Harris: Well, all of this segues rather nicely into our own moral horror of continuing to eat meat despite the fact that we are convinced ethically by the arguments against it. I mean, we have failures of impulse control, we have a long-running commitment to dietary practices that we find indefensible. In fact, we may be indistinguishable from this doctor in terms of the clarity with which we have ambled into evil.
Bloom: I think future generations will view us as analogous to slave owners.
I think future generations will view us as analogous to slave owners.
Harris: Well, that’s — you sounded like you said that somewhat tongue-in-cheek–
Harris: …but I think I know you might actually fear that prospect. Were you joking or you were…?
Bloom: No, no. It’s an easy exercise to imagine what a hundred years from now, what we do now will be seen as monstrous. The treatment of non-human animals is obvious. I think our indifference to the suffering of the very poor is another example. I could think of some other more controversial cases.
[I]f you look at the numbers, we may be causing more suffering to nonhumans than ever before because we’re breeding for their meat.
Bloom: And, I do think, you know, it’s such — so many people eat meat everyone, just about everybody I know that it’s easy to make light of. But we’re complicit in the horrific suffering of many, many creatures. This may be — you know, our mutual friend Steve Pinker wrote a book on human moral progress and I think 99% of the book is correct, but I think that, if you look at the numbers, we may be causing more suffering to nonhumans than ever before because we’re breeding for their meat.
Harris: Yeah, let’s take the ethics of meat-eating more or less from the top. So 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 kind of the basic situation. Are there any other moving parts there you want to add?
Factory farming is just a horror show. And yet the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly more or less condemns me as a total hypocrite.
Bloom: I think ethically this isn’t a very hard case I’ve heard defenses of meat-eating, and they’re some of the worst arguments I’ve ever heard in my life: “Animals don’t feel pain.” “Humans have a right to do whatever they want.” “It’s natural.” You know, the arguments which wouldn’t be taken seriously in any other domain, arguments that are just born out of guilt and bad faith. So I think it’s clear enough that what we do to animals is wrong. You know, to some extent, we could ask ourselves, talking about the doctor and other cases, “What’s it like to knowingly do evil?” And I think this is what it feels like. We know what it’s like to knowingly do evil. All I’ll sort of nibble at around the edges is it’s not really hypocrisy. I think a nicer term for it is this word “akrasia” — it’s weakness of will. We know the right thing to do. We’re not shy about saying what the right thing to do is. We just can’t do it.
We know what it’s like to knowingly do evil.
Harris: Well, the question is — so let’s just expand the picture a little bit. One question is what would be the best way to change this. You know I’m 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. Which is to say, I’ll go to a restaurant and I will eat like a non-vegetarian and not interrogate them about where they get all their meat.
But it seems pretty clear that the system could be improved significantly and make it far less horrible. 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. Well, before we totally close the door to it, just take a peek across that threshold: Is there any merit in saying that one could more effectively help farm animals by being a conscientious consumer of meat?
I guess this is almost like the trophy hunters saying that they are in fact conservationists by going to Africa and killing some number of lions and paying for the privilege, they are in fact the best conservationists. There may be some merit to that argument too. Kindly either support or disabuse me of all that.
Bloom: I’m actually on the same page on this. Peter Singer, who’s of course very powerfully supported vegetarian movements, very much protested against the suffering of animals, has at different times has been sort of thoughtful on the issue of humanely-raised animals. His point, and my point, is that the badness of the act isn’t necessarily killing animals to eat them. It’s not clear whether that’s a bad thing, particularly if the animals didn’t exist prior to your intervention.
Harris: The thing is that, before we blow past that: I agree, though, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it. In fact, I know I wouldn’t like myself if I became so callous as to be happy to do it. You know, if I just got into the hang of it. You know, “Killing cows horrified me initially, but once I killed a hundred of them, you know, I just didn’t really care because damn I love a good hamburger.” I don’t want to be that person.
“Killing cows horrified me initially, but once I killed a hundred of them, you know, I just didn’t really care because damn I love a good hamburger.” I don’t want to be that person.
Bloom: That’s interesting. That’s sort of a Kantian view. So Kant, at one point — this is probably a misinterpretation — but said, “Look — you know, animals don’t matter in their own right, but you don’t want to make them suffer because it will corrode your feelings towards humans. It’ll make you into a worse person.” And it’s interesting — I also would find it hard to kill animals just because I would have a natural repugnance towards doing it.
