Shermer Sticks to Bloodying the Moral Landscape

“I went Vegan once,” mocks Michael Shermer, “it started just after breakfast one day and ended at dinner that night.”[1]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.

That overt humanist-centered vision Harris presented is mirrored in Shermer’s new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Notice that the title emphasizes “Humanity” and mentions nothing of most other sentient beings. How telling, right off the bat.

At least you couldn’t accuse Shermer of being a bandwagon jumper, of suddenly voicing concern for nonhuman animals, when in the past he was found to be dismissive and disinterested. But there’s a disjunction felt when he continually refers to sentience in his recent email interview with Harris concerning his new book.

The criterion I use—inspired by your starting point in The Moral Landscape of “the well-being of conscious creatures”—is “the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.” By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. I am trying to make an evolutionary/biological case for starting here by arguing that any organism subject to natural selection—which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well—will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish. If it didn’t, it would not live long enough to reproduce and would therefore not be subject to natural selection.

By sentient I mean emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and therefore able to feel and to suffer. Here I’m following the argument made by Jeremy Bentham with regard to animals: It isn’t their intelligence, language, tool use, or reasoning power that should elicit our moral concerns, but their capacity to feel and suffer. To this I add the recent Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness—issued by an international group of prominent cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists—that there is continuity between humans and non-human animals, and that sentience is the common characteristic across species.

When I talk about a moral arc of progress, I mean an improvement in the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings.[2]Sam Harris & Michael Shermer, “On Being Right about Right and Wrong: An Interview with Michael Shermer,” Sam Harris, January 26, 2015, http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/on-being-right-about-right-and-wrong.

The second paragraph is a brief summary on some background to why modern animal advocates feel that animal issues should be of greater moral concern in law and society. Shermer seems to get it on some level, but he’s a confirmed speciesist, as he admits in “Where Do Nonhuman Mammals Fit in Our Moral Hierarchy?” an article he wrote for Scientific American.[3]Michael Shermer, “Where Do Nonhuman Mammals Fit in Our Moral Hierarchy?” Scientific American, Dec 17, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/where-do-nonhuman-mammals-fit-in-our-moral-hierarchy/ ; the article also appears on his website at http://www.michaelshermer.com/2014/01/confessions-of-a-speciesist/. The article appears on his website with the heading “Confessions of a Speciesist.” That’s plain but what isn’t plain is why his title “Where Do Nonhuman Mammals Fit in” does not include other classes of species.

Nonetheless, at the end of the piece, he posits this:

Our genealogical connectedness, demonstrated through evolutionary biology, provides a scientific foundation from which to expand the moral sphere to include not just all humans—as rights revolutions of the past two centuries have done—but all nonhuman sentient beings as well.

That’s an assertion animal advocates have made for hundreds of years, and, after Darwin, it was made with a stress on scientific backing that has became increasingly sophisticated.

All understanding is there, and yet Shermer, like Sam Harris, confines himself to the scholarly work of preacher while not practicing what he preaches.

I guess I am a speciesist. I find few foods more pleasurable than a lean cut of meat. I relish the feel of leather.[4]Michael Shermer, “Confessions of a Speciesist,” http://www.michaelshermer.com/2014/01/confessions-of-a-speciesist/.

With that statement, Shermer is saying little more than what most skeptics would say, since most would agree with his flexitarian diet and practice it themselves.

The problem with Shermer’s vociferating on the “flourishing of sentient beings” is that if he eats meat he is not contributing at all to the flourishing of “sentient beings.” When he speaks of flourishing with “adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health,” he must surely mean, for example, not anything like the hellish life of a factory farmed animal. However, that is exactly what he condemns animals to with his support of speciesism and a diet of animal products.

Wouldn’t it be normal to expect someone who writes a book on flourishing and a moral arc, including with respect to sentient animals, be obliged to lead by example? People like Peter Singer do, and in so doing you cannot question Singer’s commitment to the ideas he explores and conclusions he makes. You can’t say that of Shermer to the same extent. To the contrary, he chooses to condemn sentient animals to the depths of depravity and deprivation—to maintain the troughs and blights of a bloody moral landscape.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Michael Shermer, “Leaving Las Vegas… Rich,” Skepticblog, July 17, 2012, http://www.skepticblog.org/2012/07/17/leaving-las-vegas-rich/.
2. Sam Harris & Michael Shermer, “On Being Right about Right and Wrong: An Interview with Michael Shermer,” Sam Harris, January 26, 2015, http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/on-being-right-about-right-and-wrong.
3. Michael Shermer, “Where Do Nonhuman Mammals Fit in Our Moral Hierarchy?” Scientific American, Dec 17, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/where-do-nonhuman-mammals-fit-in-our-moral-hierarchy/ ; the article also appears on his website at http://www.michaelshermer.com/2014/01/confessions-of-a-speciesist/.
4. Michael Shermer, “Confessions of a Speciesist,” http://www.michaelshermer.com/2014/01/confessions-of-a-speciesist/.

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