Thursday, May 15, 2014

Calling Out Sam Harris


Sam Harris is beyond doubt one of the people who have inspired my thinking, and even changed my life, the most. I have found his writings to be enlightening and mind-changing, and I have a great deal of admiration and affection for him.
What characterizes Sam Harris, in my view, is his fearless and uncompromising adherence to reason wherever it takes him, be it on the subject of drugs, spirituality, faith or morality.
However, there is one issue, I'm sorry to say, on which Harris' thinking betrays his otherwise uncompromising reason, and where he is in fact profoundly confused. It is the issue of veganism, or exploitation of non-human animals. In this post, I would like to point out this confusion.

Harris has written precious little on the subject of non-human animals, which already is quite a betrayal of the moral framework he argues for: that we should maximize the well-being of conscious beings. This framework should surely make him pay a considerable amount of attention to the subject of non-human animals, as they after all do constitute the vast majority of conscious beings on earth. But very little related to the subject can be found in his books.
To my knowledge, the most of what Harris has expressed on the subject is instead found in two short videos in which Harris conveys his ideas, or lack thereof, about the subject, so it is worth focusing on them. Here is the first one:

It is worth noting that the question Harris is asked here is related to vegetarianism and veganism, yet Harris completely evades this issue, and instead talks about weighing the importance of different kinds of conscious beings. This is not the issue when it comes to veganism, however. The issue is: Are we justified in raising, killing and eating non-human animals? Harris' claim that "we show every sign of having a broader and deeper and richer experience than any other conscious creature we know about"  a claim that of course can be contested  has little relevance here. After all, Harris also considers some humans to be more important than others ethically – some humans may have a "deeper and richer" experience than others – but the central question, and the question that Harris comfortably sidesteps completely, is whether these beings with a deeper and richer experience  art collectors, say – are justified in eating other beings with a "less rich experience", for the sake of their mere pleasure or convenience. It should be obvious that they are not, yet pleasure and convenience are the only reasons we who live in a modern society have for eating non-human beings ultimately (see the first chapter of 'Why We Should Go Vegan'). So Harris simply sidesteps the core issue.
Here is the second video from Harris:

This video, if anything, shows how inconsistent Harris is on this subject, and how little he has thought about it. He admits that he "actually can't defend eating meat", yet he gives it half a try anyway, saying that he felt he lacked protein after being a vegetarian for six years, and this was his reason for taking up eating non-human beings. First of all, the fact that Harris was a vegetarian is clear evidence of the little thought that he has given this subject, as there is no ethically relevant distinction between eating flesh and then eating eggs and dairy (see the fourth chapter of 'Why We Should Go Vegan'; arguably, from the perspective of reducing suffering, eggs and dairy are far worse). Secondly, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time thinking about what we can say about third-person facts based on our direct first-person experience, Harris should know a lot better than claiming that he felt protein deficient. After all, how does protein deficiency feel compared to, say, vitamin B12 deficiency? Paying close attention to one's direct experience simply does not reveal our fundamental needs at the level of molecular biology; the only way to find out whether one is deficient, and what one is deficient in in that case, is via a blood test. In short, Harris should and could easily have taken a blood test that would reveal any deficiencies, and the fact that he instead chose to surrender to eating non-human beings just reveals his lack of moral seriousness with regard to this subject.

Harris then goes on to say that the day we have synthetic meat, we will have a real ethical obligation to stop eating actual flesh from non-human beings, a sentiment he has since repeated in a tweet. This is as wrong as can be, however, since the ethical status of eating flesh is the same today as it will be the day synthetic meat is available: we do not need it.

It is also confusing that Harris in the video points toward delegating something that one would not do oneself as the unethical aspect of the killing of non-human animals, as if the killing itself was not the problem. The wrongness of hiring somebody else to kill a person does not lie in the hiring of somebody else rather than doing it oneself, but obviously in the resulting death itself. Irrespective of who does it, killing is wrong. The same is true when it comes to non-human beings, and this is a point where Harris again demonstrates his confusion: when he says that he would support any effort to make this whole practice of raising and killing non-human animals more compassionate. This in fact both reveals a lack of compassion and a lack of serious thinking about the subject, since compassion first of all excludes finding it justifiable to unnecessarily kill those we feel it for, and since a closer ethical examination reveals that raising non-human animals for the purpose of killing and eating them cannot be justified in the first place (see 'Why "Happy Meat" Is Always Wrong' for such an examination).

