Sam Harris’s Curious Dodge of Veganism

Let me start by saying that Sam Harris is one of the intellectuals that I strongly admire. His honesty is quite refreshing. He typically approaches an issue by starting with a basic claim that we can all agree with, such as “it’s preferable to have the best possible world for everyone than the worst possible misery for everyone.” He usually then narrows his focus from there, undoubtedly losing some along the way, but remaining coherent and lucid in his reasoning. Many point out what they perceive as oversights in his logical deductions, but few legitimate critics argue that he’s operating in bad faith.

But sometimes he doesn’t get down to brass tacks. On occasion, he will broach a topic on an abstract level and never quite get down to the details, particularly the ones that may cause him to reconsider his overall view.

One of those topics is veganism. While Harris is not at all an enemy of veganism — he has on many occasions painted it as the only defensible diet — he is not exactly friendly to it either. Part of this is a result of his struggle to adopt the lifestyle himself.

As has been written about elsewhere, Harris was previously a vegetarian until he became sick. Since then, he’s recognized that vegetarianism — and especially veganism — has the moral high ground, but has had a rather transparent struggle with adopting either lifestyle himself.

His podcast with Paul Bloom included a discussion of animal agriculture that featured explicit recognition of the fact that consuming meat and animal products is unnecessary, that both of them would like to not participate, and yet both continue to participate in it.

Harris has since brought up the topic with others on his podcast. More recently, his guest Bret Weinstein answer a question from an audience member about animal agriculture. Weinstein’s answer did not preclude the observation that factory farming is horrific, but it focused on the possibility that we could give cows and other livestock a pleasant life that would outweigh the harm of killing them. It’s a utilitarian argument: a life that is worth it despite some misery would be a net positive, and we should want as much of that as possible.

It’s actually not a bad argument, and I find myself agreeing with it in large part. The only problem is that such a world is impossible, unless we are to reserve meat and animal agriculture for the extraordinarily rich and privileged, and make everyone else go vegan. To give animals enough space to live comfortable lives would significantly increase the cost of operations, expenses that will no doubt be passed on to the consumer. As a result, many people who now consume meat and animal products will no longer be able to afford it.

Transforming animal agriculture as a whole into a more friendly industry is enormously impractical. Farmers would have to take initiative to improve conditions on the farm, losing a significant swathe of their consumers (who are now priced out) to competitors who kept conditions the same. Some regulatory authority would have to impose these requirements from the top down, and farmers are not going to roll over easily. Meat and animal products may then be cheaper to import from other countries. Not only will the people priced out of domestic products opt for the foreign ones, but other people who simply don’t care about the ethics of eating animals will, too. To improve conditions for farm animals would be a significant risk, and a necessarily costly one, for farmers. They won’t roll over easily, and neither will consumers.

Harris does not consider these consequences. Frequently, this line of thought is brought up whenever an audience member inevitably asks him why he isn’t vegan — seemingly unaware of his journey. But it’s really not at all an answer to the question; instead, Harris is substituting one question for another: “Why aren’t you vegan?” is replaced with “Is there a world in which eating animals is more ethical than not?”

Harris agrees that veganism, today, has the ethical upper hand. But it seems as of late that he’s satisfied fantasizing about a better world instead of continuing to recognize the mismatch between his values and his behavior in the present reality.

Again, he’s one of my favorite thinkers around today, and he’s no enemy to vegans. He wants a better world, as do we all, but he sometimes dodges tricky questions about putting his money where his mouth is. One thing we definitely agree on: clean meat will change animal agriculture for good.



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