Saturday, May 9, 2020

The case against pro-choice vegans

Stating that there are “ethical reasons” against eating meat strongly implies that eating meat is immoral. Furthermore, it implies that those who do eat meat should be judged as immoral for doing so. Some vegetarians and vegans might resist these implications. One might claim that giving up meat is just a “personal choice” and others are free to eat what they want. To quote New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (who is a vegan), “This is the United States of America, and I, for one, believe in our freedom to choose. So, I don’t want to preach to anybody about their diets; that’s just not how I live” (1). While there may be many vegans and vegetarians that hold this this position, is it defensible?

First, it is important to define two important terms. Ethical veganism is the view which states one ought to avoid purchasing and consuming animal products in order to reduce unnecessary animal cruelty and suffering.* Ethical vegans reject the idea that animals are mere things for humans to use and abuse for entertainment or to maximize human taste pleasure. Animals should be treated as subjects not objects. We can contrast ethical veganism with carnism. Carnism is the view which states that eating meat and using animals is morally permissible. Carnism is usually defended by appealing to the intellectual superiority of humans over other animals or skepticism about animal minds (e.g. animals don’t feel pain).

The pro-choice position

Pro-choice vegan advocates maintain that ethical veganism is true, but that one should be tolerant of carnists. On a common conception, tolerance requires treating others with respect, even if they have opposing values and beliefs that you find indefensible. If this is what vegans and vegetarians mean by tolerance, then there is no issue. But the pro-choice vegan advocates seem to accept a much broader conception of tolerance. Not only should we show respect to those who we disagree with, we should not even try to persuade them that carnism is indefensible or tell them that their eating habits are immoral. Instead, some ethical vegans endorse “freedom of choice” when it comes to eating habits. They believe that it is wrong to consume animal products because it normalizes and perpetuates animal cruelty on a massive scale, but act as if it is fine when other people do it. For example, ethical vegans who passively eat dinner with people who are eating meat. To see why this is a peculiar position (if it’s not already obvious), consider a parallel case.

Imagine that a woman (A) who recently had an abortion enters a discussion with another woman (B) who is pro-life advocate. First, B argues that fetuses have a right-to-life and that abortion is seriously immoral, equivalent to murdering an innocent adult. B also maintains that there are no special circumstances (e.g. rape or incest) that would provide moral justification for having an abortion. Then, A informs B that she just recently had an abortion because she had changed her mind about wanting to have children. 

What should B think about A’s decision, given her moral beliefs? Here are two possible responses:

R1: While I strongly believe what A did was seriously immoral, I am pro-choice when it comes to ethical decision making. I think you should be free to engage in immoral behavior if you want to, even if it does harm or violate the rights of others.  

R2: What A did was seriously wrong! A’s decision was morally indefensible as it violated the rights of an innocent human. You can’t just murder someone because it’s convenient for you!

While you should consult your own intuitions, I think it’s clear that R2 is the rational response to the situation. You might think that it would be socially inappropriate or rude to morally condemn A, but have such thoughts are perfectly reasonable given the moral beliefs of B and the actions of A. Other parallel cases could be developed by substituting the content of the dialogue with other moral issues. Would it make sense for an 18th century abolitionist to have been “pro-choice” about slaveholding? Or a women’s rights activist to be “pro-choice” about human rights? If not, then why would it make sense for ethical veganism to be consistent with being pro-choice?

Possible disanalogies

1)     Moral uncertainty: Ethical vegans are tolerant of others’ behavior because they’re not sure their position is correct. There are some doubts whether it’s wrong to kill or harm animals, and having these doubts warrants the “pro-choice” outlook. After all, ethical vegans might hold false beliefs (e.g. beliefs about nutrition or animal minds).  
Response: One could raise possible doubts about any position. That does not mean we aren’t justified in having beliefs. In cases where there are lots of unknowns, adopting an agnostic stance makes sense. But those who accept ethical veganism aren’t typically agnostics. If they accept ethical veganism, they should believe that there are strong reasons for accepting it.
2)    Differing degrees of wrongness: One might think that carnism is morally indefensible but hold that it isn’t seriously wrong.

