"I am not aware that my food came from fields worked on by slaves. Thus, I am not liable for the moral implications of slavery."

How can this viewpoint be refuted? If possible, please name specific fallacies which the statement adheres to.

closed as too broad by Joseph Weissman Jan 17 '16 at 22:24

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    I'm always curious when I see this: what do you expect to gain by naming specific fallacies? – Cort Ammon Nov 12 '15 at 3:20
  • If you can state it, the premise is never true. So it may be valid, only vacuously so. "If I don't know what I just admitted, Santa Clause can explain it to me." Deduction from a vacuous truth is absolutely valid, but goes nowhere without the use of some fallacy. Unfortunately the range of options for the next step, which appears to honor this as a meaningful premise, is quite wide. – user9166 Nov 12 '15 at 15:07
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    If statements like this would not be true in some sense there would be two implications: We would have to be omniscient in order to act morally and we would perhaps never be able to live in developed countries without acting immorally as their development depends on injustices. It extends liability to excessive demands. I would not be able to act in daily life if I am forced to gather "full" knowledge of the possibile moral implications of my actions. Liability should be seen as an ascribed moral descision, not as an objective fact. – Philip Klöcking Nov 12 '15 at 16:05
  • In addition to my answer below, a tip, according to recent news articles: Don't eat the shrimp, avoid certain coffee and sugar brands. – Nelson Alexander Nov 12 '15 at 18:07
  • @CortAmmon Helps in arguments. – Matas Vaitkevicius Nov 17 '15 at 15:48

I must agree with Cort Ammon, this idea of "discovering the fallacy" is a bit like trying to run everything through a computer and find the error.

I would offer as a basic moral law: Recognize what you depend on.

Like most moral laws, it is both prudential and a regulative ideal, not something one can flawlessly carry out.

Obviously, you depend on your food. Obviously, then, you should understand, as best you circumstantially can, where it comes from. And in fact, most us know nothing about it.

So you do have a certain moral duty to discover the source of what you depend on. And here, your "moral duty" is also quite prudential, sensible, practical.

But in a world dependent upon complex divisions of labor, this "moral duty" can never be fully and perfectly realized. You must realize that you do indeed "depend upon" something...in this case, food. Then you must ask, where does it come from?

This is a functionalist description of "conscience." We always have a certain duty to ask. But a finite capacity to ask about everything.


I agree with Nelson and Cort about the problem with playing "name the fallacy."

At the same time, this particular question ties into a rather long and interesting debate in philosophy about the nature of responsibility. And particularly, this ties into the question of "culpable ignorance" or "vulnerable ignorance." My knowledge of this is mostly through Augustine and some contemporary articles, but you can trace it back to Aristotle or at least Aristotle scholarship.

The basic idea of responsibility is that a person is responsible for what he does when he knows what he is doing. This can be found directly in Nicomachean Ethics Book 3. The most relevant part for this question is:

Everything that is done by reason of ignorance is not voluntary; it is only what produces pain and repentance that is involuntary. For the man who has done something owing to ignorance, and feels not the least vexation at his action, has not acted voluntarily, since he did not know what he was doing, nor yet involuntarily, since he is not pained. Of people, then, who act by reason of ignorance he who repents is thought an involuntary agent, and the man who does not repent may, since he is different, be called a not voluntary agent; for, since he differs from the other, it is better that he should have a name of his own.

The basic idea is that we are responsible for what we choose to do which requires both that we choose and that we know. If we did not know, then we are not responsible for this choice.

This, however, is an incomplete position. The supplementary point is that we can be responsible (in Aristotle but worked out in more detail in Augustine's book on the will) is that we can be responsible for whether we know or not.

For those who accept this, the term for arguing, "I'm not responsible because I didn't know" is the argument from ignorance or the claim of invulnerable ignorance. There's not much agreement on how much we need to work to know things.

By law, in many countries, ignorance of the law is no excuse. In many theologies, ignorance that something is sin is no excuse. But there's also room for leniency in certain legal contexts.

A major factor in this is how much effort it would take to know. In other words, we would say you're making an argument from ignorance if you have the envelop on your desk with the information and refuse to open it or if you are in the room when something bad happens and refuse to understand it. But the question is how far does one need to go to meet one's moral requirements.

With what you've written, it's not super-clear how much effort is required to discover that one's food is harvested by slaves (and whether this is evidently true), so it's not entirely clear whether there is a fallacy of reasoning (avoiding calling this a fallacious argument) going on.


Legally you are responsible if you know or should have known. Wilfully closing your eyes doesn't avoid responsibility. The statement here implies at least an awareness of an accusation that slavery was used.

Fallacies are about incorrectly drawing conclusion. Here I'd say the premise is false.


The citizens in Soylent Green may be appalled, but they are not guilty.

In a representative democracy, which is the dominant form of modern governments, responsibility is honestly forwarded to the representatives. Thus, there is no fallacy here.

Leadership is afforded great power in complex societies, and the entire social class from which the leadership is drawn, by necessity, understands the mechanisms necessary to the society functioning. So there is guilt here, but it does not fall on every beneficiary in a "joint and several" sort of way. If falls upon those who make the decisions.

Choosing to lead is not a grab for power, but a willingness to address moral complexity. As a parallel case, war crimes are real, but it is the executive decisions that create them that get punished, not primarily the individual soldiers who execute the orders, much less the general population that pays taxes for them. Any other arrangement would make the business of defense impossible.

If someone at some layer of your society has decided that slavery is the only way to meet the social contract, they have taken that burden upon themselves. It may then be immoral to remain part of that society, but that is often not an option open to an individual.

That does not mean that pressure upon the leadership to be more accountable is misplaced. But it is mediated by the social contract. History provides many good examples of working through and around the social contract to weaken it when it was abusive, so that it might be changed. For example, Quakers in the South before the Civil War felt the necessity to reciprocate what slaves provided them, in a way that undercut the system, putting resources into the hands of the oppressed.

They withdrew from industries and institutions that would be impossible without slavery, and attempted to treat slaves as underpaid employees, paying them as one would tip workers in other underpaid industries at the time. The guiding principle is to live in a way that demonstrated that slavery was unnecessary, while calling attention to its abuses. But they did not hold each master accountable, nor even themselves individually, when these arrangements could not be recognized and avoided.

  • "responsibility is honestly forwarded to the representatives. Thus, there is no fallacy here." This seems arguable. There are many examples of "representatives" who acted in an immoral way that compelled citizens to feel morally culpable. – James Kingsbery Nov 12 '15 at 16:41
  • @JamesKingsbery Guilty of the action itself, or of not controlling their leadership and therefore not fulfilling their role in the system, but cooperating with corruption? Older Germans may feel guilty for helping Hitler keep power, but not directly guilty of the murders he orchestrated. These are very, very different things. If every German in a whole generation was guilty of murder, Germany itself would just not exist anymore. The question is not about this indirect responsibility, as I read it. – user9166 Nov 12 '15 at 16:54

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