Fallacies Encountered when Talking with Omnivores
Omnivores is a term here that is used to loosely define people who are comfortable ignoring the interests of animals, whether that means exploiting them for fun or killing them in order to eat them (because they taste good), whether that is enjoyable to the person or not. If you can think of a better term, please let me know. Admittedly, it is not a tidy term, as it is one that is exclusive to diet.
The Naturalistic Fallacy - this is probably the most common fallacy that one will encounter when discussing veganism with omnivores. In sum, the naturalistic fallacy occurs when someone argues that an action is good or right because it is natural. Sometimes people propose an argument like the following: humans are naturally omnivores therefore we should be eating meat (eggs and dairy are usually left out of the picture at this point, but still assumed to be perfectly natural). That's the general proposition anyway.
If we could NOT thrive or even survive on a vegan diet or without using animals, then this argument would have weight beyond morality, although it still would not be a knock down argument for moral discussion, unless one already assumes the worthlessness of other sentient animals on this planet. Because vegans can and do live well without eating or exploiting animals this argument becomes a moral one, concerning what we should and should not do. As I'm sure you can see, there are many problems with this argument after we understand the moral nature of the position. Firstly, most often when I have encountered this argument (sorry for the anecdote) people don't realize that they aren't even arguing for the position that they themselves embody. Somehow they don't realize that accepting as an axiom that humans are biologically omnivores (I'm not saying we shouldn't accept that -- The point in investigating this fallacy is that it doesn't really matter) that would not justify eating meat multiple times daily or using animals for whatever we please. I digress. There are more important issues with this argument.
A further problem with this argument is that regardless of whether or not something is natural that does not automatically make it right. If any degree of dominance, war, injustice, cheating, murder, etc. is natural that would of course have nothing to do with making those activities right. Nature does not equal Right. In fact, one of the things that is elegant about the human condition is that we have the ability to be highly considerate and creative concerning moral issues. That's not to say that we are the only species that does this; however, we have the capacity to do it well. At least I assume that. Here's a video where the naturalistic fallacy pops up its gnarly head an uncanny number of times: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mClv6S3BK60&feature=related.
This fallacy also occurs, in a slightly different form, when some people create simple catchall statements about nature itself (in this case they mean to include animals), making claims such as: nature is cruel or lions do this ... or leopards do that ... or giraffes do ... You get the point. What is being missed here is that we do not base our behaviour on what other animals do. Some people are willing to handpick the activities that allow them to do what they want, without reflection - supposedly a human characteristic. The fact that a lion might eat its victim alive says exactly nothing about what I should do or what any human should do. Many animals have physical fights to compete for mates; does that make it right? Why would it? Some animals (meaning it is normal in their species) rape their mates to reproduce; some species practice fratricide, while others shit on people's heads at the beach; some animals go to war and kill each other instead of using their brains to work ... oh wait. Anyway, I am sure you get the point. It is inconsistent to cherry pick the behaviours of other species that are advantagous; more importantly, however, is that the fact that another animal or species of animal does something does not then make it right.
Ad Hominem - This isn't a fallacy exclusive to vegan discussion, but it is something to be mindful of, in your own arguments and in the arguments of others. The ad hominem fallacy occurs when someone argues the invalidity of an argument based on denigrating unrelated characteristics of their opponent's personality. It's basically slander. If someone attacks the arguer rather than the argument a fallacy is occuring in their logic, the ad hominem.
Red Herring (Or actually in this case ignoratio elenchi) - It's important to understand before anything else is said that a red herring is an argument that intentionally diverts or derails the actual argument by focusing on something that is irrelevant or at least off course to the topic of discussion. Most of the time when people use the term "red herring" they are actually talking about arguments that are unintentionally diverting, which is correctly called an ignoratio elenchi, which literally means ignorance of refutation or logic.
One of the primary ignoratio elenchi that omnivores raise is so stupid, that it barely deserves our attention. Still, it is so embarrassingly common that it will be nice to extinguish it to some degree. Often people bring up the point, in a mocking tone even, but "plants have feelings too"! These people have clearly not thought about their 'argument' at all. I have yet to come across any scientifically tested (and retested) evidence that plants are sentient. That does not mean that they are not. Still it does not make sense. Why would they be sentient? Where is it in their physiology? Or their DNA?
