Sam Harris is a frustrating figure for vegans. He has publicly recognized the arguments for veganism, yet stopped short of embracing the movement for unsatisfying reasons. Harris’s public engagement with vegetarianism began as he stumbled into the conversation with Paul Bloom on his podcast:
You and I both agree that we are participating in a system that is on some basic level ethically indefensible. Factory farming is just a horror show. We both know that if we had to work in an abattoir, we would never stomach it. We would never do it. I know that I’m not going to go out and kill a cow to get my next hamburger and I certainly wouldn’t immiserate one for every moment of its life on the way to the killing floor to get my next hamburger. And yet the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly more or less condemns me as a total hypocrite. That’s kinda the basic situation. (starts at 1:15:41)
Bloom agrees, condemning meat consumption in the harshest possible terms: “I think future generations will view us as analogous to slave owners”—a dramatic analogy not unlike one we’ve written about. Harris ends that podcast by calling for the advice of vegans and vegetarians. He expressed concern about his health and seemed sincere about making a dietary change.
I was hopeful that Harris would become a powerful advocate for veganism. However, his relationship to vegetarianism has been a transparent struggle. Harris says that he had already tried vegetarianism for about 6 years and became very sick—anemic, he says at one point, and “due to a lack of protein” he says elsewhere.
Following the podcast with Bloom, many listeners asked him about his journey toward vegetarianism and, perhaps, veganism, but every time the topic came up from this point forward he seemed defeated:
I’ve been trying to be a vegetarian for, now coming up on two years, and eating what I consider medicinal fish from time to time. Because after my first 12 months as a vegetarian I was feeling like I was missing something and I don’t actually like fish all that much. What I actually would want to eat is a steak or a hamburger, but I stopped all that for ethical reasons. (starts at 1:33:33)
By his Russell Brand podcast in February of 2018, Sam says that he has “recanted” on vegetarianism altogether, comparing his dietary change to a heresy.
I’m willing to take on board that vegans are quite capable of giving themselves a bad name. No doubt that when Sam calls us the “vegan mafia,” or compares leaving vegetarianism to a heresy, he is responding to the vitriol he’s received on social media. Those people exist in higher proportion than I would like in the vegan movement. They are also the loudest voices and therefore most recognizable.
However, surely Harris understands that there are people within every movement that are radical and irrational. He has taken his own audience to task for sending hate mail to some of his guests. Harris knows full well the value of steel-manning, a neologism meant to be the reciprocal of straw-manning. We should argue against the strongest and best-worded version of our opponent’s argument.
I’m appreciative that Sam has made his struggles as public as he has, but I’m dismayed by the short shrift he has given veganism. At bottom, vegans want to at least be given credit and visibility as part of a multi-pronged solution to solve the problem of factory farming. Instead of acknowledging this, Sam wants to emphasize how some (probably quite small) contingent of the vegan movement stands against cultured meat. He imagines his own approach to the problem factory farming, cultured meat, as in zero-sum contest with veganism.
It’s not that Harris’s thoughts are wholly without merit. For instance, it’s true that it shouldn’t take heroic effort to be a good person. The goal is to engineer a world where people are effortlessly good. We need to pull levers that make it easy to have an ethical diet. We all want this. Harris seems to view lab-grown meat as the primary way forward in this respect. Indeed, Harris apparently thinks that introducing lab grown meat to grocery store shelves will be such a game-changer that no one will even try to justify consuming the old product over the cruelty-free one. I am skeptical that it will be that easy (just look at the resistance against GMOs), but I too am optimistic about lab grown meat, particularly if it can be produced devoid of animal suffering.
What Harris seems to ignore is that vegans are pulling levers to make a more ethical diet available to the masses. Enormous strides have been made in bringing vegan foods, vegan cookbooks and vegan restaurants to the masses. Consider how mainstream hummus and kale are today. Or how many restaurants have at least one vegan option.