Response: Perhaps ethical vegans believe that abstaining from eating meat is morally praiseworthy rather than obligatory. Maybe meat eating is perceived to be morally equivalent to stealing pirated music or adultery, rather than acts of murder or violence against humans. It’s immoral, but not so immoral that it should cause us to criticize those who engage in such behavior. It would be interesting to try and empirically gauge how wrong vegans and vegetarians consider meat eating to be. If ethical vegans don’t believe that eating meat is seriously wrong, it could potentially reconcile the conflict between being “pro-choice” and an ethical vegan.

3)    Moral ignorance: One might think that carnism is morally indefensible but acknowledge that most people haven’t come to that realization, either because they haven’t had the time to really think about it or haven’t been exposed to enough information.
Response: Ignorance of the wrongness of an action or practice can excuse one’s behavior. But if ethical vegans believe most people are ignorant about the meat industry, shouldn’t they try to inform them? It may well be true that most people aren’t informed, but how would that justify a “pro-choice” position?


I have argued that those who are serious about ethical veganism, but adopt a pro-choice stance, are being inconsistent. If someone believes an action is morally wrong, and then they see someone engaging in that action, they should judge that person’s action to be wrong and if possible, try to influence their behavior. Ethical vegans could avoid the inconsistency by appealing to moral uncertainty or by adopting a position which holds that veganism is praiseworthy rather than morally obligatory. 

There's still a lot to be said about what consistent ethical vegans should do to influence others' behavior. Should all ethical vegans become activists? Should they refuse to eat dinner with meat eaters? Should they offer their family and friends pamplets to inform them about factory farms? I won't take a stance on these issues here, as I am still not sure what the most effective means of moral persuasion are. What I do know is that being a passive bystander around meat eaters will likely prolong the social acceptance of eating meat. As philosopher Michael Huemer observes, "for most of the wrongs of the past--slavery, colonialism, the oppression of women--the victims could and did speak up. In the present case, the victims will never be able to act or speak for themselves. There is no one to speak against what we humans are doing, except us. So we have to do it. If we don't it will never stop" (Huemer 2019).  

I suspect that many of the tactics used by modern animal rights activists (e.g. protesting inside restaurants, jumping on stage at political rallies) are counterproductive and often result in a backfire effect. To reach conclusions about these more practical issues, we should shift our attention towards the psychological sciences. Research on moral persuasion, self-control, peer pressure, and belief formation, will likely be useful when deciding upon the right strategies. Moral philosophy can only take us so far. 


Huemer, M. (2019). Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism. Routledge.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Reasonable doubts and the OJ verdict

In the United States, criminal convictions require that the jurors have no reasonable doubts about the suspect’s guilt. If there are any, the jurors must vote not guilty. In the eyes of the law, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of justification, used primarily to ensure that innocent people are not wrongly convicted. But jurors (and even legal experts) often have different conceptions of reasonable doubt. Can a reasonable doubt be quantified in probabilistic terms (e.g. 5% chance suspect is innocent)? Can a reasonable doubt be determined by self-reports of confidence? How do you determine whether a judgment is reasonable? Reasonable given the jurors’ background knowledge and cognitive abilities? Or is there some way of determining whether a judgment is reasonable without taking into account of knowledge and intelligence?

To further analyze this concept of reasonable doubt, it helps to apply it to a real-world case: The OJ Simpson trial (see Toobin 2015 for a detailed account of the events).

There are at least three distinct questions that are often conflated about the OJ verdict:
1)     Did OJ commit the murders?
2)    Is it reasonable to doubt that OJ committed the murders?
3)    Did the prosecution’s evidence prove beyond a reasonable doubt that OJ committed the murders?

While there may be a consensus among legal experts regarding the first two questions, some prominent legal experts disagree about the third. Did the jury reach the proper verdict?*

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who was part of Simpson’s defense team, argues that given the evidence presented, the jury was reasonable to believe that the LAPD lied and fabricated some of the evidence (Dershowitz, 1996). These beliefs were reasonable because the defense team presented the jury with information about a chemical compound EDTA that was found in the blood sample taken from OJ’s sock. The defense team argued that the presence of EDTA indicated that the blood did not come directly from Simpson, but came from a preserved sample of his blood taken by the LAPD detectives. One of the theories presented to the jury was that one of the officers spilled the blood obtained from Simpson on the sock so that they would have conclusive evidence of his guilt. Dershowitz then argues that if the LAPD fabricated some evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that OJ was guilty. To support this conclusion, Dershowtiz cites a closing argument by one of his expert witnesses, Dr. Henry Lee: "If you find a cockroach in a bowl of spaghetti, you don't look for another cockroach before you throw out the whole bowl of spaghetti." 

