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: