Evaluating Arguments, Part 11: Counter-Examples and Understated Evidence


In this Evaluating Arguments series, I have presented a wide variety of ways to critically assess arguments in hopes of equipping you in the art of critical thinking. The list I have gone through is certainly not all-encompassing, however I can guarantee they will provide a profoundly useful basis upon which to build your critical thinking abilities.

There will undeniably be posts in the future in which I will provide some more ways and examples of evaluating arguments, so do not fret if you haven’t had enough in this series! Without further ado, let’s get into the last post of the series!

(1) Find a counter-example

A counter-example is some fact, event, proposition, or state of affairs that runs contrary to a premise, conclusion, hypothesis, worldview, or proposition.

Example: Consider someone who reasons as follows:

When we look around the world, we see things getting destroyed and things coming together. Notice, though, that every single thing we observe that is composed of parts is such that the parts both pre-exist the object and exist after the object’s destruction. The atoms that comprise an apple, for instance, existed prior to the apple coming to be, and they exist after the apple gets destroyed.

The same, then, must apply to human parts. Since the soul is part of the human, it must exist in some sense after the body’s destruction.

However, this reasoning is faulty. Consider, for instance, my heart. My heart did not exist before I came to be, and after I am destroyed, my heart will not continue to exist. Nevertheless, my heart is part of me. Thus, not every part of an object exists before and after the object’s origination and destruction.

The following is not a defense of vegetarianism or an argument against eating meat. Rather, it is a string of examples that serves to illustrate the counter-example strategy. The arguments presented are by no means representative of all the arguments on either side of the debate.


“Animals taste good, so it’s morally permissible to eat them.”

  • If humans tasted good, would it be morally acceptable to kill and eat them?
  • Under this moral justification, it would follow that anything that tastes good is morally acceptable to kill and eat.
  • Moreover, this argument conflates causes with good reasons (i.e. justifications). Tasting good may be the causal explanation for why you eat meat, but it does not morally justify that practice.

“It is natural to kill animals for food, so it’s morally permissible to eat them.”

  • This is an appeal to nature fallacy. Even if eating meat were natural, it does not follow that it is good or morally permissible.
  • Poisonous berries are in some sense natural, but they are not good in the sense of facilitating our health and flourishing. Person X may have naturally violent tendencies or be naturally self-centered, but it does not follow that it is good or morally permissible for Person X to act on these tendencies.
  • We cannot infer goodness or badness from the mere fact that X is natural or unnatural. An additional linking premise is required for such an inference to be valid.
  • There are acts that seem both natural and immoral. Some biologists hold that evolution has instilled within humans (or a proper sub-set of humans like those of the male sex) natural predispositions towards rape, aggression, and xenophobia.
  • “Natural” is quite vague, and people disagree about how the term should be used.
  • There seem to exist instances of all of the following combinations:
    • Natural + Good (empathy, water, love)
    • Natural + Bad (aggressive tendencies, predation, lying, poisonous berries)
    • Unnatural + Good (vaccines, modern medicine, clothes, housing)
    • Unnatural + Bad (atomic bombs, lethal injections, CFC’s destroying ozone layer)

“Humans are on top of the food chain, so it is morally permissible to kill and eat animals lower on the food chain.”

  • This is a subtle form of the appeal to nature fallacy, as it is clearly a baseless claim as to why the chain that exists in natural reality is necessarily connected to moral permissibility.
  • This argument is based on the principle that might makes right (i.e. that greater power entails moral permissibility). However, our moral intuitions strongly contravene this principle. Consider Person Y. Y tortures animals, forces dogs to fight each other to the death, and worse. Merely from being more powerful or mightier, or merely from the fact that Y is higher on the food chain than these animals, it does not follow in the slightest sense that Y’s torturous actions are morally permissible. Or, a father might be stronger than a child, and then use that strength to physically and emotionally abuse a child. Merely from the fact that he is mightier or stronger or physically superior, it does not follow that his actions are morally justified.
  • If some animal evolved to be higher than humans, would it be morally permissible for them to slaughter and consume humans? If an advanced alien race visited earth, and if they were more powerful, intelligent, rational, and advanced, would they be morally justified in capturing us, killing us, farming us, and eating us?

