10 Logical Fallacies commonly encountered in discussions about veganism
When it comes to important events, issues and phenomena, which affect our lives and society at large – such as our civil liberties, or significant political and social change – people are often inclined to debate laws, regulations, practices and societal attitudes. Observing such discussions, one often notes that the presented arguments lack logical consistency. Emotions and stereotypes often take front seat, rather than rational argumentation, especially when contentious topics are concerned. These days, the subject of veganism can certainly be classed as one such contentious topic . It is my personal observation that there are very few topics which provoke as much heated opposition, emotional outbursts and logical fallacies, as do veganism and the discussions about animal rights.
A logical fallacy is a type of incorrect reasoning, which invalidates the presented argument.
So, what do we mean by “logical fallacies”? This is a term in the sphere of rhetoric, which describes incorrect argumentation, where inaccurate and hasty logical connections are constructed between the premises and the conclusions. In this case we are only looking at the logical consistency and correctness of the statements within a discussion, rather than factual truths and untruths.
1. “Bio-determinism” (Biological Determinism), or “Appeal to Nature” logical fallacy. “Argumentum ad Naturam”.
The idea that biological characteristics entirely dictate or should entirely dictate human behaviour (or the behaviour of a specific group of people). In this context, bio-determinism overlaps with the naturalistic fallacy, a.k.a. the appeal to nature fallacy – the notion that anything which is natural is automatically good, correct, healthy or morally right.
- “Our canine teeth are a proof that we should eat meat.”
- “Animals kill other animals in nature, therefore we have the right to kill whichever animals we want, and as many of them as we want.”
- “Humans are at the top of the food chain / food pyramid; therefore we can do as we please with all other “inferior” animals.”
These are just a few of the commonly cited “arguments” of this kind, the aim of which is to reject veganism as an idea. If we take a few moments to analyse each one of them individually, we will realise that they are not logically sound. For a start, canine teeth can be a characteristic of not only carnivorous or omnivorous animals, but also herbivorous ones. Fangs can be used not just for tearing through animal flesh, but also for self-defence, intimidation, expressing territorial aggression or for breaking and chewing tough vegetation. The largest canine teeth, for example, belong to hippopotamuses, which are classed as herbivorous animals. As far as the other two examples are concerned, they ignore one of the main differences between humans and the rest of the members of the animal kingdom (at least to the best of our knowledge of the animal kingdom) – our capacity for moral judgement. In our everyday life, we do not refer to the behaviour of wild animals as a guide to establishing whether a certain action is moral, justified, fair or not; similarly, parallels drawn from the habits and tendencies of lions or tigers would not be a basis for an effective defence strategy in a court of law.
The reason why such arguments constitute a logical fallacy in and of themselves, is that they attempt to reduce debates on morality, ethics, sustainability and health to mere oversimplified observations of improperly analysed biological phenomena. The truth is that biological aspects are an important factor, which needs to be taken into account when we formulate our values, but are certainly not the only factor.
2. “Argument from Popularity” logical fallacy (also knows as “Appeal to the majority”). “Argumentum ad Populum”.
Based on the idea that an opinion, shared by a large group of people or by the majority of the people, is automatically the right one. The logical fallacy “Argumentum ad populum” is a testament only to how common a certain notion is, not to its validity.
Throughout debates on the topic of veganism, we can often come across arguments along the lines of: “If eating animals (or animal products) was so bad, it would’t be the norm”. We can also encounter the reverse variation of it, whereby the fact that vegans are a small percentage of the overall population is cited as a sort of proof that the ideas behind veganism as a philosophy are wrong or invalid.
As we all know, however, throughout the history of humanity there have always been widespread and normalised notions and practices, which eventually end up being disproved, legally banned or replaced. In and of itself, the number of people who share a certain belief or support a certain stance, does not determine its rightfulness. Human and animal sacrifices, ritual dancing and prayers, directed towards particular deities thousands of years ago, most likely did not have an effect upon natural phenomena, no matter how large the percentage of the population was that believed in them.
3. “Appeal to Tradition” logical fallacy (also known as “Appeal to Practices of the Past” or “Argument from Antiquity”). “Argumentum ad Antiquitatem”.
