Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Contra Ivan

I'm still catching up on From Wine to Water, but I thought this post was worth commenting on. Ivan argues that, in spite of the obvious fact that two contradictory statements cannot be true, our day-to-day thoughts contradict themselves all the time. As an example, he describes a person who eats meat because it tastes good but also believes that killing animals is morally wrong. I enjoyed reading the post, but I don't think Ivan is correct here for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the actual contradiction he teases out is not entirely accurate.

...to get an out-and-out contradiction, we need to do a bit more work, and probably to draw upon other things we believe to be true. For example, we might believe that 3) we will eat animals since they are delicious, and 4) we will not do things that are terrible. The explicit contradiction now emerges: We will not do things that are terrible, such as hurting animals. And we will hurt animals to eat them, since they are delicious. We both will and will not do something terrible. P and not-P.

What Ivan meant here with point (4) - and, Ivan, please correct me if I'm wrong - sounds more like 4b) we should not do things that are terrible. There's no contradiction between "we will eat meat because it is delicious" and "we shouldn't eat meat because of the cruelty involved".

Another possibility is that Ivan meant 4c) we do not do things that are terrible. This seems closer to the way most people think, since after all it's very hard for anybody to accept that they do terrible things. But there's no necessary contradiction between "we do not do things that are terrible" and "hurting animals to eat them is terrible"! We might imagine a point 5) if we do not eat this meat, somebody else will, or a point 6) eating this meat helps the farmers and abattoir workers feed their own families. Neither of these points are particularly good arguments, but that is not particularly relevant*. To the extent that meat-eaters usually think their meat-eating out, it's highly likely that hey avoid a contradiction by the use of some such rationalization.

Most importantly, though, I want to question Ivan's implicit assumption that most people do think out their practices in this way. Since there's no immediate and obvious contradiction in "hurting animals is wrong, but I still eat meat", the law of non-contradiction does not apply**. In the absence of a serious philosophical inquiry into your own justification for meat-eating, your justification is far too vague to contradict or be contradicted by anything!

Unlike Ivan, I think that people usually do obey the law of non-contradiction in their own thought. You can see this if you argue against, say, somebody who eats meat. If you point out an apparent contradiction, as Ivan did in his post, they will invariably argue against you or come up with an alternate rationalization for eating meat (assuming they don't change their mind). What they will not do is shrug their shoulders and calmly accept the contradiction. Ivan is wrong to argue that human cognition does not obey the law of non-contradiction, but he's not all wrong. Human action, of course, breaks the law of non-contradiction all the time - and that's why we need philosophy.


* Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian who believes that eating meat is ethically wrong.

** If there is an "immediate and obvious" contradiction here, then there is also a similar contradiction in this example: "I wish to go to the post office, which lies due south from my apartment, but in order to get to the door of my apartment I first have to take five steps north."


  1. I plan to bring the pain. But maybe not until this weekend.

  2. I’ll first address your main point, in your last two paragraphs. I am well aware that most people don’t “think out their practices in this way.” (I hope I didn’t imply otherwise.) Furthermore, most people don’t think out their thoughts in this way. That is, they don’t tease out assumptions and implications of their thoughts.

    So do most people hold direct contradictions in their consciousness at one moment? No, certainly not. But do most people espouse contradictory beliefs? And do most people act in ways that cannot be rationally reconciled with their beliefs? Absolutely.

    To address points earlier on in your post, I was indeed rolling with the contradiction I wrote out: “we will not do things that are terrible” and “we will do something terrible.” You could of course do requisite tweaking upstream and arrive instead at contradictions in terms of “should” or “do” rather than “will do.” I’m not finding that worrisome, though. So if I’m missing its force, please let me know how.

    You suggest brining in other points like supporting farmers. This is one of many ways one might challenge the argument I’d sketched. The argument included an opinion that hurting animals is terrible, and a statement that eating meat normally entails killing animals, which would normally be understood as hurting them. There are plenty of off-ramps. My point was that plenty of people who eat meat don’t want to take any of them. I eat meat not infrequently, and know it’s pretty shitty—but most meat-eaters won’t similarly acknowledge that. More broadly, many meat-eaters don’t want to let go of any part of the contradiction, e.g. by qualifying or weakening their stated opposition to animal suffering, or their stated opposition to avoiding things they disapprove of.

  3. I think we're running up against a conflict of experience here, Ivan. Would you claim that many meat-eaters refuse to qualify their stated opposition to animal suffering by saying something like "but it's alright because they're given happy lives" (or "because they wouldn't have been born if not for the meat industry", etc)? If that's your claim, then you've got some empirical evidence for your position that I don't. In my experience, meat-eaters jump very quickly onto the first off-ramp they see.

    As for the should/will thing: "we should not do terrible things" vs "we are doing something terrible" seems to me like the most psychologically accurate formulation of your contradiction. If I'm right, there's no contradiction at all (so there's the force). I think you have to twist the way we normally think a bit to arrive at a "we should not/we should" or a "we do not/we do" contradiction. On reflection, however, this is really part of my first point, which is that meat-eaters (and, by extension, the rest of us) just don't think in the way you laid out. Of course, this point rests on empirical grounds, and I'm not at all confident that I'm right!

    We need a study, probably.

  4. (also thank you for bringing the pain punctually, I appreciate it)

  5. No, I don’t think we’re drawing on markedly different experiences. I’ve spoken with plenty of people who say things like “they wouldn't have been born if not for the meat industry.” But such statements alone don’t get the job done. They need to be coupled with a statement like 1) “I don’t actually think that ‘hurting animals is terrible’” (the statement that I’d written about in my original post, and that many meat-eaters want to affirm) “but merely that hurting animals is somewhat negative, and worth weighing against the benefits obtained thereby,” or 2) “hurting animals is terrible, but I personally don’t care enough to cause less of it,” or 3) “I am not opposed to hurting animals.”

    People are certainly ready to rationalize. But few are ready to reason—and reason all the way to the end. They take off-ramps away from the explicit contradiction, but don’t follow them all the way to consistency.

    As for the other line of discussion, sure, there’s weakness, impulsivity, akrasia. There is doing something you think you shouldn’t, and then wishing you hadn’t; or at least doing something you feel conflicted about. There is the intellectually committed vegan who caves and scarfs down a delicious bacon cheeseburger.

    But when someone does something not as a mistake or a sin, but as a habit or a practice, that’s different. If someone is constantly affirming in practice what they deny in theory, then something is up. (I thought that the terminology of “will do” and “will not do” did a decent job of hitting both sides of this, and connecting them—although maybe I was mistaken.) If I speak against hurting animals and yet daily eat factory farmed meat, something is up. If I speak against alcohol while sipping a beer, something is up.

    Wouldn’t you agree that such juxtapositions don’t realistically fit into coherent philosophies? Wouldn’t you agree that someone who held fully consistent views (i.e. no contradictions in stated views, or any necessary assumptions or implications of those stated views) would not be expected to perpetually do something that she professed reason and resolve to avoid?

  6. Well absolutely. Our everyday lives involve plenty of contradictions in itself. And if we start analyzing them a long book can be written on them.
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