“I went Vegan once,” mocks Michael Shermer, “it started just after breakfast one day and ended at dinner that night.”Michael Shermer, “Leaving Las Vegas… Rich,” Skepticblog, July 17, 2012, http://www.skepticblog.org/2012/07/17/leaving-las-vegas-rich/. Oh, what a card.
Shermer’s dismissal of veganism is a direct reflection of his ethics and flexitarianism as a skeptic. And yet years later, his take on morality is in keeping with the paradigm set out by Sam Harris in his The Moral Landscape, where the ideal is the maximum “flourishing of sentient beings.” One flaw in Harris’s book noted elsewhere was the glaring omission of the vast majority of most sentient beings on the planet from it, other than some minor asides. • • •
Imagine the puzzlement when this Tweet popped up from Pinker. Was he serious? What is he on about? Judging by the response by others, they weren’t too sure either. Some were certain it was criticism of vegetarianism, so they sprouted typical defensive omnivore fallacies that don’t bear repeating. But most found it hard to interpret. • • •
We now turn to one of those rationalists in the secular community who, far from ponder the ethical treatment of nonhuman animals, seems bent on publicly demonstrate his ignorance on both animal rights and skeptical inquiry. There’s a failure of consistency because he allows emotion to get in the way. That’s because Brian Dunning has no interest in examining animal issues and has a distinct grudge against animal activists. He likes to simply label them as extremists that allegedly “don’t really give a flying [censored] about animals, they really just hate people.”Brian Dunning, “Domestic Terrorists Strike Again,” Skepticblog, July 23, 2009, http://www.skepticblog.org/2009/07/23/domestic-terrorists-strike-again. • • •
When visiting the non-vegan home of a self-proclaimed feminist, she offered me cow’s milk with my tea. That’s when I made the profound connection that it’s impossible to truly be a feminist while consuming dairy (or any animal products), as the entire animal industry is built on the exploitation of the female reproductive system. This must be recognized as a feminist issue because it is analogous to the feminist movement’s struggle for women to have control of their own bodies. — Angel Flinn
Among feminists there are those who have aligned their ethics with their actions after recognizing the deep connections between male patriarchy, religion, the control of animals, and the control of women throughout history. • • •
it was my 40th birthday dinner, which I cooked myself with the help of a Ph.D student at the U of C, John Willis (he’s now a fancy professor of biology at Duke, and has always been a superb cook). I don’t have the menu at hand, but there were about a dozen courses, each accompanied by a different fine wine from my collection. It began with a fino sherry, olives, and almonds, an entire side of smoked Scottish salmon, then foie gras (brought from France) with a fine Sauternes (Chateau Climens), and progressed through fish courses, meat courses (chicken with 40 cloves of garlic and then a tenderloin of beef with Roquefort sauce, the former served with a 1982 Bordeaux, the latter with a 1982 Hermitage), to cheese and then homemade desserts.
One theme throughout Richard Dawkins’ career has been the criticism of apportioning moral concern and worth according to species boundaries. Like writers and philosophers before him, especially after Darwin, he consistently stresses the idea of a biological continuum that implies a moral continuum.
The idea is right there in his first book, The Selfish Gene, when he is deriding the exceptional status some give a foetus over an adult chimpanzee. In that passage he also notes the speciesist bigotries inherent in the ill-treatment of animals:
The only thing more strongly forbidden by our culture is eating people (even if they are already dead).
Among a number of secularists that deny animal interests based on attributions of consciousness, there is history and science writer Stephen Budiansky, who insists that animals lack anything like human rationality and consciousness such that in their case “sentience is not sentience, and pain isn’t even pain”;Quoted in Matthew Scully, Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002), 6; also see Scully, “Pet Project,” First Things, February, 1999, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/12/005-pet-project-7. philosopher Peter Carruthers, who sees animals as having no moral standing because they are not rational agents, and therefore conferring protective rights upon them is the height of moral decadence;Peter Carruthers, The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), xi. • • •
To borrow from Brad Pitt’s line in Moneyball, you get skeptics with a clue, then you get skeptics exhibiting logical inconsistencies and denial, and then there’s the rock bottom of totally clueless skeptics, and then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s Penn and Teller.
Before looking at their skeptical inquiries into the ethical treatment of nonhuman animals, some background on their reputation will give a clue of what to expect. In his blog Rationally Speaking, author Massimo Pigliucci discusses Penn and Teller’s television series Bullshit! and its flaws. He criticizes the show for having “presented caricatures of complex issues such as recycling, animal rights, the relationship between health and exercise, and global warming.”Massimo Pigliucci, “Bullshit! • • •
The following video has what is probably the most disappointing thing I’ve ever heard Sam Harris say. He admits to being unable to defend the eating of nonhuman animals, yet nonetheless continues to eat them. What is it with these rationalists—even the most publicly prominent—giving themselves free passes?
Here is the relevant section around 25:30 minutes in:
I actually can’t ethically defend eating meat. I do eat meat. I was a vegetarian for six years and began to feel that I wasn’t getting enough protein and started eating meat again and found that I actually felt a lot better. So, I think it’s hard to be an intelligent and active and fit vegetarian.
While many high profile rationalists disappoint us with their free-pass skepticism, we should not forget the few that have been persuaded to choose a diet that reflects their ethical principles and become vegan or vegetarian. A.C. Grayling is an example, something of a rarity among atheists.Hemant Mehta the Friendly Atheist (http://www.friendlyatheist.com) is vegetarian but has not given its ethical dimensions much thought, or simply does not care about them, which, for a proclaimed skeptic, is remiss and makes him look like a doofus. See “Atheism And Vegetarianism. Is There A Connection?” Youtube, Nov. 25, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPzL3whpbk0. Then there are those who are at least waiving. • • •
Hostility toward animal advocacy is fairly typical among skeptics who know little about the subject or who think their ability to rationalize guarantees a righteousness on everything—you get this smug righteousness a lot in skeptical circles. The Non-Prophets, for example, an Austin based internet radio show, once addressed ethical veganism with a range of cliché fallacies and hypotheticals that would take pages to explain, but ultimately might-is-right trumped as their guide to moral authority.The Non-Prophets, Episode 8.8, April 25, 2009, http://www.nonprophetsradio.com/audio/The Non-Prophets 8.8.mp3.
When it comes to ethics, many secularists talk the talk but stumble when it comes to walking the walk. Peter Boghossian is one of them. He’s a philosopher who likes to talk about “walking the talk,” or behaving in a way that is consistent with one’s moral reasoning and critical thinking. In other words, practicing what you preach. Boghossian devoted an entire speech to “walking the talk” at the 2012 Freedom from Religion Foundation national convention in Portland.“Peter Boghossian – FFRF Convention 2012,” YouTube, 17:34, January 17, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ARwO9jNyjA.