Why being logical is not the same as being ethical

Updated: May 7, 2020

Andrew on a Friday

Whenever Andrew speaks to a vegan, his brain appears to be radically different.

On Thursday, when there are no vegans around, Andrew is all facts, logic, empathy, reasoning and humility: his brain works as it should. When he is talking to a vegan on Friday, Andrew’s brain is no longer working, and is thinking only of eating animals.

As illustrated in a comic by the popular cartoonist Vegan Sidekick, the area of Andrew’s brain that processes logic is abnormally dominating his entire brain. This is Andrew’s Friday brain. In a feat of reasoning apparently the opposite of logic, Andrew thinks: “But I like bacon tho”.

The Vegan Sidekick’s cartoon satirises responses to veganism. The cartoonist is well known for various portrayals of the advocacy of the indefensible. In reading these cartoons, we are asked to recognise the illogical responses to unquestionably logical propositions. The underlying thread that underpins these cartoons and their ‘trademark logic’, is that there is a dichotomy between the inconsistency of meat eaters and the consistency and happy harmony of vegans. Veganism, in other words, has both logic and ethics on its side. It is arguably unsurprising that Andrew’s response does not excel in logical consistency. Veganism does arguably have ethics and logic on its side in many ways, and in many other ways it can be a confronting, complex and even infuriating subject for many people, even for vegans themselves.

Caricatures of thought processes may not be entirely helpful if we want to understand why such encounters with Andrew exist in the first place. They may not help us appreciate the many reasons why people resist arguments that may be completely logical.

When we advocate for changing the public mind, in any way we approach that, we soon enough come up against the Andrews of this world. There are many subjects that are as equally controversial and complex as veganism, so confrontations with Andrews aren’t restricted to lifestyle debates about personal ethics.

In politics, science, religion and social change, we are able to find subjects in which the reasoning is contested. Even where we simply communicate solid evidence, we run into a contest of views. Climate change, vaccination, nuclear power, farming, genetically modified foods, pharmaceuticals, medicine, health, abortion, transgender, feminism, and racism: these are just a few of the subjects that, when discussed, always find their own versions of Andrews on a Friday.

“If only Andrew were logical”, we think to ourselves after we have failed to convince Andrew to change his views on a subject like climate change, “they’d listen to reason. Our conversation wouldn’t become so needlessly emotional and argumentative. Andrew is ignoring even the facts and evidence as we speak. If Andrew wasn’t so emotional, they'd understand I’m being logical…. If only Andrew was logical.”

When Andrew tells us some variety of infuriatingly side-tracked illogic - his “But I like bacon tho” moment, “But water vapour tho” – we are tempted to dismiss his comment and respond, “But logic tho”. If our Andrew were logical, we think, they’d understand the risks or the ethics and even be ethical themselves. Many of us go further and think that if all public communication were factual and logical, we would cut out the bullshit, we might avoid propaganda and moral vacuousness, and ethics and proportionate action would triumph.

But logic tho

If only my opponents would accede tom my logic is a line of reasoning that is a common enough one. It is an easy enough assumption for intelligent people to adopt. Whenever we fail in communicating to our own version of an Andrew, it becomes comforting to know that the fault does not lie in us.

People who think of themselves as smart, can find it hard to confront the need to find new ways to communicate complex knowledge. There's something of a Dunning-Kruger effect that plays out here, and few become experts in managing their own emotions when faced with ever-constant failures of knowledge. The increasing demands to learn more about the issues that we discuss and reassess the solutions we promote are often too much for anyone to bear.

Hence they begin to adopt a form of thinking that come to the limits of compassion and self-awareness, a thinking that regulates other people but cannot summon what those scholars who have overcome the affective fallacy are now calling “emotion knowledge”. The failure must be with Andrew, we think, with that broken logic and inability to grasp our superior logic, and that is the only reason Andrew isn’t slipping on vegan Birkenstocks on Friday morning to march in a climate change protest.

Let’s call this form of thinking “But logic tho”, an endlessly naïve form of thinking about logic that many intelligent people firmly and dogmatically adopt as they advocate for isolated forms of rigour.

This naïve thinking is very hard to shake off, simply because the cognitive errors of intelligent people are always hard to shake off. “But logic tho” involves an astonishing overestimation of the powers of logic, matched only by an equally astonishing underestimation of the thinking of others. It is responsible for numerous skeptical absurdities, among them the magical belief that logic is ethics.

Acting as if this magic exists is as easy as confusing the process of logical reasoning with an ethical result or as immediate as denying the limits of logic. There is much personal bias involved in this magic, as advocates for logic can maintain its limitless powers if it serves them. Where there is some personal practice or commitment that might be at stake, where they have skin in the game, logic can suddenly appear powerless or useless (in some variety of the “But I like bacon tho” moment).

