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I was wondering what kind of fallacy is giving an example that occurred in the past, and thus saying we don't need to worry about the present as the same or worse happened in the past. I would like to know if there's a known name for this fallacy also, and some resources if you could.

Example:

Person 1: I can't believe we only have 14 days off work a year! It's a shame, we are working hard enough, it should be higher!
Person 2: What are you complaining about? Back in my day, we only had 10 days off! Stop crying!

I am not sure if I gave the "right" scenario, so I will give a more accurate one:

Backstory:

  • At the beginning, there was only one team - "A", containing 5 employees including our example employee "Jack" (so it was Jack + 4 more)

  • 7 employees came, and because it was a lot of people to handle - it was decided to open a new team as follows:

  • Jack + 3 new employees (1 + 3 = 4 total employees in team A)

  • The rest (3 + 4 = 7 total employees in team B)

  • The one who decided this division is a person, who is a senior team-lead in the team we'll call him 'James' - and long ago he was in a team of 4 employees in total (himself + 3 more)

Scenario:

Jack: I can't believe it, why have my conditions worsened? I was in a team of 5 - now I am in a team of 4 in total! What is this unfair division?
James: What are you crying about? Back in my day - we were 4 in total as well!

The key to note here is that "Jack" is a victim of an unfair division, and we will say that the workloads of both teams are somewhat the same; they gave more to team B because it was working a little bit harder than team A.

So - which fallacy are Person2 and James making? Does it have a name? Is it even an argument? I would appreciate your answers.

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  • 5
    It's not a fallacy; it is a rational argument and can be a strong argument in some cases. For example: "People can't survive on meat alone" answered by: "there are arctic peoples who lived their whole lives on practically nothing but meat". In your first example, an unsupported subjective feeling of unfairness is being properly countered by objective evidence that what you think is unfair would have been considered generous in the past, thereby offering strong evidence that your subjective feelings are not reasonable. Jan 22, 2023 at 21:55
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    The fallacy is in dismissing a concern by pointing to another (typically worse) concern, it is called the fallacy of relative privation:"B happened. B is worse than A. Therefore A is justified". It is quite general, the concern does not have to be related to justice and one need not point to examples in the past for dismissing it.
    – Conifold
    Jan 22, 2023 at 21:56
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    There is no fallacy here. Your title, and the inspiring question, presume an injustice. The reply is showing that work structures are varied, and can be effective in multiple team sizes, and uses examples from the organization's own successful past to demonstrate this. the answer did not then go further and point out that there is no intrinsic moral or fairness aspect at all in the vagaries of workplace structures, and the complainant carries the burden of evidence to show that THIS structure is a moral outlier, and morality is even relevant.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 23, 2023 at 0:24
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    If you are going to use placeholder names, (a) use names with different first initials, and (b) consider randomizing gender/etc. Because J talking to J is pointlessly confusing!
    – Yakk
    Jan 23, 2023 at 15:20
  • @Conifold: Why not make your comment on “the fallacy of relative privation” an answer? It seems to me to answer the question better than any of the current answers. Jan 23, 2023 at 16:35

4 Answers 4

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This is called an Appeal to tradition.

Wikipedia states

Appeal to tradition (also known as argumentum ad antiquitatem or argumentum ad antiquitam, appeal to antiquity, or appeal to common practice) is a claim in which a thesis is deemed correct on the basis of correlation with past or present tradition. The appeal takes the form of "this is right because we've always done it this way", and is considered by some to be a logical fallacy.

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    +1 This answer certainly seeks to find a place for the historical nature of the argument.
    – J D
    Jan 22, 2023 at 21:12
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    Evidence from the history of organizational behavior is applicable to the appropriateness of a current organizational structure. This is not a fallacy.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 23, 2023 at 0:26
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    @Dcleve Two quotes from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, (a) “The most dangerous phrase in the language is,‘We've always done it this way.’” And (b) “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.' I try to fight that. That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” It's only my opinion, but I believe the reason it's a fallacy is that it assumes nothing changes, which applies to your assertion.
    – JBH
    Jan 23, 2023 at 19:54
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    @JBH That clock is awesome. I'm going to get one right now.
    – J D
    Jan 23, 2023 at 22:54
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    Note, however, that the inverse appeal to novelty (in which an idea is presumed to be superior because it's new) is also a fallacy.
    – dan04
    Jan 24, 2023 at 0:58
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First, when you have a statement with assertoric force (in plain-speak, you have claims about truth being made), then you have at a bare minimum a rhetorical argument. Rhetoric since ancient times is characterized as possessing logos, ethos, and pathos, at a minimum. To have an informal fallacy, one must have a premise or premises that lead to a conclusion that is in some way flawed. In formal logic, validity and soundness, and in informal logic cogency and strength. If you take the argument to be:

P1 In the olden days, things were worse.
P2 You have it better than the olden days.
C You have nothing to complain about because you're better off than the olden days.