Former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi disagrees with Dershowitz’s analysis of the verdict. Bugliosi argues that, even if it was reasonable to believe that some of the evidence was fabricated, it was still unreasonable to doubt Simpson committed the murders, given that there was still ample evidence of his guilt. These opposing viewpoints held by two prominent legal experts raises an interesting question about the reasonable doubt standard: how much evidence is needed to undermine the belief that a suspect is guilty? Who is right on this point? Dershowtiz or Bugliosi?

Casting aside any doubts about the conspiracy claims of Simpson’s defense team, assume for the sake of argument that the LAPD did plant the bloody sock. Would it be reasonable to conclude that OJ might be innocent? Bugliosi firmly argues, “No” (Bugliosi, 1996). He points out that there was still enough evidence (both physical and circumstantial) to convict Simpson that couldn’t have been fake or tampered with. Bugliosi cites the conclusive evidence of Simpson’s blood at the murder scene, the bloody size-12 bootprints discovered with a trail of OJ’s blood to the left (bandaged left hand the morning after), no alibi for OJ during the 45 minute window when the murders took place, the brutal nature of the killings (unlikely that drug dealers or strangers would do this), ample evidence that OJ owned and wore the murder gloves, and his prior history of spousal abuse. Furthermore, Bugliosi points out that not a shred of evidence points in the direction of another suspect.**

Dershowitz, of course, is aware of the evidence that Bugliosi cites. Despite the fact that they are both extremely knowledgeable and skilled lawyers, they still disagree about whether the verdict was reasonable. If the experts disagree, how can we establish whether a given verdict is proper or not? One way to settle the dispute is to carefully examine an epistemic principle that is at the heart of their disagreement. Here is what I take the underlying principle to be:

The No Defeater (ND) principle: In order to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt, there may be no defeaters to the evidence that establishes guilt.

I think it’s fair to say that Dershowitz endorses this principle, whereas Bugliosi clearly rejects it. How plausible is it as a general principle for establishing reasonable doubt? To test its plausibility, let’s rewind the tape and suppose that the prosecution came across some additional evidence. A video is presented to the jury that features OJ walking up North Rockingham Avenue, entering his Bronco with a visibly bloody left hand. Would it be possible to reasonably doubt Simpson’s guilt at this point? According to the ND principle, it would be, provided that the jury were aware of some defeaters (e.g. a planted bloody sock). But I don’t buy this for a second. For defeaters to undermine OJ’s guilt, in this hypothetical case, they would need to undermine or cast doubt upon the preponderance of evidence, not just some of the evidence. One piece of damning evidence is enough to discount any of the defeaters presented by the defense team. Of course, we could run the tape back and imagine a scenario where the video evidence, as well as the rest of the evidence, would have been defeated. Suppose that the defense team uncovered that the LAPD hired an OJ look-alike to appear on camera that night to frame OJ. That would clearly undermine the prosecution’s evidence. But absent such evidence, the video evidence alone would be enough to establish guilt, even if there were some credible evidence that the LAPD planted a sock or a glove.

The ND principle makes it much too easy to reach a reasonable doubt. A more plausible principle would be that in order for there to be a reasonable doubt about a murder suspect, the defeaters in question must undermine or establish serious doubts upon most of the evidence that incriminates the suspect. Why? Because we still need to explain why the rest of the incriminating evidence exists. If there are no reasonable alternative explanations for the majority of the evidence, the best explanation (i.e. the murder suspect did it) prevails. One can have reasonable doubts regarding some of evidence presented in a trial. And I'm sure the jurors did in the case of the Simpson case. But one cannot forget about the rest of the evidence and prefer far less likely explanations just because some of the evidence for a theory is suspicious. 

In closing, I think Buglosi was right about the verdict, even if we were to limit ourselves to  the evidence presented. There was no reasonable doubt that OJ did it, even if there were reasonable doubts about some of the evidence. 

*The question is a normative rather than a descriptive one. Whether or not OJ did it is a factual question. I take it that whether the verdict was proper depends on the justification of the jurors’ beliefs (not the facts).  

**In Bugliosi’s book “Outrage”, he documents additional evidence of guilt that was not discussed or presented to the jury. In brief: OJ’s behavior after the murder (suicide note, fled from cops with disguise and 9k of cash), circumstantial evidence of premeditation (purchase of disguise 2 weeks before the murder), incriminating testimony from OJ that he had cut his hand that night and the he left blood in several locations (but no explanation for how this happened).