Signifies the usage of traditions, customs and routines, commonly practiced in the past, as proof that these practices need to keep being performed in the present.
- “Humans have always eaten meat.”
- “In ancient times we had to hunt in order to survive as a species.”
- “We have been eating animal flesh for thousands of years.”
- “Eating meat is what helped our brains evolve.”
The length of time during which certain activities, traditions, habits have been practiced is not a testament to how useful or ethically sound they are. Many practices from the past, while having been entirely legal or common for hundreds or thousands of years, are now considered immoral and/or illegal. In many cases they had received wide support on the basis of religious or archaic notions. This is also why using this type of argumentation is considered a logical fallacy. What people chose to do in ancient or medieval times, or what they were forced to do, is not an indication of what we should do or continue to do in the present day. Humans and human societies change their laws, norms and actions upon receiving access to new information, or according to new values which they realise, adopt or have the ability to implement in practice. Indeed, this is what progress is all about.
4. “You Too” logical fallacy (also known as “Appeal to Hypocrisy”). “Tu Quoque”.
An attempt to shift the focus away from the topic being discussed, whereby the attention is directed towards the person presenting the argument rather than the argument itself. The opponent is accused of displaying hypocrisy with the intent of him being mocked or discredited.
- “If you are against killing animals, why do you kill plants?”
- “You vegans are not perfect either, as you contribute to the death of animals during crop farming.”
- “Don’t talk to me about animal abuse, when you are using a smartphone produced with child labour.”
This type of deflection is always regarded as a logical fallacy, because instead of assessing the quality and truthfulness of the argument, the person instead accuses their opponent(s) of exhibiting hypocrisy. Whether there is an element of truth in the accusations depends entirely upon the specific topics and participants, but even if one of the disputants does display hypocrisy in practice, this in no way invalidates the merit of the argument itself. For example the statement “Smoking increases the risk of cancer” is valid, even if voiced by a person who smokes cigarettes every day.
5. “Perfect Solution” logical fallacy (also known as “Nirvana Fallacy”).
A logical fallacy, where the suggestion is that any attempts at improvement should be dismissed if said attempts do not bring about a perfect result. That a given action or a plan for action should not be implemented if it does not solve the problem in its entirety (often implying that we have to keep looking for an option which is unrealistic or unachievable). In short – it is the rejection of a proposed solution, due to it not being perfect.
- “The vegan lifestyle is not better for the environment, as cultivating plants also requires a lot of resources and also leads to significant pollution.”
- “There is nobody who is a 100% vegan, because many insects end up being killed with all forms of transportation.”
- “If you shop at a supermarket, you financially support people who will use the money to buy animal products. Therefore there is no point in veganism.”
This type of argumentation is not logically sound, as the argument that a certain kind of action or behaviour would not solve all problems simultaneously and instantly, does not constitute a proof that these actions would not improve the current situation. It is commonly used in support of maintaining the status quo, comparing the proposed improvements with a utopian scenario instead of the current circumstances. This line of reasoning inspired the famous Volter aphorism “Perfect is the enemy of good” or as it is more commonly known these days – the idiom “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good (enough).”
6. “Guilt by Association” logical fallacy (also known as “Fallacy of Bad Company”). A type of ad hominem.
An attempt to reject a statement through discrediting the opponent, quoting a well-known or universally hated/mocked person or organisation, who shares certain beliefs (but not all) with him/her.
- “Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore anyone who doesn’t eat meat is capable of cruelty towards humans.”
- “In nazi Germany there was a law against animal vivisection, therefore anyone who supports animal rights is immoral / a psychopath etc.”
This is once again a logical fallacy of the “ad hominem” type – when the opponent’s character is attacked rather than the argument in question. Of course the given examples are just as valid as the statement that because Hitler loved Wagner, any fan of Wagner’s art has the potential to be a cruel tyrant or a mass murderer. Within a rational discussion, the focus needs to always be on the content and the quality of the arguments, and never on the people who present them.
7. “Anecdotal Evidence” logical fallacy (“Anecdotal Fallacy”).
The use of personal experiences or isolated examples in an attempt to prove a theory or statement, or to invalidate the opposite theory, especially in the sphere of probabilities. A subset of another logical fallacy – hasty generalisation.