In sum, Harris is, like most people, profoundly confused on this subject. Like many people, he seems to express concern about the well-being of non-human beings, yet at the same time he continues a practice that is unnecessary for his health  unnecessary, because anything we can get from non-human animals that we need for our health, we can get from vegan sources too, and not choosing the vegan option is simply immoral laziness  and he supports a system that exploits and kills non-human beings in unimaginably horrible ways. And his confusion has consequences. People take Harris' position on this subject to be reasonable, as I myself inexcusably did too for a period, and as a result, many people are confused and seem to believe they are justified in doing the wholly unjustifiable. For example, on the second video above – the one where Harris says he can't defend eating meat, but gives it a shot anyway – one finds comments like this one:

No surprise here, I agree with Sam on this completely.  I actually have thought this way a long while, we do need a substitute; but I have no problem killing other animals for food.  I do sleep soundly being a meat eater, I don't like how the current practices are though but I'm a, "People Eating Tasty Animals" advocate.
That a joke like this can even be made by someone who probably considers himself both rational and compassionate just reveals how pervasive speciesism is in our society, and Harris has done little to go against this most unfortunate state of things.

But why am I picking on Sam Harris when there are so many professed reasonable people who should also know better, for instance Richard Dawkins and Kenan Malik. First of all, the reason I call out Harris here is because I know that he has an open mind, and there is hope that he will change his mind and behavior. Secondly, veganism simply follows from a simple analysis based on the very moral framework he has put forth himself (such an analysis is what I aimed to make in my book 'Why We Should Go Vegan', a book that I think does make a clear case that we should go vegan). Thirdly, I reach out to Harris because he already holds views of non-human consciousness that should make him a lot more enlightened and a lot less lazy than he has been on this subject so far. Harris is a neuroscientist, and he recognizes the "fatal resemblance of the human brain to the brains of other animals." (The Moral Landscape, p. 159). Presumably for the same reason, Harris also recognizes that it is highly unreasonable to dispute animal consciousness: "[...] is there really a question about whether any nonhuman animals have conscious experience? I would like to suggest that there is not." (The End of Faith, p. 266).

With his background in neuroscience, Harris should know that while non-human animals do not share many of our intellectual faculties, they do share many of our emotional ones, and this should give anybody who eats them and senselessly makes jokes about how they love frying them some pause. It it rarely does, though.

Lastly, I reach out to Harris here because it is an opportunity for him to take his own moral framework seriously, and to prove wrong those who claim that reason cannot help guide our moral actions. Because if Harris really is concerned about the well-being of all conscious beings, he should not only be a vegan, but a strong advocate for veganism. I am sure he can, and eventually will, become that.

He seems to be a far way off presently, however, which he shows clearly with statements like the following one from his otherwise great book, 'The Moral Landscape': "We seem to have decided, all things considered, that it is proper that the well-being of certain species be entirely sacrificed to our own. We might be right about this." Harris goes on to write that we might be wrong too, but the fact that he frames the issue in this way in the first place demonstrates his profound misunderstanding of the realities of the subject in the first place. As I argue in my book, 'Why We Should Go Vegan', the truth is that we are not merely sacrificing the well-being of certain other species for our own, but both the well-being of other species and of humanity by not being vegan. And that is one of the reasons it is such an easy moral question to answer, and one of the reasons all reasonable people should come strongly out against it. The only thing that is hard here, if anything, is to quit an old habit.

When it comes to non-human beings and our obligations toward them, Sam Harris is unfortunately as much an enemy of reason as anybody he attacks in his own work. On one hand he admits that he cannot defend eating them, yet he keeps on doing it on an ill-informed basis  that is, without making the slightest effort to study vegan nutrition, which would surely make him realize that eating flesh or anything else that comes from non-human animals is not necessary in order to be healthy. How is this in any way in line with the reason Harris is advocating for? How can supporting an industry that needlessly makes non-human beings suffer be in line with the compassion he argues for? It can't. On this subject, intellectual laziness unfortunately seems to have beaten Harris' commitment to reason. This will hopefully change.

We live in a society that is horribly confused and that has a consensus on many subjects that is not close to be worthy of even being called confused. Harris knows this is true with regard to many subjects, but he does not seem to have fully realized it when it comes to our treatment and view of non-human beings. It is time he does, and I therefore give him, along with everyone else, the following invitation: Change your mind and behavior, become a vegan and become a force of reason and well-being in full and argue for veganism. If not, at least try to come up with an argument against it. It is simply nothing less than hypocritical to argue that we must let our actions be guided by reason, and then at the same time knowingly not act according to reason oneself. That cannot be considered anything but a prime example of unreason.