Works cited: 

Bugliosi, V. (1996). Outrage: The five reasons why OJ Simpson got away with murder. WW Norton & Company.
Dershowitz, A. M. (1996). Reasonable doubts: The OJ Simpson case and the criminal justice system (p. 55). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Toobin, J. (2015). The Run of His Life: The People VOJ Simpson. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Naming the trait: Part 1

I take it as a given that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to sentient beings, regardless of species. It is wrong to stab puppies in the eyes, wrong to yank off a cat’s tail, and wrong to slice off a chicken’s beak. And it’s wrong to do these things all for the same reason: it causes animals to undergo immense suffering. I don’t think it takes an argument to understand why this is true, but rather, I believe the wrongness of harming sentient beings for trivial reasons is self-evident. A non-obvious ethical question is whether it is morally permissible to end a sentient creature’s life for human consumption, provided the creature did not suffer or feel pain in the process of dying 

There are some philosophers that take issue with factory farms but not with the act of humanely killing animals. Philosopher Peter Singer has stated that if an animal has lived a good natural life and does not undergo any substantial suffering, it imorally permissible to kill the animal for food. One could imagine a farm where the animals live good lives. Suppose that the animals get to engage in natural behaviors, keep their offspring, are not systematically mutilated, and are slaughtered on site through a process that results in instantaneous destruction of their brain. Let’s also stipulate that the animals wouldn’t know that their death was near and that they would miss or worry about their slaughtered relatives. Given that there is no substantial suffering for the animals, Singer would say that we have an instance of ethical animal farming.
While the hypothetical case for ethical animal farming may sound very plausible, there is a powerful objection that may cause you to reconsider your views. Put simply, what if we changed the species of the animal being farmed from, say, cows to humans? If the humans get to live good lives, get to engage in natural behaviors, and are painlessly killed without any foreknowledge, would it be okay to kill humans for food? And if not, what is the morally relevant difference between humans and cows that renders the action wrong in one case and permissible in the other? 

Vegan youtuber Ask Yourself (Isaac) poses the question as a challenge to “name the trait”. If there is a morally relevant difference, then there is some trait (or set of traits) that explains why it’s wrong to kill humans but not cows. While there are many attempts to name the trait (e.g. species, intelligence, rationality, reciprocation) I will focus on the answer that seems most plausible. In short, I don’t think it is a single trait that makes the moral difference, but rather, a set of traits. 

The personhood response

Humans are morally superior to farm animals because they are persons. That is to say, humans are self-aware, have a strong desire to go on living, and have long-term life projects (e.g. raising a family, saving the rainforests). They are also involved in complex social relationships, which mean that their deaths can affect and harm lots of other persons. Cows do not have these psychological traits. They may have short term desires to eat and procreate, but it is unlikely that they have the cognitive capacities to understand their own existence or the nature of death. Therefore, because humans are persons, they have a higher moral status than cows, which in turn makes it wrong to kill humans, but permissible to kill cows.  

The personhood reductio 

While I do think personhood is the strongest response to the name-the-trait challenge, it has some (potentially) disturbing implications. Not all humans possess the psychological traits required for personhood (e.g. infants and humans with severe cognitive disabilities). Thus, the explanation I’m offering would not work in the case of painlessly killing marginal cases for food. So, if it’s morally permissible to kill creatures lacking personhood for food, then it would be morally permissible to kill babies or the cognitively disabled for food.  

Isaac observes that many of the responses to name-the-trait have this implication (e.g. intelligence, rationality), and he believes that this renders all such responses absurd or unacceptable. If we are to deny any human the right the life, we have rejected a widely held moral principle: all humans have an equal right to life. Isaac implies that since the personhood response is inconsistent with widely held moral intuitions, we should reject or dismiss it. Put another way, if one concedes that some humans don’t have a right to life, they have lost the moral debate. I don’t find Isaac’s response compelling for several reasons. Assuming for the sake of argument that Isaac’s empirical claim is true, the popularity of a moral view is not a deciding factor in resolving difficult questions in ethics. If it were, then we would already have strong reasons to reject ethical veganism. 

