64

I have heard this type of argument too many times: You are criticising X using well researched facts and arguments. Your interlocutor, states that Y is much worse with equally well researched facts and arguments. X and Y are linked in a general sense: two alternative medicines (homeopathy & chiropractics), two politicians (May & Corbyn), two historical figures (Hitler & Stalin). So far so good, it is a conversation.

Now, your interlocutor uses his arguments that Y is worse to suggest that X is in fact, good. This logical fallacy asserts that because Y is much worse than X, therefore X would be a good thing™.

What is this logical fallacy called?


Clearly in a binary choice, the lesser evil should win: X is bad, Y is worse therefore you should chose X. ⚠ This is not what this question is about.⚠ Please re-read the last sentence.

This logical fallacy asserts that because Y is much worse than X, therefore X would be a good thing™. Not that it is a better choice, less-worst choice, the only choice but that it is a worthwhile choice on its own.

In addition, there might not be just two choices or one might not even be asked to make a choice: the fact that Y is worst makes X good regardless of X's merits.

  • 1
    Heh, I think I can guess what argument, in what debate, prompted this dictionary request. ;) (Perhaps Mika Brzezinski should read this.) Though "before W must do X, all Y must do X" is a separate fallacy. – Ber Oct 12 '16 at 3:35
  • 4
    This is related to the statistical "fallacy of the null hypothesis" . From americanscientist.org/issues/pub/2014/6/…: The idea is that when p is less than some prespecified value such as 0.05 [so "something significant happened"], the null hypothesis is rejected by the data, allowing researchers to claim strong evidence in favor of the alternative ["the something was caused by what we were testing"]. – Ethan Bolker Oct 12 '16 at 13:01
  • Sorry but your assertion is wrong for the example given. It is certainly possible and logical for 2 otherwise "bad things" when taken separately to actually have one of the options to be declared "good" when having to pick between them. Going to prison and being on parole are both very bad things but I would imagine that being put on parole is certainly a "good" thing versus being sent to prison. What your logical argument is missing is some other premise which sets the bar for "good". – Dunk Oct 13 '16 at 22:48
  • Is this "whataboutery", or something similar to it? – Andrew Grimm Oct 14 '16 at 1:37
  • 1
    I think the form of this argument we most often see is: "X is bad." "Yeah, but Y is worse, so STFU about X." The implied premise is that only the worst things should be condemned, or even rise to our notice at all. – EvilSnack Oct 15 '16 at 23:12
73

This is (at least a subset of) the fallacy of relative privation.

From Wikipedia >> List of Fallacies >> Red herring fallacies

Fallacy of relative privation ("not as bad as") – dismissing an argument or complaint due to the existence of more important problems in the world, regardless of whether those problems bear relevance to the initial argument. For example, First World problem.

RationalWiki adds

[Use of this fallacy is] popular with people who know perfectly well they're doing something wrong; being fully aware that they're doing something wrong, they feel compelled to attempt to justify it and do so by pointing to other (usually worse) actions.

A hypernym (again, RationalWiki) (emphasis mine) appears to be

Moral equivalence is a form of equivocation and a fallacy of relevance often used in political debates. It seeks to draw comparisons between different, often unrelated things, to make a point that one is just as bad as the other or just as good as the other. It may be used to draw attention to an unrelated issue by comparing it to a well-known bad event, in an attempt to say one is as bad as the other. Or, it may be used in an attempt to claim one isn't as bad as the other by comparison. Drawing a moral equivalence in this way is a logical fallacy.

  • 7
    In this case it's right on—and this is a good answer, +1—but, totally IMHO, I feel compelled to point out that RationalWiki is in general a pretty unreliable source. Good articles can be found, but much of it is of poor quality and not at all authoritative.There's plenty of outright nonsense there, and the community seems especially content to to let it stand. – Michael Kupietz Oct 12 '16 at 4:06
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    Roses are sometimes found among thorns. But we should all be thankful to the person pointing out that we should be very wary of all those thorns. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 12 '16 at 8:54
20

This seems like a false dilemma:

  • major premise: "either X is good and Y is bad, or X is bad and Y is good".
  • minor premise: "Y is bad".
  • conclusion: "X is good".

Because the major premise is fallacious, the syllogism (though perfectly valid) is not sound.

In your examples it's elaborated slightly: the interlocutors both seem to agree, on some level, that both X and Y are bad; but because Y is putatively worse than X, Y gets assigned the role of "bad" and X gets assigned the role of "good" in order to conform to the major premise.

