Would we eat E.T.?

Imagine that one of these years, we run into life on another planet. Not bacteria or some other tiny life-form, but say a kind of medium-sized mammal. Would we eat these creatures?

I’m not talking about you or me as individuals, or Elon Musk when he first sets foot on the planet in question, but about society in general. Would the cultural consensus be that these are creatures that we’re allowed to hunt or raise for food?

Much will depend on their exact nature and their qualitiesHow intelligent are they? To what extent are they similar to ourselves and to the animals we’re already eating? Let’s assume that in terms of intelligence, these extra-terrestrials are somewhat similar to pigs. In terms of physical aspects, they look completely alien (they may not have a head, or may have a weird number of limbs, a strange color and skin, or whatever), but they definitely look edible (meaty, let’s say). We’re also assuming we can’t communicate with them any more than we can with animals on this planet.

E.T. on the grill (www.alienbbq.org)
E.T. on the grill (www.alienbbq.org)

You may think that humankind is just about depraved enough to start factory farming these creatures. My guess, however, is that when we find this sort of life form on another planet, it would be much easier to grant these creatures the right not to be eaten than to grant it to pigs (or cows or chickens). Part of the reason could lie in some kind of curiosity and respect we’d have for them for being from another planet. But the more important reason is that we are not using these beings yet. Prohibiting ourselves from eating them wouldn’t really affect many people. Compare that to the attempt to give rights to farmed animals, of which we are eating over sixty billion specimens a year (not counting sea creatures). Both economically and individually, we are incredibly dependent on using animals right now.

One way to put this situation is: where we stand depends on where we sit. If we have a stake in killing and eating animals, changing our mind about them will be so much more difficult (we’re steakholders), than in the case of a newly discovered alien life form that is in many respects pretty similar to the animals we’re already eating.

This dependency on using animals needs to be tackled if we want to make any progress with changing people’s minds. That’s why developing alternatives, including clean meat, is so enormously important. When we will have decreased our use of animals, hearts and minds will be a lot more open to change. This applies to both the individual level and the societal level.

E.T., I think, is relatively safe. Now, let’s get back to Earth and take all the other animals out of the food chain.

PS Check out www.alienbbq.org, or read this interview with Dr Jared Piazza, in which he talks about a research study involving a thought experiment with an imaginary creature.


How to veganize Sam Harris

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?

sam harris

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:

  1. People who are committed to rational thinking can come to the conclusion that eating animals (at the very least factory farmed animals) is wrong.
  2. They won’t necessarily put that belief into practice.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

When people say: “I just can’t give up meatballs”

Imagine. A person says to you:

– “I respect what you do, and I can almost see myself being a vegan, but I just can’t give up meatballs [or fill in animal based dish or product]”.

What’s your answer?

My answer previously would have been a combination of the following arguments:

– “Do you know how these meatballs [or x] are produced? Do you understand the suffering involved?”
– “If you would stop eating this and that and that, why wouldn’t you also stop eating meatballs?”
– “Is the pleasure you get from eating meatballs really more important than the animal suffering?”
– “It’s easy. If I did it, so can you.”

Etcetera. You get the idea.

My reaction today would be different. First I would tell them about vegan meatballs. But that’s not the point I want to make. I want you to imagine there isn’t a decent plant based alternative for whatever it is the person wants to keep eating. They won’t be fooled or forced into eating an alternative for their favorite dish. Let’s just assume that. So in that case, my answer would be:

Then just eat your meatballs and avoid all other animal products. That would be so awesome!

I think my opinion here boils down to this: if you ask for all or nothing, you usually and up with nothing. Especially, when in this case, the person already stated he doesn’t want or can’t do everything. We can deplore that fact and think or tell them they are selfish, but what is that going to help?

If that person becomes a “meatball-vegan”, that would reduce (assuming that they eat meatballs like once a month) 99% of their “animal suffering footprint”. That is brilliant. Besides, there’s a good chance that if they do this, they will at some point conclude they don’t need those meatballs anyway and that eating them doesn’t feel right anymore. Or maybe they’ll stop when the ideal “fake” meatballs (cheapier, healthier, even tastier) are available on the market.

A variation could be that the person says: “I can go vegan but I can’t stop eating the signature dish my grandmother prepares for me twice a year. She’s ninety and she won’t live much longer.” We could call out bullshit, we can say there’s got to be a way to explain one’s views to the grandmother in a way she gets it, etc. But it might be just better to “give permission” to this person to do what they think best, for now.


I know all this goes against “vegan orthodoxy”. Some people will say that this would be speciesist/condoning animal suffering/inconsistent/”un-vegan”… and that we can’t behave like that.

Am I being an apologist here? Am I going for something less than a vegan world? Am I saying the animals that were killed for those meatballs are less important than the other animals that person will avoid? Of course not. I’m just trying to adopt an approach I think will have real results, and for an attitude and a style of communication that will, in my opinion, get us to our vegan world the fastest way possible. It’s easy to make an elegant theory or a waterproof philosophy. But that doesn’t always help the animals. 