- “It is absurd to claim that meat is unhealthy. My grandmother ate meat every day and lived till the age of 95.”
- “The vegan lifestyle is unhealthy. A friend of mine tried to go vegan and was anaemic after several weeks.”
- “I once had a patient who was a vegan and had rotten teeth. Therefore, the vegan diet ruins your teeth.”
You would be surprised how often people believe that remarks like these are a valid form of rational argumentation. When it comes to principles, ideas and mechanisms, isolated examples cannot be used as a substitute for scientific experiments, surveys, studies or statistical data. I assume we all know smokers who do not have lung cancer, but this does not change the fact that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer.
8. “Relative Privation” logical fallacy (a.k.a. “Not as Bad as”, “Appeal to Worse Problems” and “Children are Starving in Africa”).
An attempt to divert the topic, listing other issues, which the opponent claims are more serious. The implication being that because there are other, potentially more significant problems which society needs to tackle, we do not have the right to discuss or act in any way to try to improve the issue at hand.
- “There are people who are literally starving to death, and you spend your time feeling sorry for animals being killed for food.”
- “Crime and poverty are a much bigger problem than animal abuse. Solve the human issues first and then bother us with animal cruelty.”
With this type of logical fallacies, the idea is that if we are to accept that there are more serious issues than the currently discussed one, then the issue is entirely unimportant and does not deserve to be addressed. Consequently, it follows that we do not have the right to discuss or attempt to improve on anything, unless it is literally the utmost serious problem humanity is facing right now. In the context of discussing veganism, the fallacy of relative privation suggests that until humanity has solved absolutely all issues directly affecting humans and their well-being, there is no injustice or cruelty towards animals which we have the right to oppose.
9. “False Dilemma” logical fallacy (a.k.a. “Fallacy of Black and White Thinking”)
With this logical fallacy the participant in the debate quotes a limited number (usually two) of options or categories, often particularly extreme, and creates the impression that these are the only two options and there is no middle ground or any other alternatives.
- “If we don’t experiment on animals, we must experiment on humans. Is this what you are suggesting???”
- “Vegans choose animals over humans” (this would be valid, if we replaced the consumption of animals with the consumption of humans, but this is far from being the case.)
- “If you could only save one, who would you choose – a child or a pig?”
In this case the argument is presented in such a way as to imply that if one of the options is rejected or not right, then the other option automatically has to be accepted or vice versa. For example, if during an emergency we would choose to save a human over an animal, this would somehow excuse the needless killing of animals every day. Or that if we are to reject the needless violence towards animals, then we directly support violence towards humans. In the vivisection example, there are other types of tests and ways to guarantee the safety of a certain product without testing on live animals. To this end there are numerous practical proofs these days – thousands of cosmetic products, the production of which does not necessitate animal testing.
10. “Appeal to Emotion / Fear” logical fallacy. “Argumentum in Terrorem”.
A type of emotional manipulation tactic. In this case the debater uses exaggerated or blatantly false hypothetical scenarios, in an attempt to present the opponent’s argument in a negative light.
- “If we all became vegans this would lead to an ecological cataclysm.”
- “If veganism becomes mainstream, millions of people would be left without a livelihood.”
- “If we don’t eat animals, they will take over the world and destroy our forests.”
This constitutes a logical fallacy for several reasons. First of all, the scenarios being depicted are all-round unrealistic hypotheticals, in which a massive portion of the population would drastically change its lifestyle over the course of days, which would hypothetically lead to chaos and apocalyptic outlooks due to inability to adapt – of course in reality, changes of such scale always take time. On the other hand, potential negative outcomes are being considered in order to invalidate a position which is independent of potential consequences. If veganism is to lead to changes in the industries and in the livelihoods of a large number of people, this does not disprove that veganism is the ethical option. In the same way that loss of jobs and the need for reskilling for a high number of people is not a reasonable argument against campaigns for people to quit smoking. This also intercepts the scope of another logical fallacy “Appeal to Consequences”.
As you probably already noticed, logical fallacies are very convenient and way too easy to commit. This is why it would be of use to each and every one of us to get familiar with them in principle, so that we can not only recognise and examine them in comments made by our opponents in a debate, but also to watch out for them as much as possible in our own rationale, arguments or opinion-forming on important subjects.