all even people get accidently maimed or killed in food production), but there is exploitation free diet.
Thank you for an informative article.
Tobias wrote, “I don’t require people to be vegan,”.
Why not? If you are presenting arguments that killing animals for meat, dairy and eggs is murder, then how can you not require people not to commit murder? It would be like a “pro-lifer” (which I am not) arguing that abortion is murder, but not requiring women to not choose abortion.
Unless you think going vegan is a matter of personal morality. If so, you are wrong. Meat and other animal product consumption affect not only the animal, who was exploited to produce the product, but every living being on this planet.
It means i want them to and I think they should be, but I believe it’s better not to say it like that. See the post on persuasion resistance.
(edited – the second I was a U, but that was not how i intended it)
I don’t have to say it. I present an argument that eating meat is immoral, and that’s that. They are not stupid, they know that it means that if they eat meat, they are doing something immoral. Of course, they are perfectly free to either accept my argument or refute it. I don’t preach. I argue.
yeah well, even saying that it’s immoral is not my preferred strategy. at most i will say i believe it is immoral.
“Of course, they are perfectly free to either accept my argument or refute it.”
That’s fine if we don’t mind things staying the way they are. However, if we want to create change, we can’t just say take it or leave it. We have to engage with people in ways so they will listen to us and what we have to say. Saying take or leave it only leaves the world the way it is & nothing changes.
otherwise put:what is more important: speaking your truth,or actually helping animals?
Tobias wrote, “otherwise put:what is more important: speaking your truth,or actually helping animals?”
I agree…sadly, just speaking the truth isn’t going to be enough to create real, large-scale, and tangible results for the animals.
We have not only speak the truth, but also educate ourselves on the ways to speak that truth so it actually has some hope of being listened to & understood. Speaking the truth, but without taking those things into consideration, unfortunately won’t have much impact except to the choir who already thinks like you do.
If we want to see any real change, we have to be able to know how to behave, speak to & reach those who aren’t already in our choir.
It doesn’t matter what you are, if you are a vegan or an animal activist or whatever… you have to also learn how to be a good and effective salesperson if you want to see change in the world.
Simply stating to people what’s right and what’s wrong isn’t enough in the real world out there. How I wish humans weren’t so complicated, but they are.
A lot of this is a matter of the perfect world that we’d like to see vs. accepting the reality of the actual world we live in, as well the people who live in it & their psychological motivations.
We can’t just say “this is the way the world should be” and that world will magically appear just because we keep saying that’s the way it should be. If we want non-vegans to change (which is a requirement needed in order to actually create our perfect world), we have to be able to speak to them in ways where they will listen to us and hear our message.
Take the example given of abortion vs. “pro-lifers”… say for example that “Jane” is a pro-lifer and wants people to understand, like she does, that abortion is wrong and for people to be pro-life. She knows she’s morally right, so anybody who thinks the opposite is wrong, and they should just know that.
Now, Jane would like very much to convince you to become pro-life, but she figures you should already know abortion is wrong, and she requires that you be pro-life…how much of a chance does Jane have of convincing you to become pro-life if that’s all she does?
As far as the psychology of human & social change, there’s no difference between Jane trying to convince you to be pro-life and a vegan trying to convince Jane to be vegan. In Jane’s mind abortion is just as horrible & cruel to her as killing animals is to us.
If we as vegans want to see the world we’d like to see become a reality, then we have to get non-vegans to listen to us. There’s unfortunately just no way around that. If you are more lenient in your approach towards people, without requiring anything, people will be more likely to listen to what you have to say. It doesn’t matter if we have morality on our side…if that’s all it took then the world would already be vegan.
Of course, we all want everybody to be vegan…but to require or demand people to be vegan (or anything they are not already) can unfortunately have the side effect of turning people off to what you are trying to say.
Tobias said, “ saying that it’s immoral is not my preferred strategy.”
It is not a strategy, it is an argument. We should not be afraid to present our arguments.
“at most i will say i believe it is immoral.”
Of course everyone knows that a statement about morality is not a fact.
Christine said, “That’s fine if we don’t mind things staying the way they are.”