In a pragmatic sense more important than the questions, such as those above, however, is the fact that we have to eat plants, and at some point on the "food chain" some animal has to eat plants. If plants have feelings, then a cow is an unbearable despot of the field. According to the second law of thermodynamics entropy (or energy that cannot do work) increases when energy moves from one medium to another. The energy becomes less useful or less potential to do work is present within it. What this means is that cows, pigs, or any type of animal have to eat far more plants to give us the same amount of energy that we could simply get from those plants in the first place, which have themselves received the energy from the sun. A lot more plants have to be consumed by animals in order for humans to then eat animals. It turns out then, that this 'argument' inadvertantly points towards veganism, for if plants could suffer, a lot less of them would need to be consumed if everyone were vegan. I suppose the people who bring this up, however, are already fruitavores or whatever. Fruit is clearly made to be consumed. That is actually its function. Watch out for the seeds though ... some people might argue that they are sentient because they fulfill a purpose. I know it might seem silly to spend much time on this ridiculous position (concerning plant sentience), but it is common.
Appeal to tradition - This is an interesting fallacy, as it is one that often comes up when people are resisting change or even growth. The appeal to tradition is essentially an argument that says that we have always done things this way so that is the right way to do it. The fallacy occurs when someone assumes the rightness of a behaviour based on the fact that it is traditional. When it comes to being an omnivore some people 'argue' that they are in the right or that they do not need to change because things have always been done this way, but their people in their society or possibly their ancestors. While giving respect to culture, we must recognize that regardless of how old a tradition is, the current setting for that tradition and its behaviour makes the consumption and use of animals in most of the capacities that we use them entirely unnecessary.
This fallacy has a tendency to occur along side the naturalistic fallacy, as people sometimes talk about things they don't actually know about and so blend natural development and culture. Essentially when it comes to veganism the same ethical irrelevance of the natural argument applies in the case of the appeal to tradition. Make sure you are respectful of the cultures of others, but find a way to politely inform them when they are being illogical.
Another important component of appealing to tradition is that it is often selective. If someone wants to defend hunting for example, because it is the ways of their people (remember that at some point it was the way of all people ...) then they are undertaking a very difficult defence. There are some important questions that one should ask when defending the consumption patterns or hunting of any tradition or culture. For example, is mimicking that tradition in the contemporary world actually a genuine replication of it? Is it necessary? Is necessity at all relevant to that tradition? How has the place of nonhuman animals changed since the time of their ancestors? Are these changes relevant for how they may have treated them? Why ever use antiquated tools, but drive or fly to the spot to shoot, throw, or trap? In other words how much of the tradition is being maintained? AND are the aspects that are maintained maintained arbitrarily? Given that much has changed, what is the actual need of the tradition ... and why can't another tradition be maintained to fulfill that assumed need? One could really go on all day. There are many important things to consider when the issue of tradition is brought forward. This is not to say that any traditions are equally bad or worse than factory farming; rather the point is to question whether or not they are necessary at all today. So much has changed that selectively maintaining some traditions does more shame than anything else.
No one can escape the simple fact that despite what our ancestors did that does not make it right.
Appeal to Authority -If you have been following the development of this page you would have seen that I have saved explaining this fallacy for a few days. I simply wanted to revel in the thought of it, as my mind salivates over the simple elegance of this realization. The appeal to authority occurs when someone, who is an authority in a certain respect, is referenced in a context where his or her expertise is either irrelevant or not 'on target'. A clear example would be if I said my biology professor (an expert in biology) says that Chavez is a terrible man (a matter of politics, ethics, perhaps even psychology), therefore Chavez must be a terrible man. Clearly his expertise in biology does not mean that she is an EXPERT in anything else, let alone Venezualan politics. Furthermore, if she says that Chavez is a terrible man, her main news source is probably Fox or some other propaganda spinners.
Alright, alright, I digress! Sorry! I know you are sitting excitedly in your seats, so let's get on with it. I have encountered the appeal to authority in vegan discussions with omnivores in a couple of fields actually, at least two very important ones.
