This topic is a little more complex and confusing than I expected. I'm tempted to change the title to "Which fallacy blames the victims rather than their oppressors?" But I'm not sure if that's a better title or something completely different.

See my clarification at the end of this post.

Imagine a political activist who says something that's true but not politically correct. The government responds by passing a law making it illegal to say what he said.

Instead of criticizing the government, some people tell the activist, "Thanks a lot. If you had kept your mouth shut, we wouldn't have lost more of our rights."

To put it another way, they're saying that we have the right to do certain things...as long as we don't actually do them.

What kind of fallacy is this, if any?


This is not a question about the definition or judgment of right and wrong, nor is it about moral relativism.

Just as some philosophers believe in a Christian god, so are there some philosophers who believe in right and wrong, many of whom further believe that murder and pedophilia are immoral.

I want to frame my question from just such a perspective: Let's imagine a society where murder and pedophilia are widely regarded as both immoral and illegal. However, there are members of this community who are murderers and/or pedophiles. Some of these people are very powerful, influential and maybe even respected.

So when one of these individuals is exposed as a criminal, members of the community may attack the whistle-blower, for a number of reasons. Some of the attacks come from propagandists or friends of the accused who simply do what all propagandists do. Other attacks come from seemingly ordinary citizens who simply get upset when someone rocks the boat or says things that they think casts the community in a bad light.

Here's a hypothetical example:

Imagine a member of the community who criticizes a judge who has been exposed as a pedophile. The government retaliates by passing a law making it illegal to criticize pedophile judges.

Rather than rally behind the pedophile judge's victims, the general public rallies behind the judge and government, blaming the obviously disgusting law on the whistle-blower. A newspaper headline reads "Self-appointed whistle-blower responsible for law shielding pedophiles."

This can obviously be classified as propaganda, but can we further identify it as a particular kind of fallacy?

  • Actually, if you want to formulate this as fallacy, then it should be as follows: "We had a right to do X because X has not been prohibited". Well, assuming common law it's not a fallacy. I think your question presupposes naturalism.
    – rus9384
    May 24 '18 at 19:50
  • Like the NFL saying you have the right to protest the national anthem... if you do it out of sight in the locker room. Ripped from today's headlines.
    – user4894
    May 24 '18 at 21:39
  • A real world example: e-cigarette enthusiasts worry that exercising too much freedom in vaping (because vaping is not smoking) might trigger a crackdown that leads to much tighter rules on vaping. What the majority is willing to let slide in small doses it will notice when it is put on display. What you describe is an abstract oversimplification, there are no absolute rights, and for how much of legal rights public support can be maintained does depend on political finesse in exercising them. If this is Colin Kaepernick related you are better off sticking to that specific example.
    – Conifold
    May 26 '18 at 5:17
  • I edited my question to make it more clear. As for "finesse," that could be a bit of a straw man. Many people harp about finesse when that clearly has nothing to do with the situation. People are quick to make up excuses to shoot down anyone who rocks the boat. For specific examples, see the Wenatchee witch-hunt and the late pedophile judge Gary Little. Victims of the Wenatchee witch-hunt were condemned for making Wenatchee look bad...when they were innocent all along. May 26 '18 at 5:45
  • Sorry, that's not a fallacy, if you ever heard of moral relativism.
    – rus9384
    May 26 '18 at 10:31

It isn't a fallacy at all. The point is, the law will not make illegal exactly the thing he said, but a whole class of statements including the one he said. This will include things that should not be said (presumably the one thing that the person said is one of those things, at least in the view of the people who complain), but inevitably will also include things that should be allowed to be said.

Note that there are two concepts involved:

  • On one hand there are things you should be allowed to to, and things you should not be allowed to do.

  • On the other hand, there are things that are legal, and things that are illegal.

Ideally, the set of things that are legal to do would be exactly the set of things that you should be allowed to do. However it is rarely possible to do this. Therefore at any time, the law will either permit some bad behaviour, or forbid some good behaviour, or both. More freedom means the law errs more on the side to allow bad behaviour than on the side to disallow good behaviour.