Then you can start fishing around for some fallacy. I'd say that the prima facie on this argument doesn't pass a sniff test, so it certainly seems specious. But what species of poor reasoning? That might be tougher to determine.

The argument I would offer to persuade you is that logically speaking, this is a false equivalence. Namely, the argument implicitly assumes that the criteria of judgement for the those of the good, ole days, must be the criteria of judgement for those of the here and now because the two situations are essentially the same. That would be the fallacy I would endorse. The retort would be simple. The criteria of the good ole days have no bearing on contemporaneous judgment. Let's cook up an example based on this thinking.

Person A It's unfair that my daughter received a ticket for a rolling stop.
Person B You have nothing to complain about. Back in my day, when I first started driving, the police would not only pull you over for small violations, but they would use the billy club on you.

Should the justice provided by LEOs in 2023 be measured in terms of the historical practices of LEOs in 1950? Seems like a logical stretch to me, because we have two historical time periods, reason would suggest that we should judge each contextually, not according to some imputed objective, atemporal standard of fairness.

On a psychological note, the rhetorical force implied in this argument is obvious minimization. Sometimes to gain a psychological advantage in rhetoric and achieve an end, like suppressing opinion or delegitimizing it, this sort of argument is employed to silence. I've heard it in a number of contexts, including racial or social equality:

Person A It's unfair that I'm deprived of an early ballot to elect my officials.
Person B You have nothing to complain about. Fifty years ago, you might have been beaten if you exercised your vote; heck, 150 years ago, you didn't have a right to vote at all.

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    Person B's "You have nothing to complain about" is incorrect. The rest of what they say may very well be correct. If someone drives over my foot it's correct to say "Could have been worse, they could have driven over your leg and then reversed and driven over it again". I will still complain about someone hurting my foot.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 24, 2023 at 10:39
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As JD says, this is a false equivalence. But I disagree on what is being treated as equivalent.

The argument is essentially saying "better = good/adequate". Although it's true that we should be happy when things get better, that doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't aspire further, and we can no longer complain.

For example, if the industry standard vacation time is 15 days/year, an employee at a company that only offers 13 days would have good reason to gripe that the company is being stingy. It may be an improvement over the previous 10 days/year, but it's still not what one expects.

This comes up in ways other than just comparing with the past, often in the form of "it could have been worse". For instance, someone hits your car, and you end up in the hospital. People will say things like "you could have died, so you should be happy you're still alive." It may indeed be better, but that doesn't really negate the pain and annoyance of the actual situation.

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This logical fallacy calls "why do u think so?" And if reason at past - it is normal. When reason is at future - it is abnormal, cuz future image depends on short resent-past model. Usually too short to count it as a reason. The longer the causal chain does more moral weight. So P2 won the discussion in one step. P1 was too emotional and impatient and lose.

But the Second story is not same. 2 stories are not equivalent. If in the first story is nothing bad happened yet, and the upcoming was predictable - P1 had known always about number working off days, so his claims haven't primary moral worth, cuz they haven't evident reason. So it needed long discussion about his working conditions and etc.

But SS is different. Bad was happening, so, Jack's crying has a reason - bad event, so it can be discussed is it reason of moral or not. But James sad for him the standard phrase "why do u think so, back in my days.." - and this phrase sounds as amoral cuz James don't support James's wounded crying, not with moral answer, but a misplaced statement about James person life as a moral rule. Has this been logical fallacy - nope, cuz we don't know all about James and Jack's full roles, position and work they have done. And James has leadership position, so all his words are lead words and it can be regarded like moral rule irrespective of that what are these words, but if they are linked with his person they can be moral rule. So can James said something about his person opinion as an answer - yes, he leads role gave this right to him. But we know not enough to say, who is right is this story crying man saw bad, or lead that didn't see. Summary:

FS -nothing bad was happening, P1 did logical fallacy, P1 has no moral reason for crying, an argument from personal experience P2 is appropriate, cuz P1 crying is a personal problem. So P1 did fallacy, but P2 followed P1 logic at answer and he don't do fallacy while he don't go out logic area P1 - while he in discussion with P1 only.

SS - something was happening, but was it bad? Jack think so, but we can't be sure. Jack can be right, and can be wrong in his reaction. Can James refer his personal experience as argument for stopping Jack's crying? Yes, he can, he is lead role and he in the right to set an example.

*About wiki "Appeal to tradition" the responding did logical fallacy. Cuz P2 didn't appel to tradition, cuz his own experience not tradition for all. Nothing told about what firm or country - where did he work before, which traditions does he appeal. This is logical fallacy to count the P2 back days as the history, own story is not a history and own experience is not tradition. About James it is ok, but only cuz James is on lead role - he can be local tradition maker.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 24, 2023 at 8:35
  • sorry
    – user64448
    Jan 26, 2023 at 2:53

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