There seems to be an inconsistency in Isaac’s approach to ethics. To defend ethical veganism, Isaac appeals to rational arguments that explain why eating meat is immoral. But in responding to critics, he appeals to irrelevant considerations, like popularity. It could be that Isaac is just a pragmatist, using reason when it’s useful for moral persuasion. But given his strong emphasis on being logically consistent, I will continue to interpret his objections as substantive philosophical claims. In the next post of this series, I will further analyze the personhood reductio and the implications for ethical veganism. Specifically, I will address the following questions: 

Firstly, if one concedes that it is morally permissible to breed and kill babies for food, does one really lose the debate? Secondly, if one cannot name-the-trait, is veganism the only rationally defensible position? 

Thursday, December 20, 2018


In the free will debate, there is a distinction to be made between the metaphysical views of determinism and fatalism. Determinism is a view about the nature of causation, that every event was necessarily caused by some prior events evolving in accord with the laws of nature. This thesis has direct implications for human agency, in that, if we are determined to act based on the past, we could not have done otherwise. Fatalism states that the unfolding of all events happens necessarily, neutral on questions of causation. On fatalism, the world—at any point in time— could not have been otherwise.

Most philosophers probably reject fatalism, but, as far as I know, there isn’t a name for the position. So, from here on out, I will refer to the negation of fatalism as anti-fatalism. To accept anti-fatalism, one would just have to demonstrate a possible difference in the evolution of the universe. I will argue that the only way to refute fatalism would be to demonstrate that the universe had an absolute beginning that was indeterministic. If the eternal universe model, or any alternative model of the universe is correct, then the world is, was, and always will be, necessarily the way that things are.

We can imagine that the past could have been different. Someone other than Benjamin Franklin could have invented the bifocals, Hillary Clinton could have won the 2016 election, and I could have majored in neuroscience rather than philosophy. Nothing (logically) impossible when it comes to the past being different. However, when we ask whether these things are metaphysically possible, it is going to depend upon on whether fatalism is correct. If fatalism is true, then all of these imagined events would be metaphysically impossible (though, still logically possible). Determinists regularly claim that it is possible that the past could have been different, and in those hypothetical alternative worlds, that we could have done otherwise. What sense of possibility does the determinist have in mind: logical or metaphysical? If logical possibility, then the claim is uncontroversial. There are no contradictions involved in supposing Benjamin Franklin’s cousin could have invented the bifocals or that Hillary Clinton could have won the 2016 election. If metaphysical possibility, the truth of the claim is not as obvious.

For the sake of argument, suppose that both 1) determinism is true, and 2) it was metaphysically possible for Hillary Clinton to have won the 2016 election (HC). For HC to be true, there must be a metaphysically possible world where either the past (e.g. No Russians) and/or laws of nature were different. But how could we explain the possibility of a difference if our universe is deterministic? On determinism, the possibility of a different present requires the possibility of a different past. But any change in the past requires either a subsequent change in the past, ad infinitum. Given that changing the past seems hopeless, one might be tempted to go back to the Big Bang to posit a change in the laws of nature. If the initial conditions of the universe were different, then Hillary could have won. But notice that we wind up in the same exact position as before. How could we explain the possibility of a difference in the initial state, if the universe is deterministic?

To make room for alternative possibilities, one has to introduce some randomness or indeterminacy for the laws of nature or initial conditions of the universe.* Assuming that the laws of nature arose at the moment of the Big Bang, and that there was no such thing as a past that preceded the singularity, one could hold that you can have indeterminism at the very beginning but that everything else afterwards was determined. Here, we have a possible world where determinism is true, but fatalism is not. However, one must assume that the universe had an absolute beginning and that it could have been otherwise. In making these assumptions, one must also rule out two other theses. Namely, 1) that the universe is eternal, and 2) That the initial state of the universe was necessary (fatalism). Given that ruling out 2 is the very thesis is question, it would be question-begging for the anti-fatalist to assume it is false (without argument). 