The first is a realm that we all often appeal to authority, because we feel that anyone wearing a white coat, especially if they are in a hospital will only ever tell us the right thing. Doctors (talking about general practitioners here) know everything right? ... especially when it comes to the human body and nutrition. Right? Actually doctors do not spend enough time studying nutrition in med school to be considered experts, anymore than a general practitioner would be considered an epidemiologist, urologist, dermatologist, etc. Perhaps by chance you may come across a GP who has focused on nutrition; however, if they start talking about the four food groups (from the FDA) or the importance of drinking milk, they clearly don't know what they're talking about. The appeal to authority here is one that many of us make or have made, unconsciously usually. We are told by someone in a white coat on TV or in the hospital that something is so, like the myths about milk, and we believe them. The logic underlying that belief is fallacious.
The second way that this fallacy occurs in vegan discussion is even more fascinating than the first! Are you ready for this? The appeal to authority occurs in a tremendous feet of illogic when it comes to ethology, especially concerning the wants and needs of so called "farm animals", whether it's chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, or any of the most heavily exploited domestic animals. For a long time it illuded me as to how I could explain this and label it as illogic. Alas, that time of ignorance has vanished. Firstly, the fallacy occurs when omnivores, or anyone, assumes that a so called "farmer" is an expert on the species that he or she is rearing. Allow me to note that if these people are experts then many of them have some serious inconsistencies to sort out. I won't digress further here by delving into that thought however. The point here is that these 'farmers' are experts in using animals to make money. That is what they do. That is what they have always done. This does not necessarily make them experts in anything else.
Farmers are not ethologists. They may have spent some time along the way picking up details about how the animals they exploit behave or experience the world; however, it is quite clear that even this would not make them experts unless it was a scientific and systematic pursuit. Think about it: someone who 'owns' (to use the language of enslavement) a dog is not therefore an expert on dogs or dog behaviour; yet, the position, as caregiver of a companion animal, is inherently more condusive of concern for the interests of that animal than the position of the exploiter or 'farmer' is to understanding the interests of the animals they use to make money.
From this we can understand that just because someone has lived in the country or been around chickens that does not make them experts on how those animals experience the world or what their interests may be. The only interests that a 'farmer' must be concerned with regarding the animals he or she is exploiting are the ones must be looked after in order to keep those animals alive and producing long enough to make profit. If you have heard many 'farmers' (from small scale 'farms' and factory 'farms') talk about these animals you will know exactly what I am talking about. This realization struck me with full weight when I watched the documentary Animals: Friends of Food, not from any of the points raised in the documentary itself, but from metanalysis. The anecdotes here are merely to solidify understanding, not to prove the case.
Indeed farmers have to pay some attention to some of the interests of the animals they exploit; however, there is no barely a discernable threshold as to how many or which interests the farmers must pay attention to. The threshold of profit is all that seems to create any inherent attention to intrest of these animals. Some 'farmers' will of course be more considerate than others. The point here is not that no farmer has ever cared about any of the interests of the animals in their care. The point is that they do not inherently know more about what these animals need or do not need, just because they have lived with them around or because they have sold them to be killed or used them for eggs or milk production.
Straw Man - The straw man fallacy occurs when someone represents the position of their opponent in an inaccurate way. Usually this misrepresented argument is one that can easily be defeated (or blown over/burnt down). This is something you may encounter if you hear an omnivore talk about animal rights. They argue that people who want animals to have rights are fighting for animals to have an education, a vote, an abortion, and any other rights that would be completely meaningless to the animals. Animal rights is concerned with rights that are relevant to the beings in question, such as the right not to be treated as property, the right to life, or the right to not be kept in their own excrement in the dark for their entire lives. The rights are meant to be established to protect meaningful interests, to deal with serious dilemmas in how we should treat other sentient beings on this planet.