Harris: But I certainly don’t take the Kantian view that they don’t matter in their own right; I think they they certainly matter in their own right to the degree that they can suffer or be deprived of happiness or due to the degree that their conscious. So, for instance if we could raise anencephalic animals, so brainless cows who have by definition no experience but they’re just basically — synthetic biology is the ultimate case of this, or synthetic meat is the ultimate case of this —
Bloom: Growing meat in a test tube.
Harris Yeah growing meat in a test tube. There’s obviously no ethical problem with that.
[G]rowing meat in a test tube. There’s obviously no ethical problem with that.
Bloom: So I’ll plant my flag in a couple of things. First thing, you know there may be problems with killing humanely-raised animals, but that’s a hard case, and I think it would be such a step up to move up to humanely-raised animals from what we have now. It would cost more and there’s issues — there’s sort of a classist issue about encouraging people to do this. But I think that’d be such a moral step because I think what goes wrong in what we’re doing now isn’t killing the animals, it’s causing the suffering, causing the pain.
Harris: But don’t you think — so I don’t want to let us off the hook too quickly there because each one of these stations you blow past makes it that much more likely that you’re going to get your Thanksgiving dinner with a full spread and a turkey harvested one way or the other. My first ethical concern is, I mean, forget about the details of how horrible it is for the animals and what changes we might make there. If you know that you would find it ethically repugnant to kill an animal and to kill animals day after day so as to secure your protein, you wouldn’t want to live this way. You’d much rather pet a cow than kill it with a stun gun or by any other method. If you know you’re that kind of person and you wouldn’t want to be any other kind of person, doesn’t it seem just transparently unethical to be willing to delegate that process to others and just keep it you know out of sight out of mind and go on eating meat however raised?
You’d much rather pet a cow than kill it with a stun gun or by any other method.
Bloom: If you find it morally repellent to kill animals, yes. If you find it morally repellent to kill animals if you were the killer, then you shouldn’t be demanding other people do it for your sake. On the other hand if you just find it repellent or unpleasant, that’s kind of different. I might be pro-choice but not have the stomach to do abortions. I may not have the temperament to be a prison guard, but that doesn’t mean that to be consistent I have to be against prisons.
Bloom: On the other hand, if I said to be a prison guard would be morally repellent, then I should be against prisons. If it’s morally repellent that implies there’s a better alternative and I should be…. So, it depends. If you believe that killing the cows — those humane cows — is wrong for you to do it yourself, then that really does raise an issue with your belief about eating meat in general. On the other hand, if you just didn’t have the stomach for it, that’s kind of a different case. I don’t think that should stop you from eating meat.
If you find it morally repellent to kill animals if you were the killer, then you shouldn’t be demanding other people do it for your sake.
Harris. Right. Well, I think I come down on the side of it being wrong — what complicates it for me is there’s the pleasure to which I’m marginally attached. Yeah, I like eating meat certainly some of the time. I’m a little squeamish about it at other times. But I also just have this feeling that we don’t understand human health and nutrition enough. The fact that there’s any controversy at all about what human beings should eat so as to be healthy, I find to be an incredible scientific embarrassment, the fact that you can have debates about carbs and protein and fat consummated in good faith by experts and there’s still some uncertainty here is an amazing state of our current situation in science.
The fact that there’s any controversy at all about what human beings should eat so as to be healthy, I find to be an incredible scientific embarrassment.
But my concern is that there is enough uncertainty and my brief experience of 6 years as a vegetarian convinced me that it’s hard enough to be sure you’re getting everything you need — or at least it was then — that I’m leery of doing it for health reasons and, when I think about raising kids as vegetarians, and especially as vegans, then it begins to look like a poorly-controlled science experiment. I see people who are raising vegan kids and now I’m going to hear from them. You know, they’re going to be outraged that I have any doubt whatsoever that you could raise healthy vegan kids but–
Bloom: You’re going to get an email from my sister.
Harris: But I have significant doubts on that score, and there’s certainly no biological or evolutionary guarantee that this is an easy or straightforward thing to do. And when you know you have to supplement B12 and who knows what else, you really should be supplementing so as to get things right. And so part of this is just laziness, not wanting to have what I eat and what I feed my kids become such a life-consuming project as a vegetarian or vegan where I have to be absolutely sure that I have all the dials tweaked appropriately. It’s just easier to eat meat sometimes and fish sometimes and be reasonably sure that I’m getting everything that a human needs to get.