Of course I don’t mind. Why would I mind? I stand behind what I believe in. I am not ashamed of my beliefs.
“However, if we want to create change, we can’t just say take it or leave it.”
I don’t think there is anything else we can do. There are over 7 billion people on this planet. We can’t waste too much time on one person.
“We have to engage with people in ways so they will listen to us and what we have to say.”
Please explain this. I don’t understand what you mean.
“Saying take or leave it only leaves the world the way it is & nothing changes.”
I really don’t see any other option. If someone does not agree with me, how much time should I waste on that one close minded, irrational person? I think it is a waste of time. I move on to the next person and hope she/he will be more rational. It is not like we are trying to save someone’s soul. Our goal should be to bring as many people to our side as possible, and as quickly as possible.
Tobias said, “what is more important: speaking your truth,or actually helping animals?”
The only way we can help animals is by speaking the truth. And the truth is, non-human animals have a right not to be used as a means to an end. I am not ashamed to say it, and I am ready to defend it.
I agree completely with “The only way we can help animals is by speaking the truth”…but there is the additional caveat of “speaking the truth in a way that will be heard and received by the recipient of the truth”.
If the truth just falls on deaf ears, then the truth isn’t heard.
Just like if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it…the tree still makes a sound, but if the sound isn’t taken in by any ears, then then it’s just sound waves going out into space.
Christine said, “ just speaking the truth isn’t going to be enough to create real, large-scale, and tangible results for the animals.”
Nevertheless, we must start by telling the truth, by stating our true ideology, by presenting our irrefutable arguments. We have to have a strong foundation before we start doing anything else, like, for example, arguing in courts or legislature for the rights of non-human animals.
“We have not only speak the truth, but also educate ourselves on the ways to speak that truth so it actually has some hope of being listened to & understood.”
I don’t understand what you mean. I think I speak clearly. If someone does not understand my argument, I am perfectly willing to explain it.
“Speaking the truth, but without taking those things into consideration, unfortunately won’t have much impact except to the choir who already thinks like you do.”
“If we want to see any real change, we have to be able to know how to behave, speak to & reach those who aren’t already in our choir.”
I think I know how to behave. I always behave in a civilized manner, even if meat eaters are yelling at me, insulting me, and swearing at me. I never stoop down to their level. Never!
“It doesn’t matter what you are, if you are a vegan or an animal activist or whatever… you have to also learn how to be a good and effective salesperson if you want to see change in the world.”
Salespersons use sales gimmicks. They manipulate people. We cannot stoop down to that.
“Simply stating to people what’s right and what’s wrong isn’t enough in the real world out there.”
But it is not what I am doing. I am presenting an argument, with premises and a conclusion. They are free to use their own brains to try to refute it, and if they can’t refute it, they should accept it.
“How I wish humans weren’t so complicated, but they are.”
I only look at humans as rational beings. I am not a psychologist, and I am not going to manipulate people.
“A lot of this is a matter of the perfect world that we’d like to see vs. accepting the reality of the actual world we live in, as well the people who live in it & their psychological motivations.”
I don’t give a damn about people’s psychological motivations. You would not say this about pedophiles, would you? And no, I don’t accept the world as it is. I am going to do all that is in my power to change it, to make it better for animals.
“We can’t just say “this is the way the world should be” and that world will magically appear just because we keep saying that’s the way it should be.”
That is not what I do. I present rational arguments why the world should be this way.
“ If we want non-vegans to change (which is a requirement needed in order to actually create our perfect world), we have to be able to speak to them in ways where they will listen to us and hear our message.”
They listen to me. I know that for a fact because they answer me.
“Take the example given of abortion vs. “pro-lifers”… say for example that “Jane” is a pro-lifer and wants people to understand, like she does, that abortion is wrong and for people to be pro-life. She knows she’s morally right, so anybody who thinks the opposite is wrong, and they should just know that.”
I argue with the so-called “pro-lifers” a lot. I use the same methods on them as I use on meat eaters, namely, I present my argument and let them refute it. I have had long debates with “pro-lifers”. I don’t know if I changed their minds (I know I changed one mind for sure because she admitted it), but “pro-lifers” are different than meat eaters because “pro-lifers’” views come from religion, and religion is not rational.
