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?

Is there any question you would? Of course you would, because if there are no ethical grounds for killing and eating humans, then it’s missing the point to insist on their kindly treatment before you process them into steaks.

Lest you think I’m invoking cannibalism as a cheap trick, other UBC questioners wanted him to explain why we did not extend the rights we accord to humans. If “we’re all cousins,” then shouldn’t all species be accorded the same rights? Wouldn’t keeping animals in farms, or even relatively pleasant zoos, be simply wrong the way “Planet of the Apes” showed it would be wrong? Dawkins had trouble even getting these questions into focus, it seemed, as well he might. For he was facing the grim logic of his own premises. Once you have assailed that stupid religious privileging of humanity (as he explicitly did, and as did one of his UBC professorial emcees before him), then where does logic take you?

So much, then, for eating meat—and for wearing fur or leather, for that matter. Indeed, so much for the whole animal-rights syllabus of errors. I wonder, indeed, if Professor Dawkins would enjoy trading witticisms with an angry crowd of PETA supporters?

Oh, how easy it is indulge in the sport of finding fault with another point of view! How sobering it is to maintain ethical consistency with one’s own!

Having had at the hapless Professor Dawkins, then, regarding both his rhetoric and ethics, in my third post I’ll let him get in a few rounds on the likes of me. But for now, let’s just think of him blinking back at the vegetarians who are out for—well, surely not blood . . .

0 Responses to “Richard Dawkins at UBC: Part Two, Dawkins as Ethicist”

  1. Bennett

    Very insightful! I had never thought of those ethical issues involving Darwinism. I have read about the difficult relationship between Darwinist philosophy and abortion, eugenics, euthanasia and other human life/death issues. But what is the evolutionists response to the question of morality especially concerning the treatment of animals compared to the way we treat humans? Interesting.

  2. Chris

    Some people here might find the website of the Humanist Vegetarian Group (HVG) of interest

    Anyone, religionist or otherwise, with any sense of honesty and self-understanding should appreciate Richard Dawkins difficulties in living up to his ethical beliefs, regarding vegetarianism or anything else. I do not see this as something to be sneered at. After all Jesus is supposed to have said he came to save sinners, which I suspect means everybody.

    There is no reason why ‘atheists’ any more or less than ‘theists’ should have “qualms about inflicting pain on other beings”. Such concerns derive from moral sentiments and beliefs which in the case of Dawkins (and myself) are Humanist. Theist may believe in a bad god (there have been many of those), a good god (one wishes there had been more of them), or an indifferent god (though we might refer to deists in that context). But their morality / ethics stem from more that just beliefs in god(s) but from their religion and other aspects of their world view. Theism and religion are not the same thing). Likewise an atheist’s (or in my case agnostic’s) morality derives from a world view which is much more than their non-belief in gods(s).


  3. John Stackhouse

    Chris, I’m not the one wrapping himself in the mantle of rigorous reason, pure logic, the scientific method, etc., etc. Dawkins is. And if Dawkins can’t be held accountable for blatant inconsistency of profession and practice, then what’s the point of public conversation?

    I’m glad that secularists have moral sentiments of which I approve also, such as disliking hurting other beings. I’m simply raising the question of the grounds on which secularists hold those sentiments. I don’t see them holding them according to the principles of evolutionary biology–as if holding them somehow confers a selective advantage. Indeed, I am implying that the worldviews you defend in the last sentence are importantly un-grounded.

    So I’m glad you feel the way you do about some things, but I doubt that you can give a cogent argument for why you do and why you also ought to keep feeling that way. I’m pretty sure Dawkins can’t.

  4. Chris

    No one, not I not Dawkins, claims “rigorous reason, pure logic, the scientific method” makes us anywhere near perfect in being able to either ‘think right’ or ‘do right’. Such perfectionism is one of the mistaken roads down which mainly religious folk travel, to find something which only looks like perfection to them
    because it is wrapped up in supernaturalistic (superstitious) fantasy.

    I do think the moral principles based on concern (at best compassion) for others and the humanist code of treating others as we wish to be treated have developed as part of our evolution and do confer survival advantages. This is just an assertion here, I neither have the time nor expertise to develop the point but it is widely understood by many folk, including scientists of which RD is is just one example.


  5. David Dawson

    I have enjoyed this article and thread, because I have been recently thinking that it would be inconsistent to be both a Darwinist and a Vegetarian (on moral grounds).

