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Popper coined the phrase "paradox of tolerance" when discussing how unlimited tolerance is self-contradictory (paradoxical) in that it precludes self-preservation (resisting intolerance). The seeming paradox can be resolved by accepting non-arbitrary, justified limits (exceptions) to tolerance; namely, conditioning tolerance on reciprocity (while still favoring rational discussion and leaving intolerance as the last resort in the case of Popper).

The structure of the paradox matches the absolutism fallacy (destroying the exception, sweeping generalization), and I've noticed this fallacy being widely applied to moral principles, so I was wondering if there is existing discourse on specifically what could be called the 'moral absolutism fallacy', preferably from an argumentation theory angle.

The moral absolutism fallacy is based on a false dilemma where a principle is presumed to be all or nothing (absolutized), i.e., a limited/conditional/situational conception of the principle is excluded from the full complement of alternatives because the limits are presumed to be unjustifiable. This false dilemma is persuasive because it relies on the absolutist intuition of justice needing to be blind and human rights being universal/inalienable, which makes limited conceptions of a principle seem hypocritical.

The moral intuitions working against absolutism or inflexibility would be about turning the other cheek, eye for an eye making the whole world blind, "your rights end where my nose begins", etc.

The false dilemma between either absolute or opposite conceptions of a principle ultimately is used to argue (often unwittingly) for moral relativism and unprincipledness, because the absolute/unlimited conception is paradoxical (as per Popper) and thus unacceptable.

For example, absolute pacifism is an abnegation of its grounding principles like the value of human life, because it doesn't accept violence as an option even though peaceful approaches clearly can't work in every situation. The solution is understanding pacifism as a higher-order/more nuanced/deeper principle that is grounded in more specific principles like favoring peaceful conflict solving as more effective, non-zero-sum.

Other common examples of rejecting justified exceptions are the "so much for the tolerant left" trope, free speech absolutism, freethinking absolutism ("mind so open that brains fall out"), absolute skepticism (epistemic relativism), etc.

Pointers for further reading that I already have are Plato's paradox of freedom (dictatorship naturally arising out of direct democracy), Rawls on human rights as moral absolutism and Locke on liberty, but I was wondering what would be something more recent and focused.

  • Moral absolutism is not a fallacy, whether one finds it palatable or not. It is not that people are unaware of the concept of vague principles with exceptions, it is rather that they believe that such a thing has no place in a moral system. It is also a methodological maxim that exceptionless principles, if they can be had, make for a better system than vague ones, so you will not find any "general" criticism of it. Any such criticism usually has to be tailored to a specific domain, like ethics, and argue that there exceptionless principles can not be had. – Conifold Sep 18 at 20:18
  • Setting up a dichotomy between "vague" (limited) and "exceptionless" (absolute) principles is just restating the fallacy with different terms. It's doubly ironic in both that the absolute conceptions of principles are actually more vague or general (like absolute pacifism – "violence is always wrong" vs. pacifism with exceptions based on deeper grounding principles), and in that it's committing the absolutism fallacy regarding the absolutism fallacy itself – saying it's not a fallacy because of an all-or-nothing conception of it. – slikts Sep 19 at 5:32
  • What could be said about a moral maxim is that overwhelming exceptions should be avoided, but in the end it'll be a judgement call. You could also maybe imagine absolute principles that aren't fallacious as in the discussed examples, but I think it would take an idealized context. The idea of natural rights comes the closest to being absolute, but it still has exceptions in that they can't include violating the rights of others. – slikts Sep 19 at 5:41
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    It seems the only way to avoid your "absolutism fallacy" is to say that everything is a fallacy (or nothing), since anything else creates a dichotomy, which is indeed ironic. But even people who reject moral absolutism do not see it as a fallacy, so you'll have to modify your conception to find something relevant in the literature, see e.g. SEP Problems for Absolute Principles or IEP Objectivism and Relativism. – Conifold Sep 19 at 7:04
  • Thanks for the article on particularism. Absolutism is a general category of fallacies of presumption, not just related to ethics, and you avoid committing the fallacy by not presuming that exceptions to a rule would be unjustified. In other words, absolutism is over-generalization, so your take that the more absolute principles would be less vague is completely upside down, and ditto for saying that absolutism couldn't be a fallacy in the context of ethics because absolute principles could be imagined. – slikts Sep 19 at 7:21
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One place to look for arguments similar to the paradox of tolerance is "slippery slope" arguments. Douglas Walton offers four identifying characteristics of slippery slope arguments:

One is a first step, an action or policy being considered. A second is a sequence in which this action leads to other actions. A third is a so-called gray zone or area of indeterminacy along the sequence where the agent loses control. The fourth is the catastrophic outcome at the very end of the sequence.

In the case of the paradox of tolerance, a policy of tolerance leads to failure to respond adequately to intolerance to the extent that one's self-preservation becomes at stake.

From an argumentation theory perspective the slippery slope requires better definition. Walton describes some of the problems with the argument:

Because slippery slope is both highly intuitive as a form of argument, but also highly complex in its logical structure, it has resisted attempts to provide a precise and comprehensive definition. Slippery slope arguments are often mixed up with related arguments, such as argument from negative consequences, that are inherently different from the slippery slope argument. Another problem is that slippery slope arguments are typically put forward in a compressed way that conceals implicit premises drawn from common knowledge.

If slippery slope turns out to be not a good fit similar arguments such as the argument from negative consequences may be worth considering.


Walton, D. Slippery Slope. Encyclopedia of Global Bioethics, ed. H. ten Have, Berlin: Springer, 2015, 2623-2632 [uncorrected preprint posted] Retrieved on September 18, 2919 from Douglas Walton's site at https://www.dougwalton.ca/papers%20in%20pdf/15SlopeEncyc.pdf

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