by Rhys Southan
21 October 2015
Sam Harris is a scientist and author who is probably best known for preferring rationality and factual knowledge to organized faith in a god. He has opposed religion in books like Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) and The End of Faith (2004), and has also written about philosophy and morality in books such as Free Will (2012) and The Moral Landscape (2010).
Harris is perhaps less well known for being a guilt-plagued meat eater. For many of his vegan fans, this is a glitch that exposes Harris as not quite living up to his pro-rationality credentials: Harris apparently sees the right and logical thing to do, which is to go vegan, and yet he doesn’t do it. In a recent podcast discussion with the Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, Harris admitted to Bloom that he doesn’t see how to justify his own meat eating. Harris announced that he was “signaling his willingness to change,” despite his fear of health problems that might plague him as a vegan or vegetarian, and invited all of his animal-product-shunning listeners to send any advice they had to help Harris make a smooth transition to a meatless life.
Vegan blogger Tobias Leenaert was one of these listeners. “I have written before about Sam Harris’ dietary choices and his at the time not very convincing arguments for not being vegan,” Leenaert wrote after Harris’ plea for help. “I don’t require people to be vegan, but in his case, as [Harris is] someone really adamant about following rational argument to wherever it leads, I couldn’t help pointing out some inconsistencies.” For Leenaert, this latest Harris podcast offered evidence that Harris was becoming more rational and intellectually honest about his ethically questionable diet.
I have listened to the podcast now too, but Leenaert saved me some work by quoting and paraphrasing Harris’ main points. Judging by what he said in his discussion with Bloom, one of Harris’ main issues with eating meat is that it makes him feel hypocritical, since he lacks the callousness he believes is required to kill a cow himself:
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 okay 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 transparently 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?
I had never listened to a Sam Harris podcast before, but I’ve read some of his books and I’m familiar with many of his arguments, and for me it’s this confession (and not so much Harris’ continued meat eating) that seems especially at odds with Harris’ own stated views.
In The Moral Landscape, Harris claims that we can use science—especially neuroscience—to undermine moral relativism and prove the correct form of morality, which for Harris turns out to be something resembling utilitarianism. One thing we can learn from neuroscience, Harris claims, is that morality is all about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. What makes actions right or good is that they increase the neurologically measurable wellbeing of conscious creatures, and what makes actions wrong or bad is that they decrease the neurologically measurable wellbeing of conscious creatures, says Harris. This seems to imply a broad “hedonic account of welfare.” Hedonists generally claim that something can only harm us if it has some negative effect on our lived experience (even if we don’t know the cause), and something can only benefit us if it has some positive effect on our lived experience (again, even if we don’t know the cause). Thus, your spouse cheating on you does not harm you, so long as you never find out about it, and so long as it does not end up impacting your life negatively in any other way, like by giving you an STI. Secret cheating may in some cases be a good way to improve neurological wellbeing, if you accept the hedonic view of harm—the cheaters get a hedonic bonus, and the oblivious cuckolds potentially lose nothing.
Harris might be disturbed to see that secret cheating is potentially allowed by his own views about the overriding importance of neurological wellbeing, since in his book Lying (2011), he claims that we should strive to never lie, and he criticizes as “sickening” a social group’s attempts to keep someone’s infidelity secret. This is an unexpected stance for Harris to take after proselytizing for the neurological model of wellbeing in The Moral Landscape, since the secrecy of this infidelity was the only thing preventing it from causing serious negative neurological sensations in the mind of the cuckold. This clash between the ideas in The Moral Landscape and Lying suggests that Harris may not always grasp the implications of his own beliefs. His agonizing over meat eating may be another instance of this.