Additionally, his claims about the danger of veganism are unfounded. The American Dietetic Association has declared a well-planned vegan diet safe for people of all ages. Nutritionists like Ginny Messina and Jack Norris have made healthful veganism remarkably accessible. YouTuber Unnatural Vegan has offered helpful, level-headed advice directly to Harris.
The facts on the ground are that cultured meat has not gone to market and will not be competitive with traditional meat for years. In the meantime, you can either hitch your wagon to lowering/eliminating your meat consumption or “ethical” meat. Unfortunately, neither side presents a solution that will be widely implemented immediately and both sides find the other one unrealistic. Harris makes it clear where his sympathies ultimately lie in the original podcast with Bloom:
I am someone who’s supportive of natural, grass-fed, more ethically sustainable ways of raising animals insofar as it’s easy to do that. I don’t make crazy sacrifices so as to only get meat or chicken or eggs or milk that has come by the most ethical sources, but which is to say, I’ll go to a restaurant and I’ll eat like a non-vegetarian and not interrogate them about where they get their meat, but it seems pretty clear that the system could be improved significantly and make it far less horrible. It could be – these animals could have much better lives than they do and that would be a good thing. And that demand for that kind of meat would probably be more effective than some percentage of people defecting as vegans or vegetarians. Obviously this is a totally tendentious and self-serving meat-eater sort of argument, except it might also have the virtue of being true. (starts at 1:17:38)
Even if the bolded portion were true, this still doesn’t overturn the ethical arguments in favor of veganism. It wouldn’t be contradictory to be a vegan who promotes “ethical meat” and believes that the utilitarian calculus favors welfarist, rather than abolitionist aims. Which approach has a better chance from a PR standpoint to move the needle on animal suffering is actually a different question from the most ethical diet for an individual to adopt.
Furthermore, Harris is overly optimistic about these supposedly “ethical sources” of animal products: 1) their product is not as ethical as they would leave you to believe, and 2) they produce a product that does not scale.
On the first point, Harris is eager to discuss happy cows. Those creatures whose lives are a net positive and ultimately benefit from coming into existence rather than not. This is a fine point theoretically, but Harris makes no effort to look into whether or not this is actually possible. It is quite simply wishful thinking to imagine that our relationship with livestock can be symbiotic. For one thing, even the happiest cow still lives a dramatically shortened life.
Furthermore, there are so many variables that go into the well-being of cows that are not easily labeled. Was there adequate drainage on the feedlot? What temperatures and weather conditions were they exposed to? What was the ratio of grass to grains in the feed? What were the conditions of the slaughterhouse where the animal met its end? This information is not apparent when picking meat out from the supermarket and it’s hard to believe that we’d like all the answers to these questions.
If we did like the answer to those questions, we surely wouldn’t be able to afford it. Ethical meat does not scale. The land use requirements alone would be staggering.
It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). (McWilliams)
We cannot feed a meat-hungry American population on free-range or grass-fed cattle. There is not enough room in the country and not enough disposable income in our wallets.
Vegans at least demand the respect of being included as part of the solution to the problems of factory farming. Veganism is a solution that works to solve the problem of factory farming, but has massive PR problems. “Ethical meat,” while eagerly embraced by many omnivores, is actually grossly impractical. It may lead to improvements in the welfare of animals, but this is often exaggerated and usually comes at an environmental cost.
The PR hurdle that veganism faces is an understandable stumbling block. However, it is frustrating to see Harris add to it by referring to the “vegan mafia” and comparing veganism to a cult. Harris seems to have talked himself out of the ethical imperative of changing his diet. One audience member in the Q&A portion of his book event with Steven Pinker framed this issue as a matter of “akrasia,” a situation in which you know the moral path, but lack the will to follow it. Harris bristles at this characterization, offering up happy cows that may never get to be as a problem with veganism. It requires mental gymnastics to show concern for theoretical cows, while offering such scant concern for the suffering of presently living cows. These obvious cognitive biases are all the more galling given that Harris is so often held up as a model for perfect rationality. Robert Wright has written that Harris has a tendency of failing to take his own biases seriously. In researching his thoughts on veganism, I cannot help but agree.