Suppose someone tells you that they are a vegetarian and ride a bike to work because they want to reduce their negative impact on the environment.

In response you tell them that this is futile (or that they are a hypocrite), because bikes and the roads they use require massive amounts if fossil fuels anyway, and food crops are nearly as bad for the environment as livestock.

What is the name of the logical fallacy that you are committing?

My first thought is that it is a red herring argument, but I wonder if there is something more specific?

5 Answers 5


This is the nirvana fallacy, when a solution is rejected because it is not perfect. It's also related to the sorites paradox, which is the concept that adding individual grains of sand can never result in production of a heap.

  • Particularly annoying when an action that isn't perfect is much superior to no action at all, but no action is chosen by default because no perfect action is found.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:11

Two thoughts, first not every fallacy has a name. Second, it's more important to show the reasoning is bad than to connect it with a specific name. The fallacy names are just shorthand for this.

I can see why you would go with "red herring" which is (roughly speaking) shorthand for "meaningless point or contribution."

I think it is closest to a "notable effort" fallacy -- i.e. a confusion between trying and succeeding in terms of cutting one's carbon foot print.

But other than formal fallacies (e.g., affirming the consequent), calling "fallacy" just changes it from an evaluation of that argument to an argument over whether the fallacy rightly applies.

  • +1 I feel one should always avoid a diagnosis in favor of a counterargument or re-framing. No one is going to go look up your named fallacy. Just identifying one, is it itself, the fallacy of appeal to authority, unless it gives you a tactical response that works.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 15:31

This is sometimes called the "perfectionist fallacy".

I've seen textbooks with examples almost identical to the example in the question - can't remember the books, but here's a definition from Critical Thinking Academy:

If Policy X does not meet all the objectives as well as we want it to (i.e. perfectly), then Policy X should be rejected.

This principle downgrades X simply because it isn't perfect. It says in effect "Either the policy is perfect, else we must reject it"


Sometimes it can be a case of "moving the goal posts".

Other times it is "no silver bullet."

It largely depends on the rhetorical context and can be nothing more than Randell Monroe's [of xkcd] "Someone is wrong on the internet": ie. no more than being argumentative.


I think there are a couple of things wrong with the argument given. (I'm not going to name a supposed fallacy since this is an inadequate substitute for dealing with the substance of an argument.)

The first is that, as people have pointed out, it is perfectionist. In reality, progress is made piecemeal and so attacking a particular piecemeal change that somebody has made to address some problem is a bad idea. See "The Open Society and Its Enemies" by Karl Popper and "Reflections on the Revolution in France" by Burke.

The second mistake in the argument is that it concedes that the opponent's goal would be good if he carried it out. But often the right way to attack a suggested policy is to attack its goal. I provide these arguments as an illustration. We have selectively bred animals to be tasty. Also animals can't think like people, so giving them rights makes about as much sense as giving your car rights. The only things that animals are useful for are simple tasks that we have programmed them to do. So we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from eating animals. Also, fossil fuels provide cheap, reliable energy that makes it possible for us to have warm houses, clean water, easy transportation and lots of cool stuff like the computer on which I am typing this. Not having cheap, reliable energy is a far larger threat to our future than a change of 1-2 degrees Celsius in average temperature over several decades.

  • "animals can't think like people, so giving them rights makes about as much sense as giving your car rights". Nor can people with intellectual disabilities, infants or victims of dementia. As a society we clearly do not value life using the measure you have described.
    – quant
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 11:52
  • " Not having cheap, reliable energy is a far larger threat to our future than a change of 1-2 degrees Celsius in average temperature" - where do you get your science from? The IPCC has a wealth of peer reviewed, publicly available research on this topic. There's really no need to speculate as you have done.
    – quant
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 11:55
  • It may be possible to predict that if we continue to emit a particular amount of carbon dioxide the temperature will go up by a certain amount. What is strictly impossible is to predict that this will pose a threat in the future since that would involve predicting what knowledge we will have in the future. Not having cheap reliable now is killing people and destroying our capacity to produce cheap, reliable energy would destroy our ability to mitigate current problems.
    – alanf
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 12:30
  • You claim that various classes of people can't think, but you are wrong. People with intellectual disabilities and infants learn to speak so they can learn. As for a person with dementia, it is sensible to give him the benefit of the doubt until he is brain dead since we don't understand the brain very well: he might still be able to make contributions and we might come up with a cure. With animals, there is no reason to think there is any value from giving them the same rights as people.
    – alanf
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 12:42
  • "What is strictly impossible is to predict that this will pose a threat in the future" - this is a bold statement, given the number of economists that have done just that, and the number of governments actively making policy decisions on these predictions. If you have some prescient knowledge that experts in their field do not have, you probably owe it to them and your planet to inform them, because we're set to spend trillions on these "strictly impossible" prognostications...
    – quant
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 20:42

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