  • 1
    (By the way, it's debatable whether this major premise really is wrong. If my choices are to lose a finger or to lose an entire hand, then while obviously losing a finger is bad compared to not losing a finger, it's good compared to losing an entire hand. The question is, what is our universe of discourse? If we have only two alternatives, then it's reasonable to say, for some purposes, that those two alternatives are our universe of discourse, and "good" and "bad" are relative to that. But that's neither here nor there.) – ruakh Oct 11 '16 at 18:25
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    I think you mean the syllogism is perfectly valid, but not sound. An argument can't be both sound and not valid, since validity is a necessary prerequisite for soundness. "Validity" means the structure of the argument is correct. Ie, if the premises were true, then the conclusion must follow. "Soundness" is achieved by a valid argument that has true premises (and therefore a true conclusion). – Oleksiy Oct 13 '16 at 8:59
  • @Oleksiy: Whoops, I'd thought they meant the reverse. Now fixed, thanks! – ruakh Oct 13 '16 at 18:03
  • @ruakh: If there are no alternatives then it is not a false dilemma. It is just a dilemma. A false dilemma is when alternatives are hidden and an argument is made as if there is only the bad vs worse choice. – slebetman Oct 14 '16 at 15:00
  • @slebetman: I think you're agreeing with my comment. Note that when I answered this question, it was on the English Language & Usage site, so I answered it accordingly: I supplied the appropriate terms to express the OP's argument, without regard for whether I agree with the argument. Since I didn't fully agree with the OP's argument, I noted that in a comment. Now that this has been migrated to the Philosophy site, I suppose my answer and comment could be swapped; but it's a bit late for that now. :-P – ruakh Oct 14 '16 at 21:22
17

If this logical fallacy is used as a retaliative defense, it is called tu quoque ("you too"). You, who accuse me, do worse things than me; thus I am not bad. This doesn't cover all the instances, but it came to mind upon seeing Trump and Clinton in the question.

  • 10
    This is not an example of tu quoque. According to your link, "tu quoque" is a specific ad hominem dealing with hypocrisy. The claimant attacks a moral argument by pointing out that the arguments proponent does not always adhere to it's prescriptions. – eclipz905 Oct 11 '16 at 20:41
6

It's not an informal fallacy, it's a formal, logical one. It doesn't have a name, but perhaps should have a nickname because it is encountered so frequently lately. If you reduce it to form, you'll see it makes zero sense:

a is bad
b is double-bad
therefore,
 a is good

It's a failure of form (this argument can never be valid, no matter what the content), as its conclusion contradicts one of its premises.

1

Let's take the mathematical perspective!

From this problem we can form two propositions:

1. A is good           - we'll call this 'G'
2. B is worse than A   - call this 'W'

From these propositions we can form three hypotheses and a conclusion, based on the original problem:

Hypothesis 1:   ¬G
Hypothesis 2:   W
Hypothesis 3:   W→G
Conclusion:     G

This is a contradiction, as ¬P∧P can only ever equate to be false. Hypotheses 2 and 3 can be ignored - and logically, hypothesis 1 and the conclusion contradict.

"A logical contradiction is the conjunction of a statement S and its denial not-S. In logic, it is a fundamental law- the law of non contradiction- that a statement and its denial cannot both be true at the same time." - G. Randolph Mayes http://www.csus.edu/indiv/m/mayesgr/phl4/handouts/phl4contradiction.htm

-1

I think it's to do with relativism.

If you only know X and Y, and know that Y is worse than X, then you have the situation described in the OP.

To know that X is bad, either you need to know about some "absolute" good (against which to compare X and find it bad), rather than mere "relative" good; or at least you need to know a third thing, Z, which is relatively good and compared to which X is bad.

In if you want to support your proposition that X is bad, in spite of your interlocutor's reminder that Y is worse, either you need to define what "absolute" good is or you need to explain what third choice you're comparing X with.

In your "homeopathy & chiropractics" example, you could argue:

  • "My definition of 'absolute good' is a treatment proven via evidence-based medicine" (according to which absolute standard, both "homeopathy & chiropractics" fail)
  • "My examples of 'relatively good' are e.g. vaccine and physical exercise" (compared with which, both "homeopathy & chiropractics" are relatively ineffective)
  • This does not answer the question. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Oct 14 '16 at 13:09
  • Moderators (or the community) are welcome to delete this, if they agree with you that this does not answer the question. I was trying to explain the fallacy, rather than just name it: and explain how to escape the fallacy, or explain the miscommunication or assumptions which result in the fallacy. – ChrisW Oct 14 '16 at 13:13

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