If you were constructing a system of ethics, and you wanted to be sure it would allow for humans to kill animals for food, two of your most promising options would be to exclude non-human animals from your system entirely, or to feature the hedonic account of welfare as a key doctrine. Don’t let all the utilitarian vegans fool you. Utilitarianism is one of the most killing-compatible ethical philosophies there is, and that is largely thanks to the hedonic view of welfare—which Harris seemingly accepts if he really believes morality is reducible to neurological wellbeing. Death does not lead to negative neurological states for the deceased. Instead, death removes formerly conscious beings from welfare measurements entirely. The welfare of a slaughtered animal is neither good nor bad; it is simply non-existent—which makes it identical to the welfare of an animal who was never born. If animals are raised in good conditions (which is of course a big if), hedonists can be okay with the actual killing of animals, as long as it is done painlessly, and without a lot of harmful side-effects, such as cows who miss their slaughtered friends, or meat eaters who torture themselves with self-loathing.
A hedonist might still oppose animal farming for various reasons. For instance, they might object that shortening animal lives causes them to miss out on pleasant experiences they otherwise would have had. Or hedonists might want to abolish animal farming to free up land for more humans and wild animals, who maybe tend to have better lives than even well-treated cows tend to do. But these aren’t the sorts of points that Harris was making. Harris seemed to object even to the painless killing of well-treated animals, and his reasoning was not that it would deprive animals of future enjoyment, or that intentional killing is wrong, or anything like that—but rather that it’s hypocritical to pay someone to slaughter animals if you aren’t “callous enough” to do it yourself.
But Harris’ personal aversion to being a kill floor knocker is irrelevant to the sort of utilitarian or quasi-utilitarian viewpoint he tried to propagate through The Moral Landscape. Talking about the importance of avoiding non-virtuous traits such as callousness, and cultivating yourself into the sort of person you can be proud of, makes Harris sound like a virtue ethicist, which is the ethical system that puts its emphasis on an individual’s development of character, and isn’t overly concerned with positive and negative neurological states. Harris is right to avoid slaughtering animals if doing so would send his neurons into a guilty frenzy. But if the only immorality he sees in killing animals is the harm it would do to his own character, the neurological theory of wellbeing cannot object to Harris paying someone to kill animals for him.
Later in the podcast, Harris worries about what future generations will think of him and the rest of us meat eaters for exploiting animals. Leenaert paraphrases, “Harris and Bloom both agree that future generations will see us the way we see slaveholders today and that [future generations] will consider our present treatment of animals as monstrous.” Harris himself says, “We are two people 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 embarrassment to our descendants.”
This preoccupation with what future people will think about the ethics of Harris or the rest of us is also an odd concern for someone who claims to believe that the welfare states of conscious beings are all that matters. When the future comes and our ultra-enlightened descendants criticize Harris (perhaps for his anti-Muslim views more than for his meat eating), this cannot possibly affect Harris’ conscious welfare states, because he will not exist, and so will not have welfare states to affect.
What makes this aversion to future enlightened people judgment even stranger is that in Harris’ Free Will, he argued that blaming others for their harmful actions is irrational, since we are all purely physical beings whose thoughts and actions are casually determined by forces outside anyone’s control. There might be practical reasons to judge or punish others, but no one “deserves” punishment or judgment if the lack of free will absolves us from moral responsibility. In Free Will, Harris writes:
As sickening as I find [the violent behavior of the murderers William Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky], I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky’s shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.
Harris must not expect haughty and superior future generations to read Free Will, because if they did, wouldn’t they have to admit that if they had been in Harris’ place, atom for atom—having all of his genes and environmental influences, and having been born in the time he was—they would have eaten meat and been Islamophobic just like he was?
Still, it might make sense for Harris to go vegan anyway. There is no way his ethics could allow factory farming, since cruel farming practices cause so much suffering. If he has no reliable access to animal products from animals who were raised in good conditions and died painlessly, then yes, he probably would need to give up animal products to eat in a way that is consistent with his own views. But in trying to articulate the reasons that he should be vegan, Harris sounds like someone who hasn’t read his own books. Harris is of course free to patch together whatever bits of various ethical systems he likes. But it’s funny that when his failure to remain consistent with his own past arguments leads him to make statements that vegans like, some vegans see this as Harris belatedly achieving logical coherence.
Rhys Southan is a freelance writer who is particularly interested in philosophy and food ethics. He has written for Aeon Magazine, The New Inquiry, The Millions, and his own blog Let Them Eat Meat, among others, and is working on a book about the ethics of eating meat.