On veggie burgers and thought experiments

Several people commented how the answer to my thought experiment about the yummy veggie burger and the dreadful vegan burger was very obvious: they would recommend that our friend order the veggie burger.

However, to others, this doesn’t appear obvious at all. More than that, some people seem not to understand the value of thought experiments, or what I’m trying to do with them. I’ll use some examples of reactions on a Facebook group to give my view on a couple of things. I’m under no illusion that any of my responses will sway the people who wrote these things, but it may help others to recognize bad arguments when they see them.

So let’s analyse a couple of reactions and see what arguments are being used. I’ll keep the reactions anonymous, as it is not my intention to smear anyone, rather just to get some clarity (I love clarity, I wish there was more of it in my mind.)

I grouped reactions according to the kinds of arguments I see in them, but some reactions could be classified under more than one heading (sadly). I put my comments below each reaction.

Honest reactions (but which express, in my view, bad arguments)

These reactions are correct in the sense that they are to-the-point, and don’t try to change the premises of the thought experiment, are not ad hominem, and so on.

“My objective is not to promote vegan food, my objective is to promote the idea that using animal products is morally wrong. I cannot offer anything that contains animal products by pointing that it does not contain meat, it would be supporting the wrong idea that there is a moral difference between using meat and using other animal products. It is confusing for the nonvegan person and it is counterproductive for the animal rights movement.”

VS: If this person really doesn’t want to recommend anything that’s non-vegan because they believe it’s confusing and counterproductive, and this is his honest view of things, that’s perfectly fine by me. (Even though I don’t think this is a particularly strategic view, in the sense that I explained in the article).

“The idea that ends justifies means is one of the worst ideas in the history, it is not only counterproductive for nonhuman rights, it is counterproductive for all justice movements. It is not morally right to offer or promote a nonvegan burger, even with good intentions.”

VS: The same person abhors the idea of the end justifying the means, and I can understand that. But I would say it’s a moot saying, and I would quote Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals: “That perennial question, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, ‘Does this particular end justify this particular means?’

Questioning the assumptions in the thought experiment

Many people try to change the premise of the thought experiment. For instance, this person wonders why we need to assume the vegan burger is bad (as if there is no such thing in the universe):

“I would like to order the delicious vegan burger. Why does Tobias assume it’s the vegan one that tastes bad anyhow?”

VS: Ehm, that’s just the assumption that we posit, in order to have something to think about…? Of course vegan burgers are not necessarily bad. I don’t need to explain this one to you I assume.
A thought experiment is meant to create some clarity on one’s assumptions, on the values one finds important, on what one prioritizes. If you go along with the experiment, you can possibly discover interesting ideas. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, but don’t change the premise because then the experiment becomes meaningless.

Assuming bad intentions behind my thought experiments

Some people believe I develop these thought experiments to show we don’t have to be vegan, or that being vegan is bad, or whatever. I’ve even been called a troll because indeed these thought experiments may sound like the arguments from meat eaters who try to put us on the spot (which is why some call my thought experiments “gotchas”):

“All his thought experiments are designed to have non-veganism as the optimal outcome.”

“The game is rigged so the best outcome is buying or eating animal products for ‘long term’ gain. Why does he never offer vegan solutions to these problems? This is ridiculous.

VS: My intention is to show there is more to vegan advocacy than just following the vegan orthodoxy, and that results (also long time results) are at this point in time more important than rules. If you want to hear more on this, watch the first video here.

Lennaert [sic] acts like an industry shill.

VS: No comment.

Misrepresenting and misinterpreting my conclusions or recommendations

“I can’t stand to the nonstop nonsense they post on this terrible so-called vegan strategist blog. So according to this blog post, it’s a good vegan strategy to tell our nonvegan friends to eat a nonvegan burger to satisfy their palate pleasure. No, thank you.”

“Seems like he is always trying to undermine a vegan solution. Why does he want vegans to endorse eating or using animals? I’m astonished at vegans promoting this.”

“If vegans always compromise and order an option containing eggs/cheese, or don’t even bother to ask if an item is vegan for fear of making a fuss, then the availability of vegan options will remain poor. ”

I hope I don’t need to show you why these are simplifications and generalizations of my recommendations. I trust that if you read the text, you see that my point is not to never be consistent or demand vegan products (indeed I think opening our mouths and insisting on a vegan option is very important and fruitful). Neither do I want “vegans to endorse eating or using animals”.

Discrediting the person

This is the well known ad hominem or “poisoning the well” argument.

“Tobias is not a moral philosopher by any stretch of the imagination!”

“When will these people who refer to themselves as “vegan” stop referring to other animals as nothing more than recipe ingredients? The lack of respect shown toward other animals, and the message that “our movement is about food” is really depressing.”

This last one I find particularly pernicious and dishonest. It’s something we see a lot these days: the attempt (often while knowing better) to show how a person whose argument we don’t agree with, is not a good person, lacks respect, is a speciesist, etc.

Why the resistance?
The poor quality of most of these arguments, and some people’s inability to deal with the thought experiments, makes me suspect that they really have a problem accepting the logical outcome of the experiment: namely that it IS not always beneficial to stick to your moral philosophy and orthodoxy for the full hundred percent. People seem to want to avoid this in their eyes horrible conclusion at all costs. Maybe the idea that a moral system or a strategy should not always be followed to the letter is scary to some, because it takes away something that gave them security and structure? I’m just guessing.