Slippery Slope - The above fallacy, can often lead to the slippery slope fallacy as well. Note that this fallacy is common in moral discussion. The slippery slope is exactly what you might expect. Someone argues that if X were to happen or be allowed, then Y is inevitably going to follow. The slippery slope is an illogical form of argument because Y will not necessarily happen if we allow X. At times there is potential that a certain thing could happen, but it is not necessarily the case. If we consider animal rights, as an example, we can simply understand how this might pan out. In frustration, anger, blind spite, or an emotion I know not which, I have heard some omnivores contend that if animals are given some rights then soon people will be marrying them, we will have rats running as they please through the streets and apartments (because it is assumed that they cannot be dealt with) and all animal reserach will be halted.
Some issues are harder to discern than others. The consideration of marriage with another species is ridiculous. In an academic sense we could discuss; however, it would be wasting our time. Meaningful and audited animal research is not as clear a case as decadent indulgence in animal flesh or buying of animal skin clothing, however. It is a different category. The point here is not whether I am for or against it, but that using animals in most of the ways that we do is completely unnecessary and wanton and should, for a better world be eliminated.
The Homocentric or Speciesist Fallacy - This fallacy occurs when humans look at the world or things in the world as if they exist for our use, hense the name 'homocentric fallacy'. In regards to non-human animals, this assumption is so entrenched in our semantics and culture, that we can use animals however we please, that some assume that animals will go to waste, or will have no purpose even, if we do not use them. For example, some people feel that an animal is wasted if humans only eat a fraction of that animal or do not use the bones and the skin. Some people would also use this faulty argument to support eating road kill.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that humans are essentially the centre of everything. In reality this is of course not the case. The only waste that occurs on this planet comes from human creation and effort (and lack of effort). For example, if a carcass were thrown in a dump where it cannot properly decompose that could be considered waste. Under natural circumstances if we do not eat an animal carcass or use its body parts it will decompose and be consumed by other beings. There is no waste.
I'm not sure if this fallacy has a different name, so I named it. If this fallacy has a name, and you know what that is, then please let me know. I am tempted to say that this is a category error; however, it is not the case that we cannot possibly read our perspective and purpose into another being (or the universe), human or non. You saw it here first.
The genetic fallacy occurs when someone claims that an argument is true or false based solely on whom or where it comes from. This is actually a very common fallacy. That is because it overlaps with our natural inclinations towards trust and mistrust (for people who have 'abused' one's trust).
A common way that this occurs among omnivores is when they believe an organization, such as the USDA because it is the USDA or the milk companies because they have a commercial on TV that says that "milk will charge you" or whatever their bull shit slogan is now or then. The fact is that the source of something does not make it true or false. Claims must be measured on their own validity. Things are not true because the USDA or the 'farmers', or the milk industry pr spinners say they are. If a 'farmer' says he treats his birds humanely that does not make it true for example. Unfortunately the absence of coherent logic in this particular instance means that the vast majority of people have been duped.
We see this on milk cartons, in ads on bus stops, TV, etc., and in false political statements by elected representatives and the organizations they run or have put together.
The Relativist Fallacy
This fallacy occurs basically whenever someone says well that is true for you but not for me and the topic in question is not merely relative. Then, they say, let's agree to disagree and leave it at that. They are contending that something is both true and false at the same time OR that something is relative when it is not. The former contention is clearly not possible - it 'breaks' the second law of logic, the law of non-contradiction that something cannot be both X and not X. I don't know about you, but whenever someone says that something is true for you but not for me, I want to pull some of my hair out, well if it weren't magically pulling itself out somehow. I just wonder: 'why can't we just talk about it some more, until you realize that I am right?' (jk).
The second point, about whether or not the subject is relative is stickier. First understand that merely because someone can say something is relative that does not make it so. Relativism can be appealing in many different situations, but again that does not make it true. There is a burden of proof there. Someone might be tempted to argue that because different cultures or different people have different ethics, therefore ethics are relative. This is clearly fallacious, as not all of these people are necessarily right, and their positions do not necessarily tell us what is good. The above argument is poor because it takes an observation and just adds a conclusion. This is perhaps an interesting contribution to descriptive ethics, but it tells us nothing about normative ethics (what we ought to do). It is also an invalid and unsound argument.
