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.”