Such confusion and denial is the domain of the so-called “logic guys” (and gals), who never stick around long enough to learn more than how to pithily refute another person's claim with logic. They may know better when pressed, but such logic advocates act as if ethics were logical. This marvellous belief in the consistency of logical process slips easily into a belief in the consistency and predictable nature of reality itself.

I see black swans

Beliefs that make no room for the "black swans" of the world are unprepared for the improbable and the novel. They have been rightly exposed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. This all swans are white swans species of naïve thinking begins when we act as if we merely need to follow a series of logical, consistent steps to arrive at an ethical outcome that is the best of all possible worlds.

Some bright sparks have designated this false belief in logic the fallacy fallacy. This fallacy is all about the limits of pointing out false logic and, conversely, the limits of using correct logic. As a "meta-fallacy", its most important claim is that it is not innately unethical to fail to make a logical argument.

In the example I gave at the start of this post, “But I like bacon tho” sounds illogical enough, and the Andrews of the world might lose the debate under the rules of logic, but the truth of the statement may still be there. We might even be able to complete Andrew’s logic: Andrew is simply unwilling to give up the taste and enjoyment of the bacon despite the extreme suffering of animals.

It may even be truthful for Andrew to point this out and it might help the vegan advocate face a reality to understand it. Taste and enjoyment, and how to promote social change that may impact current tastes and enjoyments, is a key problem that no degree of logic simply removes. Fortunately for vegans, entrepreneurs out there have already thought of some creative and feasible solutions within a market-based system: a new generation of cellular and plant based meat innovations that remove the animal.

The fallacy fallacy contains the metaethical principle that the quality of a person’s logic does not necessarily always tell us about the truth or even the quality of their ethics. What is more, we should be cautious about logic, because ethics aren’t necessarily logical: the rules of logical reasoning do not necessarily guarantee an ethical argument.

While it is true that intentionally breaking the rules of an argument is unlikely to be ethical, it does not necessarily follow that by obeying the rules of logic fastidiously you do not mislead anyone.

Here’s a proverbial example often used in University logic classes:

All satellites are made of green cheese; The moon is a satellite; Therefore, the moon is made of green cheese.

This statement is a perfectly valid piece of formal logic in the form that logicians call a syllogism. It is valid logic to conclude that the moon is made of green cheese. And yet any listener will find this improbable as a piece of truth, and that is because they will know or take it as common sense that there is no evidence that satellites or moons are made of green cheese.

So a valid logical statement can be false. We require empirical evidence in order to determine the truth of an otherwise valid piece of logic. Before the Europeans discovered that there was such a thing as a continent full of brown first nations people that they named Australia, they believed that the only swans in the world were white. As Nassim Nicholas Talen reminds us, the discovery of a single black swan on the banks of the Yarra River was enough to ruin centuries of thinking and make the belief that all swans were white as absurd as thinking that satellites and the moon are made out of green cheese.

Logical claims and reasoning involve the selection of evidence. Bias, errors, and even unfairness are frequently found in the selections we make, consciously or unconsciously. The strength of our commitment to a particular cause or outcome in a discussion may even force us to select only evidence that supports our case, and combined with correct logic, we might make our case but still nonetheless give way to faulty argumentation and interpretation, ignoring the black swans of this world.

We can shake the fallacy fallacy tree at both ends, and what falls out is a misguided belief in the powers of logic and consistent reasoning to resolve all the problems of the world.

The logical delusion

Passionate and otherwise intelligent advocates are often susceptible to a particular form of falsehood that is supported by a form of naive and fallacious thinking. In some cases this belief in logic becomes a delusion. This is not to say that logic isn’t an important tool that assists us in thinking and reasoning, but because it is important, we should be careful to understand what it actually means in the world.

Not understanding the full implications of the fallacy fallacy can lead to some potent errors in critical reasoning. In our times, there has been a subtle shift from thinking of philosophy and reasoning as an end in itself, an integral part of a happy life, to thinking of reasoning as simply a means to solve problems, to demonstrate our own value, or to attack other beliefs. It is this shift that has exposed us to the potent belief in logical consistency, a belief that we can call, “the logical delusion”. The logical delusion is a sustained error in thinking and has at its core what all dangerous ideas have at their core: the substitution of power for truth. In ancient philosophy, although power certainly held sway, the limits of logic were clear enough in the writings of Plato. Plato designated those who ignored the limits of logic as sophists. Sophistry names a kind of belief in rhetoric and an instrumentalisation of truth for power that destroys the whole point of truth: if we focus only on seeming like our claims are truthful, if we listen only to truthful sounding claims, we fall into errors of thinking that Socrates exposed in Gorgias.