Now if someone believes he is entitled to show some bad behaviour because it is, after all, not illegal, then if that behaviour is seen by the government as too bad to allow, the government will make a law that disallows that bad behaviour. But as always, the same law will also disallow certain good behaviour as collateral damage. And by disallowing the good behaviour, it will reduce freedom.

Now of course another problem is that not all people agree what is behaviour that should be allowed, and what is behaviour that should not be allowed. But that's a separate problem, because people usually know quite well where they themselves put some behaviour they are complaining about.

Or in short, the idea that you are entitled to do something just because it is not illegal does real damage by promoting the idea of making stricter laws to forbid currently allowed undesirable behaviour that some people show, which then in return also restricts some acceptable behaviour, and thus reduces the freedom of everyone.

The question is always whether it does more damage to allow some undesirable behaviour, or more damage to forbid some perfectly fine or possibly even desirable behaviour as collateral damage.

On your constructed example of the pedophile judge:

Quite obviously, the (hypothetical) people who complain don't have an issue with that pedophile judge (or else they would behave differently). Therefore in their view it was wrong to criticise the judge over it. However they do believe that in other cases, it is the right thing to criticise a pedophile judge, and the law caused by that incidence disallows them to do so. Therefore from their view is is completely consistent to complain, and thus not a fallacy.

Remember, if you conclude wrong consequences from wrong premises using correct reasoning, you are not committing a fallacy.

  • I up voted your answer, because it offers some food for thought. But on closer review, I feel like you're going off on a tangent. You suggest that citizens in my example don't have an issue with a pedophile judge...but they think it's OK to criticize pedophile judges in other cases. Which begs the question, under what circumstances is it OK to be a pedophile judge? May 26 '18 at 15:14
  • @DavidBlomstrom: First, it does not beg the question; you probably meant it raises the question; very different thing. But then, it also doesn't raise that question, as it doesn't matter for the question whether they committed a fallacy. All that matters is if those people think it depends on the circumstances. It doesn't even matter if that belief is itself rational.
    – celtschk
    May 26 '18 at 17:27
  • So you're suggesting some circumstance where citizens say, "Yeah, he may be a pedophile judge, but this is a situation where we should rally behind him - as we've done a hundred times before" (e.g. Gary Little). Even if there is justification for shielding a criminal, there's still the matter of blaming the whistle-blower for the government's crackdown or whatever the consequences are. In the real world, this isn't a hypothetical example; it happens all the time, and on an ongoing basis. Which does beg the question, should we just give pedophiles a free ride? May 26 '18 at 17:34
  • First, please do yourself a favour and read up what "begging the question" means. Second, let me reiterate, for the question whether it is a fallacy it does not matter whether the conclusions are right or wrong. A fallacy is an invalid argument. You can get to horribly wrong conclusions without involving a fallacy, and you can use a fallacy to argue for something that is unambiguously correct.
    – celtschk
    May 26 '18 at 17:54
  • "Quite obviously, the (hypothetical) people who complain don't have an issue with that pedophile judge (or else they would behave differently). Therefore in their view it was wrong to criticise the judge over it." Seriously? May 26 '18 at 19:59


See my note at the end.

I may have answered my own question...

I was going to edit my post again, adding the phrase "shooting the messenger" to make it a little more familiar. I then typed "shooting the messenger" + fallacy into Google and followed one of the top hits (Shooting the messenger) to an article that says,

Shooting the messenger" is a metaphoric phrase used to describe the act of blaming the bearer of bad news. . . . Shooting the messenger is a subdivision of the ad hominem logical fallacy.

However, that sounds a little lame to me. Yes, it's a personal attack, but couldn't we refine it a bit more?

I posted a similar question over at Logically Fallacious, and the discussion was remarkably short compared to this discussion. Verdict:

If the activist could be blamed for the government's actions, then it's like an inconsistency fallacy.

If the activist had nothing to do with the new law - even though the government and/or media may have said something to the contrary - it could be a false cause fallacy.

But even that may not cover all the bases. I think this type of situation may be a combination of fallacy and mental baggage (e.g. cognitive biases). It's more complex than I at first realized.

