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.