Anyway, I don’t think that admitting that there maybe exceptions, that not everything is black and white… should be so horrible. I try to show that sometimes the easier way, is the more effective way. What’s so bad about that?

Finally, here’s an argument I can see no logical problems in 🙂

one does not.jpg

I might make my own version though, saying:

“One does not have a big impact on animals simply by becoming vegan.”


10 thoughts on “On veggie burgers and thought experiments

  1. I find the idea that we have to be utterly “pure” in order to avoid “confusing” meat eaters to be particularly laughable. In 30 years, I’ve never met anyone who ate non-vegan items because they were “confused” by “inconsistent” vegans. 🙂

  2. I think the “veggie” answer fails because the utilitarian assessment is biased toward one outcome. Rather than putting people off veganism, by buying the vegan burger the omnivore may well then ask the vegan something along the lines of “wow, you have to put up with such poorly made food sometimes, how do you deal with it?”

    To which the vegan could then respond, and discuss how convenience and enjoyment is not worth ending a life for. That discussion could even lead to the omnivore becoming a vegan. Such a discussion may or may not occur if one merely choses the veggie option, but what is clear is that there is no convincing evidence one way or the other from a utilitarian perspective which is the option that reduces suffering.

    Now you could add in additional constraints into the thought experiment so that the meat eater would only be convinced of going vegan if we chose the “veggie” option, but then with each additional constraint we are moving away from being able to use such thought experiments to guide our behaviour. And it is this that is the point of ethics, at the forefront of our minds should be how should I act in the real world. And this is a wider problem with utilitarianism, for a vast number of cases all we are left with is a biased assessment of the utility of one action over another. Which is why a rights based assessment is so important, it can guide our action where utility fails, and on a rights based approach one would chose the vegan burger.

  3. I really appreciate your logic and completely agree with the wrongness of the criticisms you mentioned in this post.

    However, I don’t think it would be right to buy the meat eater a veggie burger. For one thing, you’re making the assumption that the meat eater’s increased likelihood of eventually becoming a vegan after not eating the vegan burger (a very small chance) is more important than the restaurant finding out that there is a demand for vegan options – which is likely to make them invest in better vegan burgers. If they did make this change, it would also have an effect on any future meat eaters who find themselves in a similar situation to the one you imagined.

    Most importantly, however, I think I would disagree with you on the basic premise: I believe that if an action is immoral then it is always immoral, and some possible future benefits cannot justify a certain immoral act. You would be saying that it is fine for an animal to have suffered just so that one meat-eater might (and that’s a big might) one day become vegan. Such a small probability of a future benefit cannot outweigh the immorality of an act.

    1. Julian Modiano,

      “Most importantly, however, I think I would disagree with you on the basic premise: I believe that if an action is immoral then it is always immoral, and some possible future benefits cannot justify a certain immoral act. You would be saying that it is fine for an animal to have suffered just so that one meat-eater might (and that’s a big might) one day become vegan. Such a small probability of a future benefit cannot outweigh the immorality of an act.”

      You could have just said that you disagree with consequentialist ethics, since that is all your statement really does.

      Furthermore, the latter sentences in your statement are completely superfluous and really have no interesting force, given your fundamental assertion that “if an action is immoral then it is always immoral” – that sentence, the paragraph and the statement should stop there, because you have already posited a judgment and we need not concern ourselves with future benefits and probabilities and all the utilitarian stuff.

      In the end, your reply might be unnecessarily confusing for some in its logic, because it seems to imply that we ought to consider some calculations anyway: “for an animal to have suffered”, ” that one meat-eater might..one day become vegan”, “a small probability of a future benefit”…

      Metaphorically, in a simple mathematical sense, you have already posited that there exists no value greater than the absolute value of “immorality”. This renders any calculation that is inherent in your next sentences trivial to evaluate, and, ultimately, you are just repeating your initial axiom when you state: “Such a small probability of a future benefit cannot outweigh the immorality of an act”.

      The smallness of the probability is utterly irrelevant under your axiom as is the value of any future benefit (or detriment!). Under your axiom no probability, large or small, of any future benefit, can influence what is moral or immoral.

      So, I will repeat myself too: Your last paragraph could have really just been collapsed into its last sentence. You just needed to state that your ethics here are governed by an absolute withoug pretending that the actual amounts of suffering in collections of individuals actually matter or that the success rates of our strategies matter, because it is logically false under your statement above that they can.

    2. julian, thanks for your input. a couple of things.
      First of all, the reaction of the restaurant is a new variable that you bring in. it is relevant, but it is not part of the original experiment. but yes, we could say that is more important than what the meat eater thinks of the vegan burger. but of course that is under the condition that you communicate things to the restaurant (about how bad the vegan burger is) but this is something you could do anyway, so it doesn’t change much i think.
      Re. your second point, this is the classic the end and the means thing, for which i wrote the alinsky quote, which i very much agree with.
      To me ask you: is there any tiny microingredient (an additive in the bun or i don’t know what) that you would be able to ignore? i think many vegans would be able to ignore that, in the light that the other option is 100% vegan but tastes awful. this would, in theory, be the same matter of end and means. would you still say it is immoral (because it is always immoral)? I really don’t believe in this kind of moral absolutism, and i believe that there are a lot of grey areas.

    1. If that’s what you believe, then why do you keep attempting to do that yourself (reform dogma)?
      I apologize if this comes off as snarky, but I can’t help but wonder…??

  4. Christine,

    There is no need to apologize for asking a question. But to answer, I’m not trying to “reform dogma”…….I would instead hope that people would abandon it.

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