The animals don’t care about our orthodoxy, our sticking to the rules of our little philosophical systems. They need us to go for what helps them. 

Ricky Gervais is a hypocrite. So what?

The term hypocrisy is a moodkiller, yet we love to use it and accuse people of being hypocrites. The question is what that brings us. When we say someone is a hypocrite, we mean that they are not consistent in their behaviour, or that there is no consistency between their actions and their thoughts.

We consider people who recycle, but use the car, as hypocrites. People who never drive a car but fly to a faraway holiday destination are hypocrites. People who avoid flying airplanes for ecological reasons but who eat meat, are hypocrites. People who don’t eat meat but who wear leather shoes, are hypocrites. Etcetera. Hypocrites everywhere

The point I’m trying to make is that no one is consistent all across the board, and that everyone is at times (or often) a hypocrite in this sense of the word. Hypocrisy is not just a pretty meaningless term. It is also a damaging one.

The words hypocrite or hypocrisy are extremely charged and imply a strong value judgment. There are probably only few people who will start reflecting deeply when they’re being accused of hypocrisy. Most will feel attacked.

I know: at some or other intellectual-philosophical level, consistency sounds desirable and our demand for it sounds logical. But this very demand for consistency often gives people an excuse to do nothing. “The perfect is the enemy of good” wrote the French philosopher Voltaire. Personally, I chose people who act inconsistently good rather than consistently bad. I applaud people who are trying, who take little steps, and who, with an open mind and being honest towards themselves, look at what they can and cannot yet do.

A case in point is the British actor Ricky Gervais, who is often giving hunters and other animal abusers flack, and is asking us not to hurt animals. Now, vegans could (and often will) accuse him of being a hypocrite, and maybe one would be right. There’s definitely a lack of consistency there. But looking at Gervais’ thoughts and behaviour on Facebook, I can see that Gervais genuinely cares about animals. This caring can grow and grow when it is encouraged. When, on the other hand, we call out his beliefs and behavior as hypocritical, I think such progress would be far less likely.*


The main consequence of calling people hypocrites might be that people do nothing because they don’t want to be called that. What if Ricky stopped biting hunters asses because he would get tired of being called a hypocrite? The ever eloquent Jonathan Safran Foer puts it this way:

“We have to get away from the expectation of perfection because it really intimidates people who would otherwise make an effort. People use the fear of hypocrisy to justify total inaction. I wish I weren’t as hypocritical as I am but I think that’s just part of what it means to be a person.”

Let’s not give people an excuse to do nothing by calling them hypocrites. And let’s have a little more faith in humans. Because when positive evolution happens in the world, it starts with small steps taken by all those inconsistent but well-intentioned people.

Want to read more about the psychology of communication? Check out my new book, How to Create a Vegan World


On effectiveness vs. emotion

I think the effective altruism movement provides us with useful and much needed tools to asses the value of actions, strategies and organisations in the animal rights or any other movement. I like the idea of estimating what the impact of a certain organisation or campaign is. I like the focus on measurable goals, and of comparing input (time, money and other resources) with output (impact) in order to get an idea of the ROI (return on investment). In a way, we owe it to the beings we want to help to look for the best ways to spend our resources.

Today I visited a sanctuary for wolves, somewhere in New Mexico. While there, I suddenly felt sad, somehow, and I didn’t really understand why until the next morning (we camped at the sanctuary), when it hit me: considerations of effectiveness forbade me to give a donation to this sanctuary. It’s not that it looked inefficiently run or that the people working and volunteering there didn’t seem motivated – on the contrary. But it was the idea that supporting an operation that tried to give a new life to a couple of   dozen abused or abandonned wolves was just not the best use of the limited money I have to donate. Moreover, the wolves are predators, living on many pounds of fresh meat every day.

That’s what I had been thinking in the back of my head, and that’s what had made me sad. Because while I realized all of this was rationally true for me, it also felt like some kind of betrayal to these animals, who were so real, lying before me and having kept me up during the night with their awe-inspiring howling. I felt my rational reasoning was somehow callous, and I found the thought that i would somehow ignore these wolves unbearably sad.

In the end, we left a donation – on top of the money we paid for meeting a wolf face to face. I am still convinced it wasn’t the most effective use of our money, that it wasn’t the most rational thing to do. We may have done it to make ourselves feel better. But then again, we were there. The sanctuary was on our path. The wolves were looking at us. And the wonderful people working there looked like they could use anything they could get. And also, in spite of the lack of rationality, I think it is a strength and a good thing that one can be touched by the eyes of the beings you’re looking into. Part of me thinks the world would be a more dangerous and less caring place without that. Maybe without this direct empathy, there would be nothing in us that would want to measure anything at all.

I used to be a Francione fan (on Gary Francione and “abolitionists”, part 2)

(note: you may want to read Why I’m openly criticizing Francione first) 

Though Gary Francione has written a few books – which have their merits – he has mainly made a name for himself by criticizing animal rights organisations. Virtually no organisation, in his eyes, seems to deliver a net benefit for the animals. One could wonder: where is the appeal in this kind of message?