Thus, for both anti-fatalism and determinism to be true, the universe must have had a beginning. On an eternal universe model, there is no beginning or point in which indeterministic elements could enter, for this would falsify determinism.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The role of intuitions in conspiracy theorizing

In developing a conspiracy theory, a common method is to find apparent inconsistencies between the “official story” and how the world works. Take the Kennedy Assassination. A wide range of evidence (e.g. autopsy photos, forensic recreations, expert testimony) indicates that a single bullet, passing through the bodies of both JFK and Governor Connally, caused seven wounds (Bugliosi, 2007; McAdams 2011). During the process of reviewing the evidence, conspiracy theorists conclude that the events involving this “magic bullet” couldn’t have happened. While there are typically arguments and “evidence” offered (e.g. the long-debunked misrepresentations of the bullet’s trajectory), the origins of their skepticism likely come from their initial beliefs or intuitions about ballistics and human anatomy. Intuitively, it may seem unlikely that one bullet could cause so much damage. Likewise, the head movement of Kennedy after the third shot (back and to the left) seems to be inconsistent with a shot from behind, where Lee Harvey Oswald was stationed. But JFK conspiracy theorists take their intuitions a few steps further by concluding that the facts about the gun wounds undermine the single shooter theory and strongly support the multiple gunmen theory. In the face of contradictory physical evidence and expert testimony, conspiracy theorists tend to stick to their intuitions and infer that all of the evidence supporting the “official story” must be fabricated or mistaken. The conclusions of expert panels, forensic recreations, sophisticated computer simulations, and peer-reviewed scientific articles are often discounted out of hand. Intuitions about how they think the world works are often given more weight than the science. 

Experiments by Anatomical Surrogates Technology provide support for the single bullet theory. (Watch video to hear analysis from the ballistics experts consulted (1)

To use a recent example, consider the recent Vegas mass shooting. Is it possible that the mass murderer, Stephen Paddock, broke through the windows using a small sledgehammer, as reported by the police? Conspiracy theorists say “No”. Once again, the reasoning goes something like this: It seems unlikely or impossible that a hammer could break out the windows of the hotel room, therefore, Paddock couldn’t have done so.

In the case of the Vegas mass shooting, there is much more speculation than science. What kind of windows does the Mandalay Bay have? Can a small sledgehammer, by itself, smash through the windows that were installed? Online, there are lots of assertions made in answering these questions, with little to no evidence offered. But by looking at the photographic evidence and considering the eyewitness testimony of glass shattering, it is reasonable to infer, as the LVPD did, that the glass was shattered by Paddock using the hammer found in the room and/or rifle fire. Additionally, the photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony appear to undermine the internet rumors that hurricane resistant or shatterproof windows were installed (2).

Image source: Gregory Bull/Associated Press

What the JFK conspiracy theorist and the Vegas shooting conspiracy theorist have in common is that they rely upon an argument from intuition. Their beliefs about how bullets or hammers work determine the conclusions they draw and the hypotheses they take seriously. The argument is not just unique to JFK or the Vegas shooting; it is used as a basis for most conspiracy theories. The argument can be stated much more generally.

The general argument from intuition
It seems as if E is unlikely or impossible
Therefore E probably didn’t happen
Application 1: JFK multiple gunmen theories
It seems unlikely that one bullet can cause seven wounds
Therefore, the single bullet theory is probably false
Application 2: Vegas shooting conspiracy theories
It seems unlikely that Paddock broke out the windows with a hammer
Therefore, Paddock probably didn’t carry out the shootings (alone)
Application 3: 9/11 controlled demolition theories
It seems unlikely that a building can collapse from fire
Therefore, WTC 7 probably didn’t collapse from fire
Application 4: Moon landing hoax conspiracy theories
It seems unlikely that we had the technological capabilities to go to the moon
Therefore, we didn’t go to the moon

Given how often the argument is used to support belief in conspiracy theories, a lot hangs on whether this form of argument is any good. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the argument is demonstrably unsound. As it turns out, the argument is a variation of a textbook logical fallacy, the argument from personal incredulity. Just because you cannot imagine how something happened, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.  

Why is the argument unsound? First, one can be mistaken about the likelihood or possibility of a given event, especially when it comes to the domain of physics. The intuitions of experts carry much more weight, as they possess the relevant background knowledge to judge whether an event is likely or possible. Laypeople often do not have the relevant background knowledge, relying mostly upon internet rumors and their own relatively uninformed speculation. When it comes to assessing the likelihood of an event, the right questions to would be:

-What do most of the relevant experts think?
-Is there any experimental data or quantitative analyses that inform us about the event’s likelihood?
-Have similar events happened in the past?