Sophistry is a name that is unlikely to return to public circulation, but in an age of failing trust in institutions and partisanship in debate and public opinion, it’s never been more important to understand the limits of logic and develop a greater complexity of thinking beyond the logical delusion.

Logic, with its own specific form of rigour, is not a substitute for critical and ethical reasoning. Thinking should never go without often undervalued virtues, including empathy, evidence, and humility.

The adventure of ethics

Perhaps one of the most important responsibilities we have in being ethical in our reasoning is to be vigilant and compassionate. For all the reasons discussed above, being ethical isn’t the same as being logical. Isolated claims of rigour are often untrustworthy, our own most of all. We should always have the humility and honesty to overcome our logical delusion by testing our arguments and considering alternative ways of thinking.

A victory in logic isn’t necessarily a victory in truth. Even our failures or inconsistencies are opportunities: they can also lead to useful thinking and fertile questions. So rather than being satisfied with caricaturing the false logic of our argumentative opponents, perhaps we should develop enough curiosity in thinking and enhance our "emotion knowledge" to learn new ways of arriving at the truth, even where we or others around us may appear at first to lack logic.

Outlining the limitations of logic as I have done here can only help us improve our own reasoning. Logical delusion is an inadequate response to the task of changing minds. It cannot help us solve complex problems, and it does not always help us arrive at an ethical decision making based on the best available evidence.

So beware of blue cheese and white swans, rethink the logical shoes you are wearing, and get set for the best adventure there is: the adventure of ethics.


[1] Carroll Izard, et. al, "Beyond Emotion Regulation: Emotion Utlization and Adaptive Functioning", Child Dev Perspect. 2008 Dec; 2(3): 156–163.

[2] Aisling McCrea, "The Magical Thinking of Guys Who Love Logic: Why so many men online love to use “logic” to win an argument, and then disappear before they can find out they're wrong." Culture, February 15, 2019. [3] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007.

[4] RationalWiki, "Fallacy Fallacy".

[5] Professor William H. Neher, "Is Being Logical the Same as Being Logical?" https://blogs.butler.edu/cepa/2013/12/14/is-being-logical-the-same-as-being-ethical/ [2]

[6] "The Moon is Made of Green Cheese", Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moon_is_made_of_green_cheese?fbclid=IwAR0JHpjN6iFPPJG0uMdRgnLZLtL3JosboVmV7Iy854e9ARf1AGCHJqYI7t8 [7] Scott Alexander, "Beware Isolated Demands for Rigor", Less Wrong, 2017.

[8] Donald E. Simanek, "Uses and Misuses of Logic", 2002: https://www.lockhaven.edu/~dsimanek/logic.htm?fbclid=IwAR3f5wFNY6wLdZtLn_QS68ohEIke1V31SFZncZRPfQhmR6qzcMa7XBtA8Rw [9] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011.


Only one thing is certain—that is, nothing is certain. If this statement is true, it is also false. Ancient paradox Logic is the art of going wrong with confidence. Joseph Wood Krutch ..all is but a woven web of guesses. Xenophanes (c. 570-c. 480 BCE) Greek philosopher. Logic: an instrument used for bolstering a prejudice. Elbert Hubbard We know nothing in reality; for truth lies in an abyss. Democritus, (c. 420 BCE) Greek philosopher. It is always better to say right out what you think without trying to prove anything much: for all our proofs are only variations of our opinions, and the contrary-minded listen neither to one nor the other. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) None of us knows anything, not even whether we know or do not know, nor do we know whether not knowing and knowing exist, nor in general whether there is anything or not. Metrodorus of Chios (c. 4th century BCE) Greek philosopher Most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do. James Harvey Robinson This only is certain, that there is nothing certain; and nothing more miserable and yet more arrogant than man. Pliny ("The Elder") (23-79) Roman naturalist. (Gaius Plinius Secundus). Logic is neither a science nor an art, but a dodge. Benjamin Jowett All we know of the truth is that the absolute truth, such as it is, is beyond our reach. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) German cardinal, mathematician, philosopher. De Docta Ignorantia (Learned Ignorance) Logic, like whiskey, loses its beneficial effect when taken in too large quantities. Lord Dunsany He was in Logic a great critic, Profoundly skill'd in Analytic; He could distinguish, and divide A hair 'twixt south and south-west side. Samuel Butler, Hudibras. We must beware of needless innovations, especially when guided by logic. Sir Winston Churchill, Reply, House of Commons, Dec. 17, 1942. ...logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians—and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. H. L. Mencken. The American Mercury. p. 75. Source: here.

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