[T]hat laziness, given the magnitude of the suffering we’re imposing on non-human animals, that laziness is a horrible thing about me.
But that laziness given the magnitude of the suffering we’re imposing on non-human animals, that laziness is a horrible thing about me. That laziness is not justifiable if you actually look closely at the details.
Bloom: There’s also a middle ground. I mean we don’t want to be in a position of saying, “Well, I couldn’t live if I gave 80% of my money to charity; therefore, I’ll give nothing.”* And to some extent — I share your concerns about living a vegan or even a vegetarian lifestyle, but I think then plainly if you restrict yourself to ethically-raised animals, plainly that’s much, much better and there there’s no health concerns. People could live just fine off of chickens who didn’t suffer as opposed to those who did. The question then is to how to sort of mandate such shifts, either a radical shift to making everybody vegetarian or vegan or a more moderate shift of you know making people eat animals that didn’t suffer as much. And I think there is an interesting difference between first-order and second-order prohibitions. And there’s actually speaks to some broader political issues.
So it occurs to me talking about this with you that I would be very reluctant to try to commit to only eating ethically-raised animals. It would be very hard and inconvenient. I’d have to embarrass myself at restaurants — I’d have to be that guy, and I don’t want to be that guy questioning the waiter and having other people roll their eyes. And you know I accept that that’s an awful excuse for participating in the suffering of animals, but there it is.
I’d have to be that guy, and I don’t want to be that guy questioning the waiter and having other people roll their eyes. And you know I accept that that’s an awful excuse for participating in the suffering of animals, but there it is.
However, I would be in favor of legislation….
Bloom: …that restricted — said you have to have all your animals ethically raised.
Harris: Absolutely. Yeah.
Bloom: By analogy, I don’t think I have it in me to donate a huge amount of my money to help the suffering poor, but I’d be in favor of taxes that took my money and redistributed in such a way. And so the first order versus the second order contrast is very different. I think we’re in favor of policies because it takes it out of our hands because we know we’re not unique, we know we’re not the one sort of sucker opting out while everyone else gets to eat the meat or keep the money. And some of this speaks to the limit of individual free choice and why sometimes we’d want to choose to be constrained in certain ways.
Harris: Yeah, I think that’s a great point it’s a point that has arisen on other topics for me just the utility and just the fundamental difference of a systemic change as opposed to having to wake up every morning and rely on your own heroism and commitment to some sort of internal discipline. I think the biggest changes for us morally just across the board as a species and as a civilization will come at the second-order level. It can’t be that we just get every person to fully optimize his or her ethical code so as to be impeccable. We need legal and institutional changes which enshrine our better judgment there. So I think that’s true but we can obviously we can’t keep killing and immiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us. We can’t abdicate personal responsibility here.
[W]e can’t keep killing and immiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us.
Bloom: No, we can’t. I think every person — this isn’t what I want to say it’s not meant as an excuse — but every person living, every person listening to this now probably from the affluent West has to live a significant burden of guilt for all the things that they’re doing and all the things they’re not doing and all the things — and if you don’t live with that burden of guilt, you’re either a saint or you’re a moral ignoramus. You’re either a saint because you’re doing all the right things or you’re somebody who is morally blind to the harms you’re causing and the good things that you should be doing and you’re not.
Harris: This is a dangerous conversation to have had because we’re going to hear from some deeply unsatisfied people, unsatisfied about our ignorance of just how easy it is to live a happy healthy life as a parent feeding nothing but vegetables and a few well targeted pharmaceuticals to your kids and just the flabbiness of our commitment to our own ethical insights.
[I]f you don’t live with that burden of guilt, you’re either a saint or you’re a moral ignoramus.
Bloom: Then again, maybe people didn’t start off thinking we’re really good people anyway.
Harris: Maybe I’m burdening us with too much self-flattery here. So just to make something truly constructive of this, I want to keep the conversation open, I’m inviting the vegetarians and vegans among our listeners to send me the best resources they have. So understand that I am convinced of the moral case. And the question is how to idiot-proof vegetarianism and/or veganism. This is another wrinkle we’re walking into here because vegans I think will say some vegans will say that merely being a vegetarian, which is to say being willing to eat eggs and dairy products, that is not an ethical place to stop on this slippery slope, that, in fact, hen-laying chickens and milk producing cows suffer as much as any animal. Is that something that you understand to be true or do you think that vegetarianism is a fully defensible ethical position?