Second, the unlikeliness of an event is not, in itself, a good reason to doubt that the event occurred. After all, unlikely events happen all of the time. To form reliable judgments about the likelihood of an event, one would also have to consider the totality of the evidence and the plausibility of the alternative hypotheses. One ought to prefer the explanation that accounts for all of the facts, rather just some of the them. If the totality of evidence suggests an unlikely event occurred, then an unlikely event probably occurred. In forming likelihood judgments, conspiracy theorists often fail to realize that their alternative explanations for what happened rely on a number of highly questionable (if not demonstrably false) assumptions, and that their hypotheses (which typically require hundreds of people to be lie and fabricate evidence) are much less likely than the widely accepted view. 

The main problem with relying upon the argument from intuition is that you might begin theorizing with false assumptions. Instead of revising their hypotheses in light of new evidence, conspiracy theorists will likely cling to their original intuitions and the factoids (3) that they have found to support them. For example, in response to up-close photos of the broken windows in Paddock’s hotel room, some conspiracy theorists now claim that the photos of the window have been altered or fabricated (part of the coverup). Likewise, in response to the newly released footage of Paddock transporting his luggage to his hotel room, some conspiracy theorists--who previously claimed that it was impossible to transport so many guns into the hotel room--assert that the Mandalay Bay security footage provided to the New York Times and other media outlets is all fake. 

Conspiracy theorists have an easy way to dismiss criticism and evidence that contradicts their strongly held beliefs. Assert, without evidence or argument, that it’s all rubbish. The psychological appeal to this tactic is easy to understand. To engage in conspiracy theorizing, you don’t need to have any qualifications, or do much research (outside of watching youtube videos). In responding to critics, conspiracy theorists can always say that the evidence for their theory has been successfully covered up (an unfalsifiable claim), that all the evidence that conflicts with their theory is fake, or that everyone is lying. You can be “in the know” by simply relying upon your own intuitive judgments, following others who are likeminded, without the need to reflect upon whether those judgments are correct. 

Like with hardcore religious believers, there have a set of core beliefs that they treat as immune to refutation. Their core beliefs consist of intuitions about what is and isn't physically possible and those who do not share their intuitions are labeled morons or shills. Of course, not all conspiracy theorists engage in this kind of rhetoric, but I've encountered quite a lot of it in my conversations over the years. More objective researchers will present expert testimony (though usually irrelevant and/or biased) and evidence that they believe supports their theory, but much of what is presented is just to support their initial judgments. So, even the more sophisticated theorists still treat certain claims as gospel. 

Understanding how the world works requires much more than relying upon intuitions. The truth revealed by the scientific method can be, and often is, counterintuitive. Proper skepticism and good scientific reasoning requires that we carefully reflect not only upon the assumptions made by others, but on the assumptions that we ourselves make, especially if our assumptions are supported by little more than our gut. Sometimes, crazy shit just happens. And if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find something surprising or hard to believe about virtually any event. Instead of falling down an endless rabbit hole, one should be open to considering alternative hypotheses, read and engage with criticisms of your favored hypotheses, look at the totality of the evidence, and evaluate the strength of one's arguments.

(1) Their experiment recreated six of the seven wounds and demonstrated that the trajectory of the bullet is consistent with that of a bullet fired from the sixth floor of the book depository (where Oswald's rifle was found). While some conspiracy theorists interpret the result as undermining the single bullet theory, Alexander R. Krstic, a ballistics expert who was involved with the experiment, strongly believes that they would have replicated the event if the bullet hadn't struck a second rib bone, which slowed down the bullet considerably, and caused deformation (the "magic bullet" only struck one bone and was relatively undamaged).

(2) Close-up pictures reveal that the breakage does not appear to be consistent with that of a tempered glass breakage pattern or hurricane-resistant windows. The glass appears to have shattered, like in other instances of high-rise hotel windows that have been broken. Several eyewitnesses have provided testimony regarding the sound of glass shattering, and glass raining down from the window during the shooting. Given that Paddock's room contained the means to shatter the windows (and Paddock), the best explanation is that Paddock broke the windows from the inside before firing into the crowds. 

(3) By factoid, I mean an erroneous claim that is presented as a fact. While the vast majority of claims and assertions made by conspiracy theorists have been thoroughly debunked, the myths continue to spread, and are presented as factual information on conspiracy websites and youtube. To a naive observer, a long list of factoids can appear to be compelling evidence. To a more skeptical observer, a long list of claims, especially if the conclusions aren't widely accepted or controversial, calls for fact checking and careful analysis. 

Works cited

Bugliosi, V. (2007). Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. WW Norton & Company.

McAdams, J. (2011). JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy. Potomac Books, Inc..