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"I went vegan finally when I fell in love with one" - filmmaker & writer Jay Shapiro - Sentientism Episode 151

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Jay is an award winning filmmaker, writer, and podcaster. He directed Islam and the Future of Tolerance, a film based around a conversation between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. He produces and creates a wide range of content, writes on his “What Jay Thinks” blog & hosts the Dilemma podcast (some co-hosted with Coleman Hughes). I had the pleasure of being his guest for a Dilemma Hangout on Sentientism back in 2020.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome
01:54 Jay Intro

  • The Essential #samharris series
  • Documentary & narrative film-making
  • "I really want to understand ideas… and transmit those to an audience… even if I totally disagree with the idea"

03:16 What's Real?

  • Growing up in a secular #Jewish household
  • "Post-holocaust American judaism is it's own brand… a very ethical & political tribe more than a religious one"
  • "'Never again' becomes the holiest prayer"
  • Psychologist dad, guidance counsellor mum
  • "I'm a boring naturalist but… I love analogies for what it feels like to exist"
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five "Oh… This is what I like"
  • An over-active imagination as a kid… "my scientists", The Truman Show, solipsism, Philip K Dick & #scifi
  • #Meditation, #psychedelics, religious experiences… "scrambles the dials"
  • Donald Hoffman's "The Case Against Reality"
  • How evolution shapes our construction of experiences of reality
  • Psychedelics help us "catch it in the act" of reality construction
  • "There's much more out there" e.g. non-human sentient experiences
  • "It reminds you of the expansiveness of reality rather than show you a new one"
  • The National High School Ethics Bowl
  • Anil Seth's "How your brain hallucinates reality" @TED
  • Annaka Harris's exploration of consciousness theories re: "The Hard Question"
  • "Reality is awesome enough - who needs magic" (I mis-spoke!)
  • Epistemological tests?: atheism, veganism, spherical earth…
  • Writing about Sam Harris, not for him
  • Object-oriented ontology
  • #psychology "I don't think we're the rational animal… we're the rationalising animal"
  • How people respond to #cognitivedissonance (Leon Festinger) "they really don't like it"
  • Criticising #consequentialism "you can justify anything… wait long enough and the consequences will work out… where do you stop the clock… too easy to find an out"
  • #Virtueethics "Secular virtue" (vs. religious views of virtue)
  • What happens after noticing the cognitive dissonance. More about psychology & values more than epistemology?
  • Coping mechanisms. Consequentialism, capitalism, economics… give people outs to "quiet these voices in their heads"
  • Neil Levy "people are more rational than you think"
  • Qanon, Goop products… everyone selects evidence/sources to suit themselves
  • Believing unfounded things can be a "rational" response to existential crises / the discomfort of cognitive dissonance

37:45 What Matters?

  • "There is no grounding (to ethics)"
  • David Hume's "unbreachable" is-ought chasm
  • "If you hate Sam (Harris) I think you'll like a lot of what I do there" (the Foundations of Morality episode of The Essential Sam Harris
  • There is a relationship between is and ought but "It's up to us to define that relationship"
  • "My bridge": Carl Sagan's "We are a way for the universe to know itself"
  • "I'm super humanistic… I bristle at the efforts… to downgrade the human as just another animal"
  • We have the "moral opportunity" to figure things out & decide what we ought to do
  • "Luckily there's a lot of joy & fun in figuring it out… and some sadness… it's the only game in town… so I'm playing"
  • "I'm trying to champion the human" & David Deutsch re: creation of explanations/knowledge
  • "Experience must be the only way to see the bridge across is-ought"
  • Moral agency & patiency
  • Compassion as a moral opportunity
  • Cultivated meat: Is there a risk of easy solutions that don't require humans to be better? Would we be missing a moral opportunity? What future horrors might we create?
  • A future where everyone is #vegan so "we don't even need the word any more"
  • The value of sacrifice?

58:50 Who Matters?

