Richard Dawkins at UBC: Part Two, Dawkins as Ethicist

Richard Dawkins has traveled the world, sowing his particular gospel of atheism, science, rational argument, and the courage to live in the light of The Facts.

He has appeared before countless audiences, participated in dozens of debates, and handled hundreds of questioners. But he seemed surprised, even nonplussed, by the line of questioning he received from several members of the UBC audience who patiently lined up to press him on . . . vegetarianism.

By the time Dawkins encountered the third such questioner, he was moved to wonder aloud whether he was encountering some sort of “lobby.” No, just the West Coast.

Yet this particular issue presented an intriguing window into Dawkins that had not been provided in his presentation. For his presentation was mostly offensive, in the sense of attacking positions he disliked, rather than defensive, in the sense of offering cogent reasons for adopting his own life philosophy. (His presentation was also at times astonishingly offensive in the other sense, but more about that in my third post.)

Being pressed about vegetarianism, then, we got to see Richard Dawkins construct and defend some ethics. And what a ramshackle thing he produced!

Dawkins tried to combine several incommensurate ideas and the result wasn’t pretty. He first espoused a Peter Singer-ish resistance to “speciesism” on the grounds that evolutionary biology draws no clear lines between, say, chimpanzees and humans, or cows and humans, or any other living thing and humans. “We’re all cousins,” he said, in a dangerous metaphor indeed.

(Fascinatingly, he actually used as one of his examples of nature not providing a clear line the lack of a clear distinction between a human zygote and an adult human being. “It’s a continuum,” he claimed, as I think he should, given his premises. But Dawkins as radical pro-lifer? The mind reels. Perhaps he should be nicer to those folk on the Religious Right with whom he apparently shares an important basic conviction.)

One might have thought he would go on to affirm his conversion to a secular form of ahimsa, the Jain doctrine of “doing no harm” that results, in the most extreme form of piety in that religion, in devotees starving themselves to death so as not to deprive even rice plants of life.

Instead, Dawkins also affirmed his dislike for inflicting pain on other beings, including the suffering of fear of pain to come as well as pain experienced now. (It’s not clear from evolutionary biology or from atheism just why anyone should have qualms about inflicting pain on other beings, especially if it is in one’s interest to do so. But let’s move on.) He concluded from this conviction that we should not inflict suffering and should eat accordingly. We have no reason to think that carrots suffer, so they’re fair game (so to speak), while animals are not.

Okay, then, the questioners wanted to know, why aren’t you using your global reputation (they all seemed to be fans of his) to commend vegetarianism?

To his credit, Dawkins had the honesty to confess that he had tried to be a vegetarian, but kept “relapsing.” This brought some sympathetic chuckles from the audience. At least, he said, we should be against all those factory farms and other places that mistreat animals.

The vegetarians, however, would not be put off. Logic is logic, facts are facts, and Professor Dawkins seemed to be flinching in the face of them.

I’m not a vegetarian. But I think the vegetarians were completely right to press him on this matter. Let me illustrate.

I’m a cannibal. I know not everyone approves of cannibalism, and I’m not proud of it myself, but I just love the taste of human flesh. I’ve tried substitutes, experimented with various recipes for animal meat, and I’ve stayed on the wagon for months. But someone puts a nice bit of roast human in front of me and I just have to give in.

Now, to be sure, I’m strictly against bad treatment of the humans in those factory farms. I think they should be given lots of fresh air, proper food, exercise, and the happiest life possible. And I think we should spare them any idea of their impending doom. Just sneak in at night, tranquilize them into a stupor, and then ship them off to the abattoir.

See how humane I am? Surely with all of my concern for the proper treatment of these tasty humans you’re not going to press me to actually stop killing and eating them, are you?