Another point: The fallacy I describe is similar to yet distinct from the shoot the messenger fallacy. We might call it the shoot the activist fallacy, or the condemn the one who cares fallacy.

It's probably significantly more complex than the shooting the messenger fallacy. A messenger simply delivers news, welcome (good) or unwelcome (bad). An activist, on the other hand, makes news.

It can be very difficult to understand precisely why various people would condemn someone for criticizing a loathsome individual. Many people may know that a pedophile judge, for example, deserves to be criticized (and worse), but their allegiance lies with their bank accounts, not children.

Conformism is another factor. If everyone seems to be cheering for a disgraced judge and condemning the whistle-blower who brought him to justice, then most people will follow the flock.

I've observed many people who are simply insane (or at least not terribly bright) and don't seem to have a clue about anything.

So if a person says, "See what you've done? Thanks to your activism, the government just took a bite out of our free speech!" we can interpret it it in at least a couple ways:

  1. The person is an idiot who just made a nonsensical statement.
  2. The person is a propagandist who wants other people to think the activist is doing bad things, rather than good things.

Here's a video of someone talking about inconsistency fallacy. At about 2:50 he says it would normally be classified as a formal fallacy, but it's actually an informal fallacy because you often have to "examine the content" in order to determine if there's an inconsistency.

I just became aware of yet another red flag, though I'm not sure if it qualifies as a fallacy. The activist is being promoted as the worst of two evils, when the pedophile judge is in fact the worst. In fact, the activist in this case shouldn't be regarded as evil, period.

The term for this type of propaganda is demonization. This also qualifies as a fallacy: the ad hominem fallacy.

So this would appear to be a case of two fallacies - inconsistency and ad hominem - being used simultaneously.

On another note, this discussion says a lot about the value of philosophy. Imagine a person who discovers a politician who's a murderer or a school official who's a pedophile. He's trying to summon the courage to speak out, but a friend warns him...

Joe, I'm glad you care, but I have to be honest and tell you that you're alone. Your neighbors are going to rally behind the pedophile and condemn you. Even philosophers will trivialize his monstrous crimes as "moral relativism" [link to this webpage]. And if the government passes a new law that helps make it harder to bring such people to justice, that's going to be blamed on you as well.

So what's the point of discussing ethics if the philosophical community can't even make up its collective mind regarding the morality of a pedophile judge or the person who brings him to justice?

  • 1
    So to summarize, "shooting the messenger" does not really fit, and the rest is [something you find unpleasant] "fallacy". Conformism is not a fallacy either, however unpleasant it is. You may want to look for alternatives to "fallacy" as a condemnation word, like biases and stereotypes.
    – Conifold
    May 26 '18 at 20:47
  • Actually, I mentioned COGNITIVE BIASES in my answer. But I'm not convinced that that's the whole picture; I think there is a fallacy here. Wow, you're really in a mood for playing games, aren't you? As I very clearly said, "Shooting the messenger" isn't a precise fit because there's a significant difference between a messenger and an activist. I'm not sure what you mean by "the rest." "Something you find unpleasant fallacy" appears to be your secret code word for what I dubbed "shoot the activist fallacy." May 26 '18 at 20:52
  • Wikipedia recognizes the "shoot the messenger" meme as a fallacy, as much as I hate to credit Wikipedia. That reminds me, I just watched a relevant video, too...I'm going to try and find it again and add it to my answer. May 26 '18 at 20:52
  • 1
    As long as we are crediting Wikipedia, "fallacy is the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning". By your own admission, people behave the way you describe through no fault in reasoning. So no fallacy will be precise, or any, fit, you are stretching the word beyond its usefulness. "Fallacy" as dressed-up "boo".
    – Conifold
    May 26 '18 at 21:01
  • I never said people (mis)behave through no fault in reasoning. I said quite the opposite. Mrs. X says "Oooo...I think pedophiles are disgusting!" Then, when an activist blows the whistle on a pedophile, she attacks...the activist. Sounds like faulty reasoning to me. May 26 '18 at 21:10

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