  • “I went vegan finally when I fell in love with someone who was a vegan – and now she’s my wife”
  • “I know what it feels like to agree with the arguments about animal suffering… I can remember what it feels like… to participate in a system that I now think is incredibly evil and harmful… and it feels like nothing… the banality of evil… but cognitive dissonance sucks.”
  • The “I’m waiting for clean meat” and “I die if I eat vegan” / “I have no choice” responses (e.g. Sam Harris, Paul Bloom) and “it’s normal”
  • The hope in realising people still feel cognitive dissonance
  • Consistency & coherence… eating dogs and babies?
  • How responding to cognitive dissonance can warp ethics (“they don’t matter”) and epistemology (believing things that are wrong)
  • “My wife is the person who saw a video and was like ‘I can’t participate any more this is too horrible’ and changed her behaviour”
  • “Most people are more like me – it’s hard for us – we just don’t face it”
  • “I was living the [meat] paradox – but I do remember it felt like nothing”
  • “The arguments themselves don’t carry the day”… humility
  • Falling in love, going vegan, falling in love with cooking
  • “My veganism was easier than hers – 15 years earlier”
  • Anthropocentrism, sentiocentrism, biocentrism, ecocentrism
  • The social norm determinants of how humans morally evaluate different non-humans (e.g. horrified at eating dogs but OK with eating pigs) “I must have been one of those people!”
  • Jared Piazza, Brock Bastian, Rob Percival re: “The Meat Paradox” and Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”
  • Jay’s experience of his dad’s death: “you don’t have to wait ‘til they die – it was a missed opportunity… don’t wait!”
  • Moral opportunities… finding “better ways to live”
  • “[non-human] animals don’t tend to struggle with cognitive dissonance”
  • The naturalistic fallacy and the “necessary” argument… “A failure to embrace the transcendent nature of human knowledge creation… to question who we are… to engineer ourselves away from, if we want to, evolution.”
  • Jay’s “Two Burgers on a Plate” article
  • Sentientism’s ethical pluralism (deontology, utility, feminist care, virtue…)
  • Philosophy of mind
  • Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”
  • Solipsism
  • “With your definition of Sentientism – sign me up”
  • Dan Dennett
  • Integrated Information Theory IIT Tononi et al
  • Imagining a consciousness/sentience detector “would people still eat lamb?”
  • Can non-human animals do art? Second order thinking “most people would not want to eat that animal”
  • “I don’t think animals are on the same level… I don’t think a lion… is wondering if it should be going plant-based”
  • Carol Gigliotti’s “The Creative Lives of Animals”… play, love
  • Frans de Waal & animals’ complex inner lives
  • “I’m actually optimistic”

01:50:49 How Can We Make A Better Future?

  • The Direct Action Everywhere right to rescue cases: if rescuing a dog from a hot car is illegal – so should rescuing animals from farms
  • Rescuing Lily and Lizzie from Smithfield farms in Utah and being charged with felony burglary – then being acquitted https://righttorescue.com/
  • Jay’s film project about the case & visiting Lily & Lizzie in a sanctuary
  • Luna makes an appearance
  • “given the choice humans don’t want to really do this”
  • Imagining streaming live camera footage from slaughterhouses “My optimism is… it still bothers people”
  • “We all know veganism is getting easier… the argument of necessity will be absurd”
  • The flawed argument that “In the global capitalist consequentialist socioeconomic system… the greater good always works out…”
  • Filming DxE protesting a rodeo… “people were upset… there’s some optimism in the anger… kids were just curious”
  • Jay’s wife “it’s wrong – why don’t they just stop?”… “Most people have trouble just stopping”
  • Sentientism puts intra-human and intra-species ethics “all on the same page”
  • Religion and politics re: intra-human ethics. Re: non-human ethics it’s more culture?
  • “I want to reinvigorate faith in the human capacity for love and compassion and for change”
  • There’s a mismatch between “a better future” (consequentialism?) and “a good individual life” (virtue?) today. 8 billion people can’t live the way that’s currently thought of
  • “We want to think of ourselves as good people… and doing something worthwhile” – integrity
  • “Easy” tech fixes: horseless carts and cultivated meat
  • Personal choices, political campaigns, donating to causes, influencing others, inventing new products, changing the market
  • “Go try to watch an animal cruelty video and see if it bothers you… take an evidence-based approach… ask yourself and wonder… is that integrity?”
  • An examined life. We have the capacity to address our cognitive dissonance
  • “Catch yourself in the act…” of reacting to cognitive dissonance “taking the exit”
  • If you wait for the easy tech fix you’ve missed a moral opportunity “We all face the opportunities that come along”
  • “Believe me, Sam, you can be healthy”
  • “You realise how fun it can be and how lovely it is to feel the integrity grow in yourself… and you can probably do others… that’s human”
  • “Or fall in love with a vegan” 😊

Following Jay:

  • Leaving social media (as has Sam Harris – same deal)
  • The Essential Sam Harris series
  • whatjaythinks.com

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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