Picking the Low Fruit

While feeling guilty about supplanting Scott's great post on Subjunctive Tu Quoques, (which you should read first–and while I'm at it, how did I not know about this? All that time studying particles in Greek! Here's the full link. Bravo.) I thought I might pick some low hanging fruit.

An absolute treasure trove of logical fallacies can be found through the various smear-campaigns of Center for Consumer Freedom. In case you haven't come across these folks before, NYT had a short piece a few months ago describing CCF's campaigns on behalf of various corporate interests against not for profit advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society of the United States. I'm sure Christopher Buckley didn't have these guys in mind when he wrote Thank you for Smoking but the comedy at times is equally broad.

Anyway, HSUS is squarely within their sights and sites these days as are any attempts to regulate "humane" conditions for livestock. Enter David Martosko, the mind behind Humanewatch.org, in the Sacramento Bee:

What's really at stake here is that word: "humane." HSUS seems to want a monopoly on it, even though other animal welfare-oriented groups – and plenty of scientists – disagree with its agenda. And that agenda is where the rubber meets the road: HSUS is run by vegans who don't believe anyone should eat eggs, regardless of how or where they were produced.

Most recently, HSUS has opposed attempts by California lawmakers to specifically define the standards mandated by Proposition 2. The very vague language that California voters approved in 2008 gives HSUS's enormous legal team enough wiggle room to hassle farmers who don't see things HSUS's way.

Of course, enriched chicken cages could be furnished with couches, Jacuzzis, treadmills and iPads, and activists who believe in "rights" for birds would still complain about them. HSUS is among them. And its vision of what's "humane" is outside the mainstream.

Since HSUS's view is that a vegan diet is the only "humane" way to eat, this whole "cage-free" egg campaign is a sideshow. It's a temporary step toward the group's larger goal.

Much of the argument against HSUS you find here and elsewhere has to do with what they "really want." Here it includes a "monopoly" on the word "humane" (whatever that means) and forcing everyone to eat tofu-scramble rather than scrambled eggs. Often evidence is trotted out in support of this agenda comprised of quotations from employees and fellow-travelers of HSUS, not occasionally, taken baldly out of context.

Nevertheless, there's an interesting argument from true intention here that is sort of like a circumstantial ad hominem  but seems interestingly different. It looks like the structure is something along the lines of:

1. P supports policy x (cage free housing).

2. P's real intention is to adopt radical end y (veganism).

3. Therefore, we should resist policy x (cage free housing).

It's not a simple ad hominem in this form since it doesn't deny the truth of a claim, though it could be formulated as a circumstantial ad hominem. What seems to be added is an implicit slippery slope argument that suggests that because P supports y we should not allow x since it would advance y. This is the sort of argument that lots of tea-party folks seem to fall back on–Obama's real intention is to turn the country into a socialist state, Obama advocates health care reform,Therefore we should resist health care reform. But, it's certainly not limited to the right-wing. We hear similar arguments made about corporations and certain other administrations. I don't have an example to hand right now, but I'm sure we can come up with a bunch. It's really the laziest of all argumentative vices.

In the case of President Obama the "real intention" premise is so laughable that the logical flaw in the argument is overshadowed by the obvious falsity of the premise. Most of these "real intentions"premises have a cartoonish world domination feel to them. But in the HSUS case it is, perhaps, in some sense true that HSUS are advocates of veganism (or their CEO is, or many of their members are–I'm not sure how to think about ascriptions of beliefs to organizations) and maybe even want to further that end through HSUS's actions. But, even if that's true, the conclusion does not seem to follow without some additional premises connecting x and y more closely, just like slippery slopes arguments.

Nevertheless, it is a really bad argument–even if HSUS does believe that everyone should become vegan this says little about whether their opposition to enriched cage housing as less humane than free range or other cage-less alternatives is well founded. Though to be fair to Martosko he does offer appeals to several expert organizations (American Humane Association, Temple Grandin and the American Veterinary Medical Association) who do hold that enriched cage housing is humane. But, rather than engage their serious disagreements over the substantive issue, he prefers the lazy route.