“Now, Jane would like very much to convince you to become pro-life, but she figures you should already know abortion is wrong, and she requires that you be pro-life…how much of a chance does Jane have of convincing you to become pro-life if that’s all she does?”
She has to convince me that abortion is immoral. She has to present a rational argument and let me either accept it or refute it.
“As far as the psychology of human & social change, there’s no difference between Jane trying to convince you to be pro-life and a vegan trying to convince Jane to be vegan. In Jane’s mind abortion is just as horrible & cruel to her as killing animals is to us.”
The difference is, we have rational arguments and science on our side. Jane only has her religion on her side.
“If we as vegans want to see the world we’d like to see become a reality, then we have to get non-vegans to listen to us. There’s unfortunately just no way around that.”
They listen to me. I know that for a fact. They may not agree with me, but they definitely listen to me.
“If you are more lenient in your approach towards people, without requiring anything, people will be more likely to listen to what you have to say.”
But then what would be the point?
“It doesn’t matter if we have morality on our side…if that’s all it took then the world would already be vegan.”
We have rationality and science on our side.
“Of course, we all want everybody to be vegan…but to require or demand people to be vegan (or anything they are not already) can unfortunately have the side effect of turning people off to what you are trying to say.”
Well then, I don’t see a point in wasting my time if my goal is not to convince someone to go vegan.
Hi again Barbara,
You wrote, “Salespersons use sales gimmicks. They manipulate people. We cannot stoop down to that.”
We are different again in our thinking here, because if it will help animals, I’m not below stooping down to what could be called gimmicks.
If somebody doesn’t care about animals and how they suffer in factory farms, then I’ll use any alternative “gimmick” I can reach that person with…pollution, antibiotic resistance, hormone use, world hunger, destruction of the environment, etc. I wouldn’t personally say that’s a gimmick or manipulation, because I only speak what I know to be the facts.
Not to change the subject, and I think our conversation is really good, but at a certain point in any forum like this and when the conversation gets very detailed and back and forth, I think at that point it’s not a place where things can really be discussed like they can if the people were speaking in person. It has nothing to do with what anybody is saying, just with how complicated and detailed things get.
So, while we do have a lot in common, I think we might have some fundamental differences that will just complicate the conversation in a forum like this. So, I sincerely hope it won’t come across the wrong way if I don’t respond any more here. I will read all you comments, though. 🙂
Ok, Tobias and Christine, below is my letter to Sam Harris, which I just sent him. So tell me, what is wrong with my approach. I am very much open to constructive criticism, and I am willing to make changes and improve.
I wasn’t so much trying to convince him, as he seems convinced already, but to improve his argument so he can possibly convince Richard Dawkins. But this is my standard approach, which I use with everyone (except with creationists, in their case I sent them this text: http://www.fatherjohndear.org/articles/become_a_vegetarian.html ).
So go ahead, tell me, what do you see wrong with my approach.
(Of course I also sent him information about the vegan diet and the chard that I posted here).
I am very happy you are considering going vegan, but your argument for veganism is kind of weak. Below I present, what I think is a much stronger argument. However, it is not an argument from utilitarianism, which I know you support, but from deontological theory. It is strongly rooted in science, which I think you will like.
Here it goes:
Charles Darwin´s theory of natural selection proved that human beings evolve according to the same evolutionary dynamics as non-human animals. Darwin showed that the difference between non-human and human animals is one of degree, not of kind. Through evolutionary theory, genetics, and neurophysiology, scientists are providing evidence that non-human animals feel and think in ways similar to ours, and that they are capable of experiencing not only simple emotions such as fear, but far more subtle and complex emotions such as love, grief, joy, pride, shame and loneliness. Many people place a line between Homo sapiens sapiens and all other animal species and consider only Homo sapiens sapiens to be morally relevant. But where would the line be if our ancestors/cousins were alive today? Would it be between Homo erectus and Homo ergaster? Or would it be between Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus anamensis? What would be the criteria? Which species would we consider worthy of our moral consideration, and which species would we consider morally irrelevant? From the view of evolution, any line placed between humans and all other animals is an arbitrary line. Such a line only symbolizes human prejudice and allows exploitation of the other species. Discrimination based on species is no different than discrimination based on sex, physical or mental ability, race, sexual orientation, or any other inborn, and therefore, morally irrelevant, characteristic. Every sentient and autonomous (not residing inside the body of another sentient individual) individual should be entitled to a basic right not to be used as a means to an end. Every individual should have a right to life, liberty, bodily integrity and self-determination. Every individual should be treated as a person not as a thing. Every individual deserves to have the best life she/he can possibly make for herself/himself. Every individual deserves a chance to experience pleasure, joy and happiness because every individual has only one life to live.
“Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.” -Charles Darwin
I know that in your book “The Moral Landscape”, you attempted to justify exploitation of other animal species based on the fact that their brains are not as complex as ours. But what is a brain if nothing more than a tool for adaptation to the environment, a tool for survival. Other species have other tools. Who is to say whose tool is better? These species, who survive the longest, we can say had the better tools for survival. As it stands right now, out tool (the brain) is endangering the entire ecosystem of this planet. Our tool may not only cause our own extinction, but maybe the extinction of all life on Earth. If this happens, out tool, will prove to be the worst tool evolution has ever created, a monumental mistake. So let’s not be so proud of it yet. As for our brains enabling us to feel greater joy and satisfaction, well, that is not proven either. There is no proof that more intelligent people are happier than less intelligent people. In fact, the reverse might be true (the happy village idiot). So your argument that we experience more joy of life than other animals because we are more intelligent is not irrefutable, it is not even very convincing.
Thanks for sharing your letter with us, Barbara, and asking for our feedback. I’d like to wait until I can sit down later and read it when I won’t be interrupted, but maybe Tobias can get back to you sooner than I can.
Is it ok if other people provide any feedback they may have if they’d like to? There are a lot of other good minds & intelligent thinkers who follow and comment on the blog. 🙂
Sales gimmicks work, but they can backfire. For example, a couple years ago a vacuum salesperson came to my house, and (I am even ashamed to admit it) sold me a vacuum. It was a very expensive vacuum, and I don’t even like it. Now I am mad at myself and resent the salesperson. I will not let any salesperson in my house again. And meat eaters can have the same reaction if we use gimmicks on them. They will sooner or later figure out that they have been tricked and start resenting us, turn against us, and worse of all, go back to eating meat.
“If somebody doesn’t care about animals and how they suffer in factory farms, then I’ll use any alternative “gimmick” I can reach that person with…pollution, antibiotic resistance, hormone use, world hunger, destruction of the environment, etc.”
Oh no, those are not gimmicks. Those are scientific facts. I use them too. I am very much for using scientific facts.
“… I think at that point it’s not a place where things can really be discussed like they can if the people were speaking in person.”
Well, that is just your personal preference. I prefer to communicate electronically. It gives me more to think and research facts. I am also not a very social person. I am an introvert. But again, that is just a personal preference. Whatever works for you.
“It has nothing to do with what anybody is saying, just with how complicated and detailed things get.”
That is exactly why I prefer to see them written down, so I can read them a few times if I need to and analyze them.
And also, the insult meat eaters throw at vegans, I definitely prefer to just read them rather than have them shouted at my face.
I am open to anyone’s feedback. Even meat eaters’ if there are any here.
Harris names two factors that keep him from being vegan:
“(1) the pleasure to which I think I’m marginally attached (…)”
In his book, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”, he actually tries to justify meat eating from the perspective of utilitarianism. If I understand correctly, he argued that the pleasure people get from eating meat is greater than the harm that animals suffer.
“ (2) the feeling that we don’t understand human health and nutrition enough… ”
So if we don’t understand nutrition, what makes him conclude that meat is good for us, or that we even need to eat it?
Harris says, “we obviously can’t keep killing and emiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us.”
I am all for passing a law, but we live in a democracy, and to pass a law, we need the support of the majority. Vegans are something like 1% or 2 % of the population right now, so we are far from majority. Unless the majority is people like Harris, who eat meat, but would be willing to have a legal ban on meat.