    If a Darwinist believes that all life is the product of natural forces such as mutation and natural selection and that all living things are “cousins” then should not all species be held to the same standards. Would it not make sense to morally condemn all predators? How could it be immoral for humans to inflict pain on other animals while at the same time condoning lions and sharks? Should we not hold our extended family to higher standards?

    On the other hand, from a Darwinist perspective, on what basis is there for not reducing human behavior to that of our cousins. If it is all about survival then why should we not just follow the examples of our extended family and eat what ever we can to ensure our survival. And if it is okay for other meat eaters to pursue survival, why would it be wrong for humans to do the same?

    It seems to me that moral vegetarianism can only be tenable within a worldview that has a basis for distinguishing between human and animal behavior.

  6. John Stackhouse

    David Dawson makes the appropriate complementary point. Dawkins and Co. like to call us to some sort of higher moral plane, but it’s not obvious on what basis they do so, especially when they are so quick to reduce so many of our higher moral values to the drive to propagate our genes, offspring, etc.

  7. Taylor

    I’m a bit late to this thread. On the matter of evolution and ethics, I strongly recommend James Rachels’ Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.

  8. Ed

    John Stackhouse asks why “Dawkins can’t be held accountable for blatant inconsistency of profession and practice”

    I’d like to remind him of the irrationality of the “ad hominem fallacy”. Dawkin’s eating habits have no bearing whatsoever on whether his arguments are valid. An argument succeeds or falls on its own merits, not on whether its proponent’s lifestyle is perfect.

    Dawkins is accountable for his opinions, not for how he lives his private life, which is entirely his own choice.

  9. Justmesayin

    This article of yours I, unfortunately, stumbled upon, is very poorly thought through, and even more poorly articulated. I looked thoroughly for any semblance of your arguments, but couldn’t find any!

    You say that Richard Dawkins suggests life from zygote to human is a continuum. Then you make some odd leap that this suggests he must be a pro-lifer? Hello in there.

    Then, you say he said that “We’re all cousins,” and suggest this is a “dangerous metaphor”. But are either too tired or intellectually weakened to articulate your reasons why.

    (Both of Richard statements, by the way, to me, are completely rational and hold no inconsistency to his current ethics.)

    I’m still not entirely certain what the thrust of your little blog here was – you never really … get to it. The nearest you come is by hinting at it through derisive jabs and sarcastic quips.

    In any case, for what it’s worth, I’m an Atheist and a Vegetarian. And although I can back both of those positions up with strong, cogent arguments, most people can’t. But then, choosing to be a Vegetarian because you don’t want to unnecessarily destroy animals, seems to me, to not need any further argument.

    Good luck with the blog.

    • John Stackhouse

      Well, let’s see: To date, thousands of people have visited this page, and a few have stopped to comment as above, both positively and negatively. No one but you has suggested I’m not making arguments here, or has suggested they can’t follow the arguments that are there.

      So, not to put too fine a point on the matter, perhaps the problem doesn’t lie with the blog.

  10. Justmesayin

    Well, let’s see… This is your argument: Other people haven’t made the point I made, therefore my point is invalid.

    Did I sum up your rebuttal?

    It seems to me it’s, most obviously, flawed. My original comments stand.

    • John Stackhouse

      No, that’s not quite what I’m arguing. I’m saying that the particular point you’re making is that my argument is unintelligible. Now, of course, that might be true and you alone have spotted that problem. But the burden of proof would lie on the one person out of hundreds of other readers who seem convinced that they do see an argument there, whether they agree with it or not.

      And since you don’t actually show that my arguments don’t work, but rather simply assert that you don’t get them, well, that doesn’t amount to anything other than “I don’t understand what you’re saying, therefore you aren’t making sense.”

      • Justmesayin

        The main thrust of your particular blog entry here, seems to be that because Richard Dawkins believes that eating animals is unethical, and yet he eats animals, his arguments are invalid.

        What you ought to do, John, is determine an arguments validity based on the strength of its premises; not on the ethics, values, character, or otherwise, of the individual who reasoned it.

        You simply circumvent the entire thesis of what Richard was trying to say, by invalidating it all because; (1) he wasn’t as articulate as you wanted him to be; and (2) he doesn’t practice what he preached.

        Strong, principled ethical arguments can come from people who don’t necessarily have the strength to follow them (attested to by, for example, Thomas Jeffersons’ slaves).