In the case of animal ethics, relativism is initionally excluded from the discussion precisely because it is a normative discussion. In other words, questions of what we ought to do relativism is not even invited to the party, because it is inherently incompatible. Secondly, the argument for animal ethics proceeds form axiomatic statements, i.e. statements that we can basically agree upon or take for granted because it is self-evident, such as a fundamental axiom of ethics that causing pain and suffering to others is wrong. From this foundation, things like cold blooded murder, torture, etc. are clearly wrong as well. One would have to proove that these statements are indeed not axiomatic. Good luck with that ...
From omnivores this may occur as a last resort for the scoundrel, a defence mechanism. It appears to be a statement of giving up essentially. In other words, it is a recognition of the moral weight of the vegan position, with a near admittance of the lack of integrity of the speaker to change his or her own behaviour and stop objectifying animals. And here, I mean real and full objectification of nonhumans - they are literally treated as things or objects. Perhaps I am being hasty here in saying that omnivores are conceeding victory; but why else would someone say that this is right for you and that for me? (Some vegetarians and some vegans employ the fallacious logic of the relativist fallacy as well, but in a different way). It could be a degree of nausea as well, which in this case would be ill directed.
I have it on my chopping list to address people contending that animals have no souls (like Joel Salatin from Food Inc., Omnivores Dilemma, and The Ethics of What We Eat).
What is the fallacy committed when omnivores argue that veganism is a paradoxical position because we assert our factual animality to establish the similarity of ourselves and other animals ... that we are animals, and senient. Then, we separate ourselves from them by expecting us to stand above our nature. I have dismantled the argument in the common arguments section, but I still need to identify the fallacy in the argument. It is clear that the reasoning is unsound.
Fallacies that vegans tend to use:
The Historical (or Historian's) Fallacy - This is essentially when the present or what we know now is read into the process or the history of that knowledge or event taking place.
The Fallacy of Hasty Generalizations - This is quite simply making an inductive claim with insufficient evidence. One takes too few examples and creates the general case (a general conclusion) for everyone, when the conclusion may be different or insufficiently supported by the evidence. I have heard some vegans (I have even proposed this thinking wishfully myself) argue that humans used to be vegetarian (even vegan) throughout the duration of our evolution. Although at certain times and in certain places this may be true, it has not been true on the whole. Furthermore, after migrations out of Africa the diets of different tribes changed dramatically. Even if any groups of homo sapiens, or our ancestors, or our primate relatives, have been vegan or not is quite irrelevant anyway. See the naturalistic fallacy. This is a moral issue, as it involves the interests, well being, treatment, suffering, and death of what will eventually become trillions of sentient beings.
Another important way in which this fallacy is employed is in the argument that says that because many human tribes survive and even thrive on less than 30-10% animal products then we can do it, or we can thrive on it. There is plenty of other scientific evidence to support the health benefits of veganism, so this fallacy is an unnecessary oversight for this cause, even when discussing with people who don't know what a fallacy is.
Yet another way that vegans have been known to abuse logic in this way is to claim that it is healthy because it is vegan. This is obviously a hasty generalization. I think what people are thinking here is that veganism is generally far healthier than the standard North American (meaning Camerican) diet. And vegan alternatives, such as egg replacement in baking (like flax or bananas) are healthier than eggs, so the vegan version is healthier than the version that requires animal exploitation in many cases. Therefore the vegan version and vegan food in general is healthier. This is a profound leap and a mistake in logic. Not everything is healthy because it is vegan. Vegan does not equal healthy. It can be very healthy for people, but it is important not to abuse statistics and make hasty generalizations. Cupcakes aren't automatically healthy because you used margarine instead of butter or rapadiura instead of white sugar... It's obvious, but it's still often overlooked.
False Dichotomy - This is an interesting and prevalent fallacy. It occurs when someone quickly creates a dichotomy (or two possible options) when there are actually many possibilities. It occurs often coming from creationists who attempt to argue against evolution.
Vegans sometimes employ this false logic in opposing factory farming. The argument is made that in order to oppose factory farming one must become vegan. Ignoring the politics and economy of that claim, we can look simply at the fact that there are other alternatives to being. Note that these other options are not necessarily ethical, but that opposing factory farming does not create this imagined dichotomy.
