Sam Harris is a human I have unbridled admiration for. I love the way he thinks. When he talks I feel my anxiety washing away, seeping out of my pores. His podcast interviews have altered my perceptions and changed my thinking of many aspects of my life.

I certainly don’t agree with everything he says, however. Some of his views on immigration are too strong for me. That’s for another blog post though.

There is one point in particular on which our thoughts differ and that is the ‘net positive life‘ argument as a justification for eating meat.

The ‘net-positive life’ argument goes like this…

Imagine you are a cow. You are born on a free range farm, you grow up eating grass. You are happy, you frolick, you live your life doing cow things: Enjoying sunshine, grass and the occasional tryst with your fellow bovine.

Then one day, you are put on a truck, taken to a slaughterhouse, walked down a weird metal walkway you have never seen before, overtaken by a stench you have never smelt…

The smell of death.

Suddenly the door closes and the last thing you feel is a prod on the head before the lights go out. If you are lucky, you die instantly. If you are unlucky, you stay alive through the harrowing ordeal of being ‘slaughtered’.

Now, just because you had one bad day, does that make all the other living pointless? Are you better off having lived? Or would you rather have not been born at all?

Would that cow have chosen to live if given the choice? Even if it somehow knew it would be slaughtered one day?

If vegetarians and vegans had their way, this cow would probably never have existed. It would never have been given the chance to experience ‘life’.

This is the ‘net positive life’ argument presented by Sam Harris and used by many as a justification for eating meat.

It used to be my justification for eating meat.

“I only buy free range.” I would say to myself. Justifying my position.

3 counter-arguments to ‘net positive life‘ reasoning…

1. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot.

Let’s imagine that one day, an advanced alien race discovers our little planet. They graciously decide to let us keep living here on earth (free range, of course), even though they could destroy us anytime they like.

But the price we pay is thus: It turns out these aliens quite like the taste of human flesh. Every now and then they pluck a few of us out of our daily lives to become their dinner. You might be walking in the park with your Wife one day and then, suddenly, she unexpectedly gets snatched out of the air, never to be seen or heard from again.

You see where I’m going with this obviously. If your loved one was one day snatched away with no warning, you could still argue they lived a ‘net positive life’ up until that point and I’m sure they would rather have lived than not. But that doesn’t make it ok.

We would lose our minds if this was a reality. We would fight with every single ounce of our souls to stop this from happening. This is the stuff movies are made of.

2. The ‘net positive life’ argument is predicated on every animal living ‘free range’.

The sad truth is that the vast majority of animals raised for food don’t live a free-range life like the one described above. They are lucky if they ever even see real grass. There is Zero frolicking.

The world being what it is, as long as it’s considered normal to eat meat, there will always be industrial abuse of animals. You can’t have one end of the spectrum without the other. As long as there is a market for high end, free-range meat (fulfilling the net positive life argument), there will also be a market for cheap protein and cheap protein means mass factory farming, which means unhappy animals. ‘Unhappy’ being a vast understatement in most cases.

As long as there is money to be made in the agriculture industry, there will be those trying to extract as much profit as possible by presenting a ‘green fields’ image to cover up what is really a money-making agenda. I don’t see how you can have one end of the spectrum without the other.

No one using the net positive life argument is trying to say that factory farming is ok. This is an argument used by affluent people with the money to buy grass fed free range beef. That is to say, it’s an argument of the privileged.

3. The net positive life argument is a slippery slope.

The same argument could have been used to justify any subjugation of individual rights…

Did Women have a net positive life before they had the right to vote? One can think of countless other examples this could pertain to – slavery, freedom of speech, zoo animals, the list goes on.

In summary…

The net positive life argument can be used as an excuse to subject other people and other species to conditions that we would never consider fit for ourselves, so what gives us the right to do this?

We are all just animals at the end of the day. Let’s not build ourselves too high a pedestal just because we have opposable thumbs.


You might also be interested in…

Why I stopped eating meat.