Contrary to what Harris thinks, the vegan diet is not complicated. All you have to do is eliminate animal products and keep everything else the same, as this chart from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows:
So basically all the food groups stay as they are except for:
Water: Replace dairy milk with plant milk
Healthy Protein: Beans and nuts are vegan. Add seeds. Eliminate fish and poultry. Possibly supplement DHA from algae DHA (http://www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2012/algae-dha-healthy-as-fish-oil/). It says to limit red meat and cheese, so we can just eliminate them. And it already says to avoid bacon, cold cuts, and other processed meat. Basically the main product in this group should be legumes, and there is so much that can be done with legumes, and there are so many different kinds, that lack of variety is not a problem. Think of tofu, tempeh, seitan (not from legumes, but since this is isolated protein from grains, it goes in this group), bean burgers, hummus, falafel, etc. Possibly mushrooms could go in this group too, as well as kelp, since these foods are high in protein.
As for supplements, of course B12 is necessary. If you avoid exposing your skin to sunshine, then vegan D3 is recommended.
And that’s it. Not complicated at all.
who am i to say if there is anything wrong with your approach barbara. but let me just name some things which i would consider when writing people, andmore particularly in this case:
– i think harris main issue is not the moral or intellectual argument. i think, like is the case for so many people, we have to convince him and then that it is doable, healthy, tasty… Then the moral conviction will come. The moral truths are kind of secondary, wether we like that or not. Like you quote darwin (animals, whom we have made our slaves..): animals, whom we eat, we don’t like to consider morally relevant. if we show people they don’t need to eat them, they will much more easily find them ethically relevant
– i very much like to take basic psychological things into account. for that reasoni would not open by saying his argument is “kind of weak”. that may be true, but a guy like him, like most people, won’t easily warm up to an email from an unknown person that starts that way.
– a scientific basic for deontological ethics? that’s not obvious :
Who are you? A fellow activist.
I do think that Harris needs a moral argument. After all, he wrote the book, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values’, in which he presented a defense of meat eating. So I thought he would be interested in a moral argument based on science.
I also sent him the chart that I posted here and some explanation, so that covers the issue of a vegan diet being doable.
I don’t think moral convictions are secondary. If you have no moral conviction, what will keep you motivated to stick with the vegan diet? And also, you have to have rational arguments when meat eaters attack you, and they will attack you. You have to know how to defend your position.
Showing people that they don’t need to eat animals to be healthy is very easy (if in fact there are still people, who think meat is healthy or necessary). That is not the problem.
I was being honest. His argument is weak. Saying that something is wrong because you would not be able to do it yourself is a very weak argument. For example, I think the U.S. should bomb ISIS, but I would never do it myself (even if I knew how).
I don’t want him to warm up. My goal is not to make him my friend. My goal is to convince him that killing animals for meat and other products is immoral.
Speaking of warming up, I think that is emotional manipulation. I have no emotional connection to Harris, so why would I want to warm up to him? It’s like the Jehovah Witnesses when they knock on your door. They are very sweet, polite and warm, but are they going to convince me? Not likely. They would be better off a little colder but a little more rational.
“a scientific basic for deontological ethics? that’s not obvious”
Science does not tell us what the morally correct thing to do is. Science gives us knowledge so that based on that knowledge we can make an informed decision of what the morally correct thing to do is. Like in this case, science tells us that human animals and non-human animals are not fundamentally different but only different by degrees. So based on this knowledge, we should come to the conclusion that if we grant basic rights to humans, there is no rational or scientific reason to deny basic rights to other animals.
Bomb! Did you see the new podcast “Ask Me Anything #5” with Sam Harris? Amid some fallacies, he said that being a vegetarian has been boring and something like a “religion”. Hear from 1:04
The guy seems like retrograded! What a disappointment…
still need to listen
Thank you for your article. I agree with everything you’ve said except point #4 in your conclusions. I do think it takes dicipline to be a vegan in many social situations (e.g. family gatherings, restaurants, travel where vegan options are limited). I also think it takes a kind of heroism to live in a world where 95-98% of people are “unethical”. At this point in time I think it’s difficult to be a vegan but thankfully it’s getting better every day