GLF list

Actually, I do understand the appeal of Francione’s message. More than that: I used to be a fan, back in 1997, when I first started with animal rights activism. I was writing my thesis about the human-animal relationship and got really enthusiastic about Francione’s book Rain without Thunder. And I was shocked: wow, this guy was the real deal, and lots of other public animal rights activists and organisations were actually betraying the cause of abolitionism, right? Now here was a man whose message was pure; here was somebody with a clear aim, who wouldn’t take anything less than total animal liberation for an answer. Yes, this was going to be a message that a lot of people wouldn’t want to hear, but… you can’t have rain without thunder, right?

I remember bringing this book up, very enthusiasticallly, to a leader of the animal rights movement in my country, Belgium. He didn’t react very positively to my enthusiasm. At that moment I wondered why, but I forgot about it. For some time, I remained under the illusion that Francione was right, and that all the others were selling out, leading us astray from our true cause.

It seems to be how today’s Francione fans think and act. They are raging against all kinds of groups, uncritically taking Francione’s words for true, believing that PETA, FARM, Mercy For Animals, the Vegan Society in the UK… have all sold out.

To those who believe that, I would say: talk to the really dedicated people in these organisations. Is it credible that those who put their lives in the service of the animals, some of whom started decades ago, and who have not eaten animal products for ages, and who have had a huge impact in creating awareness about veganism and animal rights… is it credible that those people have actually sold out? Is it credible that all of a sudden they have all become reformists or welfarists? Is it credible that they’re actually not thinking about strategy? Is it credible that they’re all less intelligent than you and Gary Francione?

So that’s the conclusion I reached myself, after a while. I talked to people in the movement. I started to see things from the perspective of the people we want to reach, instead of just adhering to dogma I heard again and again. So I no longer went along with Francione. I try not to doubt people’s good intentions, so although it requires quite a stretch for me, I try to still assume Francione is doing what he’s doing with the best intentions, out of compassion for animals, and that he actually believes what he says and preaches. And I want to believe the same about the people who follow him.

But I have moved on, and I hope my posts on this topic can help some followers of Francione to start thinking critically about his approach. 

Basically, if you’re an animal rights activist, this is a trajectory you might go through:

Phase 1: you discover animal rights, maybe through one of the organisations. You get into it deeper.
Phase 2: you discover Francione or the abolitionist approach. You think you’d do better to be very critical of the organisations you thought were good and interesting and effective.
Phase 3: you get over Francione and the abolitionist approach, see it for what it is, and you know that by supporting the work of most animal rights organisations, you are indeed contributing to abolitionism, only in a much more pragmatic and effective way than by adhering to Francionite dogma.

Back to Rain without thunder
Think about that title for a minute, and think of how often you see rain without thunder…?

Right: all the time.

Thinking is vegan. It’s allowed, you know.

Would you eat meat for a lot of money?

The other day I asked strict vegetarians/vegans the following question on my Facebook wall: if you would receive 10.000 €, would you eat a steak? With almost 200 replies, it was one of the most liveliest discussions on my otherwise pretty lively wall.

As could be expected, a lot of replies were along the lines of “never! for no money in the world!” I could feel the pride and the confidence in those answers. No, of course they would not sell out! Of course these people wouldn’t betray their principles for money! Fortunately, pretty early in the discussion was an in my view more thoughtful reply: someone found it worth considering, since she could use the money to save animals.

That was also my view, and honestly, I wouldn’t hesitate. I’m not vegan for the sake of being vegan. My main reason to be vegan is to help animals and do my thing to make the world a better place in general, for all beings. If someone offers me a good amount of money to eat a steak (which is not the same as offering me money to kill an animal, which I wouldn’t do), I would take it. More than that: I would feel guilty if I didn’t. I would not want to put my own ideological or physical purity above the practical implications of accepting that sum.

I kept the amount offered purposely low, because I thought that for say one million euros the question would definitely be a no-brainer. But even then, apparently, many people wouldn’t have a bite. To be honest, I have difficulty understanding this attitude. I value pragmatism and actual change above anything else, and certainly above dogmatic principles. If this means that, as someone put it “there is something wrong with my veganism”, then so be it. I believe the vegan movement, like many other ideological movements, suffers from too much ideology and is in more need of pragmatism.

Does it make a difference whether people, or maybe a mass audience, would know about my “betrayal”? I think it does. If I would need to do this on TV, I would think harder, but I’d probably do it. I think that giving the message in itself that not all veg*ns are dogmatic and impractical ideologists is valuable in itself. Many veg*ns and animal rights activists would of course say that the audience would value consistency more. Maybe that is so, but I worry that the concern for coherence and consistency lives much more in their minds than in the omnivore’s, and that the premium we put on our exceptionless consistency turns more people off than it turns on.

It’s not that I can’t understand any counterarguments at all, but I haven’t come across one that I personally find valid. Feel free to try to change my mind with your comment… And please vote 🙂

Also read the follow up: Eating meat for money, the sequel.

[polldaddy poll=8664395]

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.