Macken is a writer & science educator (mackenmurphy.org). He hosts a weekly podcast about animals, Species, recommended by both Apple & the BBC’s Wildlife magazine. He is currently studying cognitive & evolutionary anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has written a children’s book about animal symbiosis, Animal SideKicks.
In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”
*Content Warning – description of violence*
01:54 Macken’s Intro: Species podcast, writer, grad student
03:19 What’s Real?
- Never exposed to the supernatural so “I never really had occasion to believe in it”
- Dad is a Pastafarian pastor
- Raised by two atheists (who were raised Protestant & Catholic in Northern Ireland during The Troubles)
- “Their first impression of religion in life was one that was related to needless violence… seeing someone get shot for their religious affiliation”
- “I’ve never seen even a slightly good reason to believe in any of that stuff…”
- Culturally still Christian (Santa!)
- Is spiritual but not religious… “trying to have your cake & eat it too?”
- Are those who grew up religious more likely to end up anti-religious than those who didn’t?
- Odd that atheism requires such focus vs. arguing against the existence of Santa
- The risks of patronising deference to religion re: sexism, homophobia, bigotry
- Losing religious belief might harm some people
- Why is using evidence & reason the best approach? What if “I just don’t like it”
- Different forms of evidence & reasoning
- Biases, denial, gullibility & skepticism
25:40 What Matters & Who Matters?
- Utilitarianism in theory & nihilism in practice
- Vegan “If I wasn’t vegan I’d feel super guilty all the time”
- “I wasn’t really raised with a moral framework… there was one rule… from my dad… ‘don’t be a dick'”
- My mum gave me a list: “One girlfriend at a time… never get a grade below a B…”
- Evolved ethical intuitions
- “We’re an altruistic, really prosocial species… we’re also a really evil, horrible species”
- A pre-disposition to moral strictness “I didn’t swear for years… I basically haven’t lied at all (maybe this is a bit of a lie).”
- Testing utilitarian on thought experiments “but if you followed me around all day I’d be acting very much the same way as my ancestors (except veganism)… family first, friends second, everyone else when I can & it’s easy”
- Effective Altruism
- Not drinking while doing competitive boxing & that rule stuck for years
- Geoffrey Miller: “We’re a virtue signalling ape”
- Even supposed ethical role models are disappointing in reality (e.g. Dalai Lama’s sexism)
- Diana Fleischman & evo psych
- Moral priorities & scope
- Volunteering in Thailand. Being gifted a pig, a sledgehammer & some machetes
- Killing a screaming pig, butchering & eating them “That was the most f***ed up thing I’d ever done in my life… I felt like I’d murdered someone & gotten away with it”
- Realising that pig had a better life “than most of the pigs I’d eaten throughout my life”
- “I want to be vegetarian one day when I cook my own food”
- Going vegetarian “was really easy”… then persuading others “but why aren’t you vegan?”
- Going vegan “off my gut” & because of being called out socially… “Then I started looking into the philosophy”
- Post-rationalisation for gut decisions, even in ethics
- Peter Singer
- Sam Harris‘ Moral Landscape (a consensus, not objective morality)
- Moral luck
- “What do you say to someone who just doesn’t care?”
- We don’t ask “What philosophical argument can I use to make Ted Bundy not be a serial killer?”
- “Where I have felt the most aggressive… is where someone else has done something evil”
- “The idea… we [our compassion] should stop at humans is patently insane”
- Evolution “All of life is connected… there are no hard boundaries”
- Species & human are fuzzy terms
- Evolved in-species bias
- Equality or moral inclusion
- Grading sentience & moral consideration?
- “There’s no evidence humans are more sentient”
- Logical vs. emotional appeals
- Maybe humans suffer less… “Imagine a chimp at the dentist”
01:16:18 How Can We Make a Better World?
- Good virtue signalling. A force for good
- “It makes me feel good”
- “I’m also fighting for a vegan world”
- Talking to religious people about animals using religious terms
- The Species podcast as an engine for creating new vegans (w/out pushing veganism)
- “If people knew more about animals most of them would love them”
- Advocacy, writing, PETA
- Could veganism become a political movement & change laws?
- “Imagine 10% were vegan… Everyone knows a vegan… Vegan politicians.”
- Meat-free zones, sanctuary states (see YesOnIP13)?
- Political conflict re: veganism?
- Lab-grown / plant-based meat: “It becomes so easy to virtue signal”
- “The world is going to get better for animals in our lifetime”
- Are all human-caused problems caused by failures of compassion or failures of knowledge
- “I was pescetarian because of a scientific misunderstanding of how pain was produced”
- A Sentientist approach to the abortion issue
- Sentient AI or robots or aliens?
- “The reason I think other animals are sentient is because I know I’m sentient and they share the relevant brain structures… I don’t know what type of structure I’d have to see in AI…”
- Capitalism is helping advertise veganism as well as vegan products
- “I don’t know how you could rationally be vegan while being [intentionally] racist or sexist…”
- “How effective would de-humanisation be in a vegan world?”
- When the AI arrives: “I’ve been talking about your rights before you even existed!”
Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.
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Thanks Graham for the post-production.