Sam Harris on the Ethics of Meat-Eating

Harris shows how far he would have to go to eat tofu (Photo by Distant Cloud Photography)

Most people who know Sam Harris know him for his scathing critique of faith, religion, and all things Islam. See, for instance, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, or his talk from Fora.TV on the fundamentals of Islam.

But what of is other beliefs? Many have asked about his spiritual beliefs, meditation practices, and even drug use policies, but social news site Reddit opened up their forum to questions last week for Harris to answer at his leisure. Two were directly related to the issue of vegetarianism/veganism, and referenced fellow atheist and philosopher Peter Singer’s claims that carnism cannot be defended from a secular, moral basis. In “Ask Sam Harris Anything,” user Xodarap writes:

You may remember that Peter Singer challenged Richard Dawkins at an event as to why Dawkins still ate meat. Dawkins essentially punted, saying that, while eating meat was immoral, he was not strong enough to quit.I would like to put the same question to you: if we can no longer claim divinity as a reason for human superiority, how can we justify our treatment of the other animals? As a neuroscientist, you must be aware of the great similarities between us and the other species; as a philosopher, you must be aware of the argument from marginal cases which makes these similarities so morally relevant.

Harris’ answer is interesting. He admits that he does currently eat meat, but can’t ethically defend it, and while he was vegetarian for many years, stopped due to health concerns that he basically boils down to “not enough protein.” Guess he didn’t hear about tofu or kidney beans? He did make two good points, however:

It’s unethical to delegate something to be done that you wouldn’t do yourself for ethical reasons. If you would be horrified to kill an animal and would just never countenance it to get your next hamburger, well then to have it done out of sight and out of mind is not an ethical solution.

So, yes, Harris is doing what he’s saying is unethical, but I love seeing high-level atheist philosophers take meat-eating to task. When another user posed a similar question, asking if vegan society is the most morally sound, Harris responded:

The basis of morality is, on my view, a concern for the well-being of concious creatures. To the extent that any creature can suffer, or be made happy, or be deprived of happiness…we have an ethical interest, and ethical concerns can come into play.

He goes on to say that because of our intense levels of experiences and feelings that he looks out for humans first, and that this view isn’t speciesism…he would bow down to an alien if they have even richer experiences or mental capacities! But that’s unlikely, and the fact remains that it is unethical to eat meat. I think a rich author from New York could easily afford to do some research on how to eat vegan in a healthy way, but perhaps that will come another time.

Video below of the entire Q&A session:

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  • ReedSilver

    Exactly my thoughts, he could hire a nutritionist and try to educate all of his followers on how to live a more healthy , ethical , and environmental life.

  • Tobias

    happy he admits there’s hardly a defense, but on the whole kinda weak, especially for such a great mind like Sam Harris. Have a moral obligation as soon as there’s good alternatives? First of all they are there; secondly, would we be *only* morally obliged to stop a hideous act like eating meat (let alone factory farmed meat) when the perfect alternative is there?
    Amazing how veg*ism remains a big blind spot among even the smartest people, who can rationally debate anything and often act consistently on their conclusions, except for… in the field of eating meat.

  • Alkan23

    He should go vegan, except eat oysters, since they’re one of the only animals that you can eat that lacks a brain. They’re not mollusks, and likewise, they’re not closely related to octopus, for anyone worried about that. I’m still vegan, but considering oysters since I never minded the taste.

    • Mr Metal

      Oysters are known to have pain receptors so why not give oysters the benefit of the doubt, since evidence suggests that oysters are likely to experience some form of discomfort/pain? This is another reason why Peter Singer is not vegan.

      • Alkan23

        I’m vegan because it makes you look much more consistent than splitting hairs. And, appearance matters in persuasion.

        Honestly, I highly doubt that oysters are conscious – they lack a processing center for those pain receptors.

        But, I still won’t eat them because of that outward persuasive (or at least not anti-persuasive) consistency – and because I too give them the benefit of the doubt. But, I would prefer that someone take up being vegan except for oysters than use animals that are obviously conscious.

        I’m generally most interested in people generally agreeing regardless of action – many choose not to because of social pressure. And, I respect that – it’s not like it’s an easy decision, and it’s not like the cult-like appearance of veganism has really been dealt with in a major way.

        So, yeah, I think we, as vegans, really ought to focus on our attention on what actually persuades people in the long run. So, start reading the 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene, as well as How to Win Friends and Influence people by Dale Carnegie.

        Honestly, we have work to do. Enough putting our emotions in the social conflict of it – we need to take ourselves out of it and observe human nature.

    • Robert C. Mustain

      A compelling argument could be made for consumption of oysters, mussels, eggs (depending on the manner in which they were obtained) and even honey.
      The problem comes in to play is that there is a doubt as to the ability of oysters and mussels to perceive the world around them. Pain is irrelevant. If the animal is aware of itself and of its own life, depriving it of that is not in keeping with veganism even assuming the animal is capable of suffering. I personally think that it is not true, that they cannot perceive the world because they lack a brain with which to perceive it. But to me, there is a room for doubt and I would not possibly enjoy the meal if there was such a doubt.
      A similar doubt exists with eggs. If you are not depriving the hen of its freedom to reproduce and freely interact with other members of her species, then how can you be sure the egg is not fertilized?

  • Guest11

    Yeah, I want to learn the secrets of this great sage…

    • Mr Metal

      – – – out of context – – –

  • Mike Canter

    Generally I agree with many of Harris’s views but on the question of
    meat-eating I agree with Tobias that the argument used by Harris is very weak.
    He uses it to justify his continued practice of eating meat. Obviously he is
    not horrified by the notion of slaughtering animals & so can easily
    delegate this to someone who is willing to do so. p.s. I too eat meat &
    cannot morally justify doing so.

  • Ciaran mchale

    This is particularly problematic since Dawkins, Harris and the like scoff at the argument of christians that ethical conclusions reached through reasoning won’t motivate people towards good in the same way fear or love of god can. Singer certainly provides a living example against this point while these two leaders of “new atheism” disappoint. Really surprising in harris’ case too given his connection with eastern spirituality