        My suggestion is that if you oppose someone’s arguments, then look to undermine his premises rather than his character. Your disdain for Dawkins in this blog entry is both palpable and thinly veiled.

        • John Stackhouse

          Thank-you for making your concern more clear. Let me try to do the same.

          I am not attacking vegetarianism or the more radical doctrine of the Jains. Nor am I attacking Peter Singer’s terrible equation of species.

          I’m attacking Richard Dawkins. This is an ad hominem argument, yes, because it is ad him.

          I am saying, in brief, that someone who spends so much energy assailing other people’s ideas and morals ought to check out his own integrity more carefully. The vegetarians at UBC put their finger on a glaring inconsistency in both his thought and his behaviour: If you believe as Dawkins says he believes, you can’t shrug your shoulders about your weakness for flesh-eating.

          (And I point out along the way what a tissue of incommensurable and poorly-argued ideas his “defense” consisted of.)

          So you’re quite right: My argument entirely fails as an argument against vegetarianism. But it’s not aimed at vegetarianism. I trust, however, it yet has something important to say about its actual target, Richard Dawkins.

  11. Rob

    Prof Stackhouse,
    I’m writing this here because it speaks to creation, and I couldn’t find a place to just send you an email :). I know that you’re an evangelical who espouses a view that evolution and Creation by a loving God are not mutually exclusive. Do you read the above as likely fact, and if so, what are your thoughts on the moral implications. Is monogamy a moral absolute?

    Richest Blessings,

    Rob Lantz

  12. David Z

    I happened upon this while trying to field a student’s inquiries about Dawkins’ ethics, which are apparently rather fuzzy. I do appreciate finally hearing of an effort to hold the Life-Within-the-Limits-of-Evolutionary-Biology-Alone crowd accountable. There’s too often an assumption, which I hear reflected a bit in some of the comments above, that atheism = full mature rationality = biology = justice = human rights = truth = goodness. Rarely in our polarized public discourse is the Dawkins crowd compelled to flesh out all those equals signs. And rarely is the degree of sophistry in that equation exposed.

    I think the contrast between Peter Singer, who rigidly and consistently sticks to his utilitarian principles (however objectionable some find them), and Dawkins, who merely claims a dogmatic mantle of vaguely lefty-scientistic-cosmopolitan rationality (which vague lefty-scientistic cosmopolitans are happy to grant him), is extremely telling. In truth, the side of justice is a much more diverse place than Dawkins and his cohort would have us believe.

    Thank you for the post.

  13. naturalmamanz

    Interesting reading about Dawkins, though I completely disagree with the conclusions, and I think you’ve lost reason in your arguments. Whether someone chooses to eat something (whether it be plants or animals) depends on the amount of empathy a person has for it. You wouldn’t eat your own pet for example. Everybody is different in what they feel empathy for and how much, and consequently what they’re willing to eat. That’s why comparing cannibalism to any other diet is ridiculous. Ofcourse most of us would never think of farming or eating humans because we are emotionally attached and empathetic towards eachother. The same is not true for animals – some humans are empathetic towards animals and won’t eat them, others will. And the level of empathy is also different. Dawkins has some level of empathy towards animals, to the point he doesn’t want to see them mistreated, but still wishes to eat them. That’s pretty normal, a lot of people feel that way. Further he’s not actively out there slaughtering animals by hand, which takes a whole new level insensitivity. If that were necessary I think there would be far fewer meat eaters. It can be easy to disassociate the meat from the animal when it’s presented chopped up, cooked, flavoured with herbs and spices, and mixed with vegetables on the dinner table.

    Also I don’t quite understand what you are wanting of Dawkins or expecting him to be, he’s an evolutionary biologist. How is nit picking at his choice of diet any discredit to his books and speeches on evolution or theism? It’s not.

    • John Stackhouse

      So what I eat or don’t eat is just a matter of what I feel empathy for? No ethical restrictions? If, like cannibalistic tribes throughout the world throughout history, I think eating vanquished enemies is fine–I certainly have no empathy for them–that’s okay with you? What exactly is your point, ethically speaking–which is the thrust of this post? We’re not at a loss for explaining why people like to eat some things and not others, which seems to be your point, I guess. We’re talking about ethics: should and shouldn’t. That’s what Dawkins and his vegetarian interlocutors were discussing, as am I. What are you talking about?

  14. naturalmamanz

    And incase you’re wondering, yes empathy is product of evolution too.


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