“We need meat for nutrients and protein, and thus it is morally permissible to kill and eat animals.”

  • First, meat is not essential to a healthy diet and lifestyle, so it is not a necessary condition for health.
  • Even if we need meat, that does not by itself justify killing, farming, and consuming animals like pigs and cows as opposed to lower animals like fish and insects (or laboratory-grown meat, something likely to revolutionize the future).
  • Even if you need meat, it does not necessarily justify the kind and quantity of meat we eat, or the way in which the animals are treated/farmed/killed.

“You have two choices:

Kill a cow, or die of starvation.

Or consider a situation in which you are trapped on a lifeboat. You could throw a pig off the boat, or throw an intellectually challenged human being. Which would you choose?”

  • This argument shows that we intuitively value human life more than animal life. But from the mere fact that we value human life more, it does not follow that animals utterly lack moral value. Objective value is on a spectrum. So, even if a cow has in some sense less moral value than a human, it still needs to be justified as to why their moral value is such that killing and eating them is morally justified.
  • Most of us value our family members more than strangers. Would that justify killing and eating strangers? From the mere fact of valuing X more than Y, it does not follow we can treat Y radically different than we treat X. Pinpointing a morally relevant difference between X and Y may allow one to justifiably treat them differently in some ways, but a justification must be presented regarding the extent of different treatment.
  • How we (ought to) act in an extreme case when survival is on the line is not necessarily a reflection of what is morally permissible when such extreme conditions are not met. Most first-world people, for instance, are not in such extreme situations. So, even if it is acceptable to kill and eat a cow for survival, it does not follow that it is always and in all cases morally permissible to kill and eat a cow, especially when dire survival is not on the line.
  • Finally, this argument is an instance of the absolutist fallacy. Absolutism arises when we make no exceptions for rules that have (or ought to have) exceptions. For instance, it is usually wrong to lie, but it is morally permissible to lie to the Nazis about the Jews in your basement. Similarly, one can hold that it is usually wrong to kill and eat animals, but not in all cases.

“Animals are unintelligent and non-rational, and it is thus morally permissible to kill and eat them.”

  • Why should moral worth/value be dependent upon intelligence?
  • Many animals exhibit metacognition, suffering, and (seemingly) lower forms of reason.
  • Even if they are less intelligent or less aware in some way, it does not follow that it is morally permissible to kill and eat them. Is it morally permissible to eat severely mentally handicapped people? Infants? Fetuses? Alzheimer’s patients? What if one farmed humans and genetically engineered the fetuses to have the intelligence at or lower than a pig?
  • Appealing to a principle of potential does not seem to work: It is conceivable for pigs and cows to have this sort of potential, and conceivable for some humans not to have it. Alzheimer’s patients seem not even to have the potential for the requisite capacities given the physical constitution of their neurological states.
  • It does not seem right to discriminate between two genetically identical and equally unintelligent groups of humans merely because one has the potential to be more intelligent or exhibit certain rational capacities while the other does not. If the appeal to potential does not work with the two groups of humans, it seems unable to justify different treatment among different species.

Most would agree that it is morally impermissible to unnecessarily kill and eat people. So, if it is morally permissible to kill pigs for food, but not morally permissible to kill people for food, there must be some morally relevant difference between them such that it justifies killing and eating the pig for food but not the person.

Merely possessing different genetic makeup does not justify killing and eating them. A counter-argument could be used that points to aliens. Imagine aliens visit earth and begin farming humans for food. Is that morally permissible? We intuitively think not. If it’s not okay for me to eat people for food I do not need, then it is not permissible for an alien to do that. A mere genetic difference between humans and aliens does not justify the aliens in killing and eating us.

