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Wasn't really sure how to phrase this, but I'm thinking of an instance in which someone diminishes a problem by presenting one of larger scope - as a rather shoddy example, "x political problem in America doesn't matter because half the world's population is starving."

I honestly have no idea if this is considered fallacious or not, but for some odd reason I can't shake the feeling that someone has described it to me as a fallacy before. Am I crazy or is there something to this (or something similar)?

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This is officially called the fallacy of relative privation, colloquially better known as appeal to worse problems, or "children are starving in Africa" argument. The implication is that anything short of starving children is not worthy of serious discussion. More precisely the fallacy is "arguing that expressing concern about a (relatively) small problem means that the person doesn't care about any larger problems. A type of Strawman, this fallacy takes the opponent's claim and appends to it the following additional claims:

1)That it is not possible to care about big and small problems simultaneously.

2)That venting a minor complaint is sufficient proof that the major problem is considered unimportant.

3)That if the person irritated over the minor problem did help solve or even cared about the big problems, s/he would then not mind at all that his/her car broke down or whatever the frustration was...or because there are people with worse problems, that person shouldn't complain about a frustration"

  • I knew there was a reason that was hanging around in my mind. Thank you! – user2871915 Jun 24 '15 at 21:19
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    In principle one is valid, but in practice is it true? I recently read an essay by a child free woman complaining how child free couples were discriminated against by the rest of society. Surely most would agree that her problem pales in comparison with those of other minorities. More generally, in the US at least, there is limited bandwidth in the space of public discourse. And the so called culture wars despite addressing valid concerns, are taking up too much of that space and diverting public attention from larger social issues which have a much larger impact than cultural ones. – Alexander S King Jun 24 '15 at 22:03
  • So, may be is this kind of a technique to virtually, attempt to, erase the minor problem but yet important still to the one to whom does matter actually???????????????? – Kentaro Jun 24 '15 at 22:22
  • @Alexander S King But prioritization arguments are not instances of this fallacy when there is a real issue of distributing limited resources, only when the goal is deflection or dismissal. And politicians divert public attention with relative privation as well , e.g. "the country has bigger problems than minimum wage", "why are we talking about racism if ISIS is about to kill us all", etc. – Conifold Jun 24 '15 at 22:47
  • "prioritization arguments are not instances of this fallacy when there is a real issue of distributing limited resources, only when the goal is deflection or dismissal" Good point. – user2871915 Jun 25 '15 at 14:17
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I honestly have no idea if this is considered fallacious or not, but for some odd reason...

This is a strong indication that at least in some contexts, we are talking about a paradox rather than about a fallacy. The fallacy of relative privation ("not as bad as") is listed under the red herring fallacies on wikipedia, i.e. it is a fallacy of relevance. So if the bigger problem is not really relevant in the context of the smaller problem under discussion, then it is indeed a fallacy.

An unpleasant variant of this fallacy or paradox if the time and resources for the discussion the problem(s) are used to draw a relation between the unrelated problems. This form of the paradox can indeed happen in practice, take the principle of explosion in logic, which allows to deduce anything from a completely unrelated contradiction. A denial of service attack on a server highlights that even systems designed to guard themselves against this sort of unpleasantness are not completely immune to it.

For instances of the paradox where the bigger problem is really relevant, the marginal return might help explain why sometimes the small problem promises a bigger payoff than the large problem for the same amount of invested resources. Again in the context of logic and computers, floating point numbers will forget small numbers, if they are added to big numbers. The remedy here is to try to separate different scales before putting them through black box algorithm.

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