Consider first of all that addressing factory farming deals only with food, not with fishing, circuses, or even things as terrible as killing an animal for fun, or beating the household companion animal.
Consider secondly that there are conceivable alternatives to the world of factory farms; granted, the number of organic and genuine free range 'farms' (responsible for less than 1% of the world's carcasses and animal products for human consumption) is quite low, but that does not nullify their existence. The more important point here however is that those places ('farms') still use animals as objects ... tools for our purpose. That is why this dichotomy is important to overcome.
My point in bringing this up in the first place is basically to say that veganism does not stand solely against factory farming. That does not make coherent sense. Addressing factory farming is important, as the degree of suffering it has created and continues to create is unfathomable, but it is not a stand-alone reason to go vegan (it is a starting place perhaps for many though no doubt). Although, the horrors of these systems of animal exploitation are so morally, environmentally, and humanely bankrupt that they deserve special attention, going vegan is bigger even than that. Veganism stands against all unnecessary exploitation of nonhumans.
Furthermore, focusing on factory farming creates artificial polarization. The number of people who actually support factory farming and treating animals in those specific ways are actually quite minimal. That is not to say that there is an easy solution, but the issue of factory farming should never be polarizing.
The genetic fallacy occurs when someone claims that an argument is true or false based solely on whom or where it comes from. Vegans, just like anyone use this faulty logic at times; when we mistrust someone or an organization that is a perfectly natural response, but the reasoning we may come to use in our future interactions with that person or organization will be illogical if it is so hasty (as our allocation of trust). Mistrust is an adaptive mechanism that prevents us from 'getting burned'. It makes sense to some extent. Think about the fact that the USDA has lied in the past and not looked out for us in the past (the same could be said about the FDA, some police officers, your neighbour - no I don't know your neighbour but there has likely been a situation or two where he or she has been undeserving of trust).
The USDA has milk as its own food group for example; they used to tell us, and still do, that milk provides us with calcium, when the fact of the matter is that it is high in calcium which we, for the most part, do not absorb. One could point to innumerable other lies and misteps of an organization such as the USDA, but it does not then follow that everything they say is inaccurate. If they say that we should eat more whole grains for example, that is not inherently wrong because they are pumping out bull shit about milk. The point is not to go crawling back to the USDA for health and food information. Afterall, we only have little time to make our decisions; however, we still have to be careful with how we use and abuse logic.
The Relativist Fallacy
Note: See this fallacy in the omnivore section above.
If you ever hear a vegetarian or vegan say that "this 'lifestyle choice' is right for me" or "it is my personal choice", "but others can do what they want", then you are likely seeing this fallacious logic in action. Think about what they are saying. Using animals to the point of placing no value on their lives and usually little on their pain and suffering, satisfaction and sentience for our personal pleasure is not right for me. For you however, these things may be right or they may not. "It's just a personal choice." They are making a moral claim, whether they like it or not. Unless they are actually saying that it is really just whimsy that led me to become vegan or vegetarian, and it contains no relation to goodness or rightness. That's not too likely.
The fallacy becomes obvious when you think about an action having moral status regardless of what I think of it. In other words, somethings can be right or wrong regardless of what I believe. For example if someone, let's just say someone Korean or Chinese thinks it is okay to beat a dog to death because the meat comes out better with adrenaline in it, that does not make it right or even morally neutral. If someone in Canada or America thinks it is right or morally neutral to keep a chicken locked in the dark in a cage where it cannot spread its wings (until it is transfered to the loading truck for slaughter), and it lives basically in its own excrement, so that people can its eggs, that of course does not make it right or morally neutral.
This is not to say that there are moral absolutes that transcend our reasoning or our observations; rather, there are axioms that exist as the bedrock for having a meaningful ethics at all. From them we can create imperatives, perhaps, but at least we can avoid the innane expression: that is true for you but not for me, OR this is just my personal choice, as if killing an animal solely to enjoy its taste in ones mouth or to take its milk is no different from deciding what pair of trousers to wear or which brand to devote my capital to.