There is also a clear problem of individuation here. What percentage of genetic dissimilarity constitutes a morally relevant difference between organism X and organism Y such that it justifies killing and eating X but not killing and eating Y? Men and women have similar yet different genetic makeup. Humans and chimpanzees have similar yet different genetic makeup as well. Does that mean it is worst for me to kill and eat my identical twin, bad (but not as bad as eating my identical twin) to kill and eat a man, bad (but not as bad as as eating a man) to kill and eat a woman, bad (but not as bad as eating a woman) to kill and eat even further genetically dissimilar humans, bad (but not as bad as eating further genetically dissimilar humans) to kill and eat a chimpanzee, and so on? Where do we draw the line? Different species? What if a population of humans, say Alaskan eskimos, were isolated from the rest of humanity for quite a while and evolved to the point of being a different species or sub-species? Would this suffice to justify the rest of us farming them, killing them, and eating them?

If you point to intelligence or rationality, counterexamples still seem to abound. Infants and severely mentally handicapped individuals are not as intelligent as many animals that we kill and eat, and these humans are (at least in their present state) utterly incapable of reason as well. Their physical constitutions are such that they seem to lack the requisite capacities for rational thought. Yet, we still oppose killing and eating these humans.

Another argument someone might give is: “Well, the pig would do it to us. Put a pig alone with a human, and the pig would eat the human. So it’s okay for us to do it to them.”

Counter-example: Consider the example of a very small child punching you. Is it permissible for you to punch the child back, reasoning, “well, he did it to me, so I can do it to him”? This is obviously not a sufficient justification for punching the child.

It is also important to consider the following question: Why do we think it is okay to farm cows, slaughter them, and eat them, yet we would think it an atrocity if we found out someone was farming puppies, slaughtering them, and eating them? What is the morally relevant difference between dogs and cows such that it justifies treating them differently? Both are sentient; both have about the same intelligence; both have the capacity to suffer; and so on.

Many say, “well, humans love puppies and care about them. They are valuable to humans, and we find them cute. We even evolved a partnership with them!”

But this is clearly mistaken. “Humans caring about/loving them” is not an intrinsic property of the dogs themselves, it’s merely an extrinsic property. Under this proposal, the reason it’s wrong doesn’t have anything to do with the intrinsic properties of the organisms, but rather with the extrinsic property of “being cared about by us”. But merely from the fact that some organism X is cared about by us and Y is not cared about by us, nothing follows about their objective, ontological moral status. The extent of their moral status is fixed irrespective of whether or not we care about them. If there were an orphan boy who nobody cared about, would he suddenly lose his moral status? Of course not. The epistemic and/or affective states of people do not straightforwardly entail claims about the moral status of dogs and cows.

Furthermore, it seems that evolution could have just as easily favored a different species to be man’s “best friend”; the fact that it was canines was pure happenstance. This further attests to the fact that there is nothing intrinsic to dogs that sets them apart from cows with regard to moral status, as evolution could have just as easily favored cows to be man’s “best friend” had the chancy evolutionary process gone differently.

(2) Commits the fallacy of understated evidence

What is the fallacy of understated evidence? Watch this short and informative video.

In short, a person is guilty of the fallacy of understated evidence when they successfully identify some fact F that makes hypothesis H more probable compared to other hypotheses, but they fail to take into account either that some further fact F1 about F makes H less probable compared to other hypotheses, or they fail to take into account an unrelated fact F2 that makes hypothesis H less probable compared to other hypotheses.

For instance, if a theist says “the existence of consciousness favors theism over naturalism”, a naturalist could point out that a further fact about consciousness — namely, the utter dependence of the mind on the proper functioning of the physical brain — favors naturalism over theism.

By only identifying consciousness as favoring theism, the theist would be committing the fallacy of understated evidence.

Example: Eliminative Materialism

Folk psychology refers to the system of propositional attitudes — mental states that can be structured as declarative sentences of the general form “Subject S phi’s that proposition P”, such as “John believes that milk is in the fridge”, or “John desires…wants…fears…dreams…doubts…perceives…feels…”.

