Appeal to Common Practice. Your mother has probably said it to you more times than you can remember: "If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump off the bridge, too?" Well, mothers can be great critical thinkers, and this is one of the best replies to a fallacious appeal to common practice, in which an action is justified because "everyone is doing it." In a sound argument, the action must be justified on its own merits, and what others are doing, and the conclusions they may have reached, are of little or no consequence. Just because "everyone is doing it" (a claim that is often unsupported, exaggerated, or vague in the first place), doesn't make it right to do. Consider the following examples of fallacious appeals to common practice:

  • It's ok to copy someone else's homework. Everyone does it once in a while.
  • You can pretty well ignore the speed limit in California. Everyone else does.
  • Why can't I have my tongue pierced? All the other kids in school are doing it?
  • It's ok to cheat on your taxes. I saw a survey that showed more than half of all taxpayers lie about something on their returns.

Appeal to Tradition. Another form of "common practice" is a fallacious appeal to tradition. Instead of using the justification, "Everyone is doing it," in appeal to tradition, the rationalization is, "We've always done it that way." So, for example, everything from two-hour lunches to discrimination on the basis of race or gender can be explained away because "we've always done it that way." Traditions can be very important to us, but it's hard to imagine a harmful action that could be justified solely by the fact that it is traditional.

Two wrongs make a right is a fallacy closely related to appeal to common practice. In this case, the argument is it's acceptable to do something, not because other people are doing it, but because they are doing other things just as bad. Notice that "two wrongs" carries the implicit assumption that the action is wrong, but its commission is acceptable in the circumstances, while in "common practice" the suggestion is that a questionable action is made right by the frequency of its commission. Notice also that claim of the other's "bad" action is often unsupported, exaggerated, or theoretical--not that its verification would make a second wrong right. In addition, there is often an element of retribution in "two wrongs"--it's not just that other people are doing something wrong, but that they are doing it to you, that seems to excuse what, in another situation, you would likely recognize as unacceptable. Here are a few examples:

  • I'm not telling the checker that she forgot to charge me for those oranges--this store has been gouging me for years.
  • Sure, I'm going to keep those tools I borrowed from Harold. Hell, he'd do the same thing in my position.
  • I'm going to cut the jerk ahead of me off, the same way he just cut me off!
  • Sure, this prison is cruel and unusual punishment. These guys are criminals, after all.

Exercises

1. Which of the following claims is a fallacious appeal to common practice?

There's nothing to be ashamed about--lots of people get divorced!

Let's try that new restaurant. Everyone else is eating there!

Don't worry about the curfew. No one goes home before 11:00!

I don't mind taking this delivery job. Everyone has to start somewhere!

2. Which of the following does not fit the fallacy of "two wrong make a right"?

Sure, I cheat on my wife when I get the chance. The way she treats me--she deserves it!

The money was just sitting there on the chair. If I hadn't taken it, someone else would have.

What's wrong with tapping into my neighbor's cablevision line? He'll never even know about it!

I know they won't pay me what I'm worth at my job, so I take home office supplies whenever I can, just to even things out.

1. Which of the following claims is a fallacious appeal to common practice? You answered:

There's nothing to be ashamed about--lots of people get divorced!

In appeal to common practice, the reason given to excuse an action is that everyone is doing it. That would be like, in this case, saying, "Lots of people are getting divorced--let's get one, too!" Instead, the claim here is just that divorces are so common that there's nothing to be ashamed about. The logic may not be sound--since it assumes that we should never be ashamed of anything that happens often--but this is not an example of a fallacious appeal to common practice.

1. Which of the following claims is a fallacious appeal to common practice? You answered:

Let's try that new restaurant. Everyone else is eating there!

Compare this one to the claim, "Let's try that new drug. Everyone is doing it." They are similar in that a decision is being suggested on the basis of the (reported) actions of others. But they differ in that there we usually assume nothing is wrong in going to a restaurant, and that may not be the case with doing drugs. Appeal to common practice is typically used to justify an action, and it is unlikely that trying a new restaurant requires that kind of justification.

1. Which of the following claims is a fallacious appeal to common practice? You answered:

Don't worry about the curfew. No one goes home before 11:00!

Correct!!

The claim here seems to be that violating the law (curfew) is acceptable because everyone violates it. This is a clear example of a fallacious appeal to common practice: the action here is illegal, but is justified on that basis of its frequency.

1. Which of the following claims is a fallacious appeal to common practice?

I don't mind taking this delivery job. Everyone has to start somewhere!

In a fallacious appeal to common practice, the (alleged) fact that everyone is doing it is used as a justification for doing something of a questionable nature at best. Here, however, there seems to be nothing disreputable about taking the job, and the phrase, "Everyone has to start somewhere," is only generally applicable to the specific case of that job.

2. Which of the following does not fit the fallacy of "two wrong make a right"?

Sure, I cheat on my wife when I get the chance. The way she treats me--she deserves it!

You consider the actions of your wife towards you as wrong, and that's your justification for committing your own wrongdoing, so fits the definition of the fallacy of two wrongs make a right. Notice, incidentally, that there would be no fallacy in the argument, "Sure, I cheat on my wife when I get the chance. There's nothing wrong in that." We might reject the evaluative claim that "there's nothing wrong in that," and therefore the argument with it, but if so the argument would merely be unsound, and not fallacious.

2. Which of the following does not fit the fallacy of "two wrongs make a right"?

The money was just sitting there on the chair. If I hadn't taken it, someone else would have.

This is an example of doing something wrong because (according to you) someone else would have done it anyway, given the chance. Even though the second wrong is purely theoretical here, and not even directed at you, this is still a case of the fallacy of two wrongs make a right.

2. Which of the following does not fit the fallacy of "two wrongs make a right"?

What's wrong with tapping into my neighbor's cablevision line? He'll never even know about it!

Correct!!

Tapping into your neighbor's cable is wrong, but the justification here is that the neighbor won't lose anything (of course not--you'd be stealing from the cable company). This may be bad reasoning, but it's not the fallacy of two wrong make a right.

2. Which of the following does not fit the fallacy of "two wrongs make a right"?

I know they won't pay me what I'm worth at my job, so I take home office supplies whenever I can, just to even things out.

Not paying you a fair salary may be wrong, but it doesn't justify stealing office supplies. This is a clear case of trying to make two wrongs "even things out" to a right.

Congratulations

You have finished the section on fallacious appeals to common practice.