Bloom: It’s a case-by-case thing. I think that the vegans are right about eggs and milk and all the problems revolving around that. I think some forms some certain types of shellfish, there isn’t a moral issue because they don’t have — they’re probably not sentient. All I would say is that right now we’ve confessed to living terrible lives. If people could persuade us with somewhat less terrible lives that would be a sensible progress.
I think that the vegans are right about eggs and milk and all the problems revolving around that.
Harris: I’m not satisfied with the mirror confession because I think it’s — just step back from being ourselves for a moment and just look over our shoulders at what we’ve just confessed: We are two people who have admitted to participating in a system that is not only — and sometimes objectively — bad but perhaps so bad as to be the kind of thing that will be on the short list of embarrassments to our descendants, so that you look back at the excesses of the Middle Ages and you think how on earth could those people have behaved that way — they’re burning witches alive — witches didn’t even exist — but you know they’re burning their neighbors alive for imaginary crimes. What the hell was going on? And we’re both conceding that the way we raise and treat and consume animals year after year is probably that order or analogous to slavery. And yet we’re to some degree blithely participating in it and not really signaling much of a willingness to change.
So, let me perhaps throw you to the wolves here. I’m going to signal my own willingness to change and so get ready, you know, now your reputation is destroyed. (laughing) You know, “I don’t know why I had this guy one my podcast.” Moral monsters like you just don’t belong on my podcast, Paul. But I’m appealing to my listeners vegan / vegetarian to send me some streamlined information on how to idiot-proof this process and the clearest argument that you can do this without obvious deficits in your health, and I’m signaling my willingness to explore this, whether this is going to be my posting my pre- and post-blood work to my blog, I don’t know, but I’m going to investigate further.
But, the parenting responsibility does change it for me a little. Experimenting on myself on the order of a decade seems different than you know having a 19-month old who I have to figure out whether or not she should eat chicken. In any case, to make something constructive out of this rather than just reap the whirlwind, I want the conversation to continue. Send me good information and I will post it to my blog.
Bloom: Well fine, Sam. You seem to be out-moral-signaling me here. I’d also like to add that I would be highly receptive to any instructions that people have about living a more moral life with regard to eating of animals. Please send them to Sam. And Sam will keep me appraised on what he hears. And I will tell you for total certainty I am not going to post my fucking blood work on any blog.
Harris: Why not? What? You’re sheepish about your cholesterol?
Bloom: My blood work is my blood work. In the age of social media and Internet, some things are sacred.
Harris: Right. No, I think it would be an interesting experiment to run. I’m sure you know many people have done this but to see just how things change over the course of, I don’t know, three months or so. I’m just, you know — I certainly did become anemic last time around and no doubt 20 people tell me how I was an idiot and how I could have easily supplemented my way out of that problem. In any case, I’m willing to experiment with this and — do you know if Singer or anyone has spent time on how to engineer the second-order changes that would really be helpful if not creating a vegan earth, creating one that won’t be an embarrassment to our descendants?
Bloom: It’s not a literature I’ve studied. I know singers weighed in on the benefits of a laboratory-raised meat and other alternatives like that. You know he’s — there are some vegans — I think there’s an irrational school of vegans — who would object even to laboratory-raised meat. But I can’t capture that the moral arguments for that and I won’t try.
Bloom: Tofurkey. I think that the best progress will be made by using the tools we’ve had with some success for other cultural and social changes, like you know people quitting smoking are putting their money into retirement savings and so on. I think some of the techniques that the Nudge people are on about Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler and others might have some success in this domain. And I think in the end, legislation would do a world of good. Sometimes we need a Leviathan to help us be better people. But having said that — I know it’s a cop-out for me to say, you know, “Stop me before I kill again.”
I think in the end, legislation would do a world of good. Sometimes we need a Leviathan to help us be better people.
Bloom: So, you know, I won’t necessarily wait myself for legislation before becoming a morally better person.
Harris: “Pass a law before I kill again.” That’s even worse.
Bloom: That’s right.