Eliminative materialists seek to eliminate such mental terminology (which refers to mental states) from our vocabulary and affirms that the mind as we usually understand it does not exist. One argument against folk psychology (FP) runs as follows:

FP has a poor record, one consisting of numerous past retreats and stagnations. So, FP is likely false.

Retreat: in the past, FP was used to explain all manner of phenomena, however the domain of FP has become increasingly restricted. Now we apply it only to some more complex animals and humans. As scientific knowledge has increased, FP’s explanatory power has drastically decreased

Stagnation: FP hasn’t developed significantly for thousands of years. The theory used by the ancient Greeks was little different than the one we use now. In addition, there has been no advance in FP with respect to solving any of numerous problems like schizophrenia (its nature and causes), sleep (its function), and so on.

However, this argument commits the fallacy of understated evidence. Somebody who defends FP could easily explain retreat and stagnation.

There are many reasons why FP could have been over-extended and inappropriately applied to things in the past. We have, for instance, a natural drive to understand and explain things. People in the past wanted to explain the world. But we also have a tendency to explain the world in terms of things with which we are familiar. Humans spend most of our time with other humans. FP explains human behavior, so when confronted with events in the natural world, people invoked FP because it was (a) familiar and (b) an easy, readily-available explanation. This is perfectly plausible in explaining FP’s retreat, but it does not suggest in the slightest that FP is, in fact, wrong for explaining humans. Thus, the eliminative materialist ignores relevant considerations that render his or her argument unsound.

With regard to stagnation, this seems to be a non-issue. If FP is, indeed, correct, it is completely natural for it to be changeless with respect to explaining or accounting for human behavior. There is no need for something to change much if its core tenets accurately reflect, explain, and predict reality.

Another example: The eliminative materialist inductive argument against FP

Folk theories in general have a very poor track record. Folk theories of matter, cosmology, medicine, mental illness, and so on have been wholly discredited (even if they survived for thousands of years). When we look at folk theories, we find countless examples of outright elimination of their claims, such as the claim that there are only four fundamental constituent elements. It is implausible to suppose, then, that our folk theory of the mind happened to accurately latch onto reality, especially since consciousness is such a complex phenomenon.

There are two problems with this argument, both of which commit the fallacy of understated evidence.

First, many past theories have not been wholly eliminated. Rather, they have been partially reduced. So, the induction is fairly weak on its own terms. Many things that we take to exist today were accepted to exist in the past.

Second, this argument relies on an analogy. FP, being a folk theory, is like the theory of witches or Aristotelian cosmology; and the eliminativist is like the pioneer who rejects these theories wholesale.

The trouble is that there are many different analogies we might construct here, and it is impossible to know at the present time which one is the correct one. Churchland suggests that the eliminativist is comparable to the radical astronomer who denies the existence of Aristotelian crystal spheres. But what if the eliminativist is more like the astronomer who denies the existence of stars themselves? Or of points of light in the sky Similarly, is the eliminativist like a chemist who denies the existence of caloric, or is he like the nut who denies the existence of heat itself?

The trouble is, we can’t know which is the right analogy until the debate is over — until we have the benefit of hindsight and we can say whether or not the eliminativists were successful. This kind of inductive argument to defend eliminativism, then, can easily be flipped into an inductive argument against eliminativism:

Just take each case of past theory-elimination, and then compare the modern eliminativist to somebody who denied the existence of something that survived the elimination. The key thing to realize is that when we falsify old theories, it almost never involves an outright rejection of all their tenets. Instead, it usually involves refining some tenets, rejecting others, keeping others, and building on others. Thus, we cannot appeal to induction here since we need to know which analogy is proper to draw (concerning which we are not in the proper epistemic position).

Author: Joe

Email: NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com

Sources: Killing Animals For Food

Eliminative Materialism

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