10 thoughts on “Picking the Low Fruit”

  1. Great post. The responses to HSUS are of course a convenient way to avoid the argument itself. Rather than seriously considering the reasons why HSUS is concerned about livestock conditions, their detractors prefer to throw out red herrings. That’s much easier than having to address troubling factors like animal sentience and genuinely inhumane living conditions.

    Unfortunately people are easily led astray by those pesky red herrings – the herrings are good at what they do.

  2. I didn't find Martosko's arguments lazy at all. The lazy ones are consumers who are led around (like sheep) by the HSUS. Most of them are very much in favor of animal welfare, but they resist the notion of animal "rights"–putting them philosophically at ods with HSUS, PETA, and the rest of the animal liberation movement. Why shouldn't someone articulate what they're feeling and thinking? If you don't want to be on a slippery slope toward veganism, there's never a better time to resist the trend than the present.

  3. Colin, thanks for the shout-out with the piece on emoticons.  I always wished that Plato wrote with some stage-direction.  I have a hard time detecting and then differentiating irony and sarcasm.
    I think the 'secret intention' and 'slippery slope' arguments have a nice overlap — the secret intention of speaker S is for us to accept policy a, and thereby set us on the road to bringing about policy b, c, d… and then z. 

  4. Something of an analogy–though an imperfect one–can be found in arguments about social programs:  "If we allow party R to restructure social program SS, then the next thing you know is that it's gone.  We can't let them get their foot in the door."  The difference, perhaps, in this case is that party R has numerous key and leading people who express the explicit intention to abolish benefit SS.  But you get the point.

  5. I was thinking of this form of argument when I ran across this (again) on Media Matters' site:

    "Brendan Nyhan argues that “motivated reasoning appears to play an important role in the persistence of the misperception … 55% of seniors with an unfavorable view of the law believed in the death panel myth, while only 17% of those with a favorable view did so.”"

    We get this in our commentor above as well.  If you tend to think the people with whom you disagree are nitwits or liars, then you'll believe the worst of them.  Those beliefs, I think, are your additional premises.

    So this makes me wonder whether many instances of slippery slope arguments are, as you suggests, ad homs in disguise.  They usually involve a knd of implicit and often unstated permissiveness question and they always (I think at the moment) involve misdirection onto the real motives of the supporters.   

  6. How amusing that "Charles" didn't find Martosko's arguments lazy.  Mostly likely because he himself is.  Quite.  Let me see if I have this straight: consumers allow themselves to be "led around like sheep"….supposedly meant as an insult, however lame, while at the same time they're "resisting" the notion of animal rights.  The lazy ones are like Charles who've practiced denial all their lives with respect to the price animals pay so that all their desires can be met.

    “I didn't find Martosko's arguments lazy at all. The lazy ones are consumers who are led around (like sheep) by the HSUS. Most of them are very much in favor of animal welfare, but they resist the notion of animal "rights"–putting them philosophically at ods with HSUS, PETA, and the rest of the animal liberation movement. Why shouldn't someone articulate what they're feeling and thinking? If you don't want to be on a slippery slope toward veganism, there's never a better time to resist the trend than the present.”

  7. Thanks for framing this issue in such a cogent way. David Martosko uses language that's designed to incite fear and paranoia, but he sidesteps the actual substance of California's Prop 2; namely, the concept that laying hens, pregnant sows, and veal calves should be allowed enough room to stand up, turn around, and extend their limbs. This is a very modest bar for animal welfare, and one that many consumers probably believe is already being met.
    Regarding Charles' comment "The lazy ones are consumers who are led around (like sheep) by the HSUS" – it seems to me that consumers are actually becoming much more thoughtful about their food choices, whatever their personal diets may be. Greater access to information about industrial agriculture – information that's not controlled by industry groups – encourages more, not less, independent thinking.

  8. This is a true story.  Waiting for a delayed plane in the Baltimore Airport after Christmas, Mrs. Casey was intently studying a book on rare chicken breeds her parents had given her.  I noticed at one point that standing over her studying her book was none other than Jim Perdue, of Perdue Chicken.  He looked puzzled.   

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