False Equity |  False Compromise |  Exercises


The Unfair Fallacy

  1. Student: Elder's essay was better, because he gave both sides of the issue. Oppenheimer's was more one-sided, so it wasn't as persuasive.
  2. Poll Results: When asked whether they believed the Republicans' estimate of $3 billion, or the Democrats' estimate of $6 billion, most Americans gave a figure somewhere in between.
It is important to be fair in making judgments, but equal treatment of good and bad arguments makes no sense. Just because there are two sides to every dispute doesn't mean that there is always something worthwhile to say on both sides. In effect, to require someone to be "fair" by presenting both sides of a dispute, as in the first example, or by splitting the difference between two sides, as in the second, is to make a judgment about the dispute before evaluating the validity and soundness of the arguments being made--and that, by definition, is a fallacy.

We can distinguish between two kinds of "unfair fallacies," corresponding to the two examples above:

False Equity
False Compromise
The fallacy of false equity, or evenhandedness, can be committed either by someone making an argument, or someone analyzing one. While it is often a good strategy to cover both sides of an argument (without, of course, oversimplifying one side or the other into a "straw man"), such a strategy is never a necessary requirement of a good argument; and we also should not be swayed by someone simply because he or she does cover both sides. For example, in a debate on legalizing murder, would we be any more likely to reject the anti-murder argument just because the debater found nothing good to say about murder? Or would we be any less likely to reject the pro-murder argument just because the person making it finds a few nice things to say about non-violence?

The fallacy of false compromise usually occurs when we don't know or care much about the terms of the debate. In that case, we are often willing simply to split the difference, rather than learn enough to make an informed judgment. That solution may be expedient, but it's not necessarily the right one. If Johnny thinks that two plus two equals four, and his friend Petey thinks they equal six, splitting the difference and saying they equal five is obviously erroneous. Without looking at the arguments being made, we can never rule out the possibility that one side is completely right, and the other side is completely wrong. If the issues under debate are too complicated or specialized for us to make an informed decision, then we should suspend judgment, rather than create a false compromise.

Exercises:

1. Which of the following is an example of a false compromise?

Used car salesman to customer: "We advertised the car at $5000 and you're offering $4000. Let's split the difference and say $4500."

Teacher to class: "Half the class answered 1775 on that question, and the other half answered 1777, but the correct date is 1776."

Cop to lawyer: "Well, the first driver said the light was green, and the other one said it was red, so I figured it was probably yellow."

One friend to another: "You want to watch Back to the Future III, and I want to watch Back to the Future I, so let's compromise and both watch Back to the Future II.

2. Which of the following sounds most like an example of false equity?

I like Nguyen's article better, because it gives equal time to both sides.

I agree with Nguyen's article, because it gives equal time to both sides.

I didn't like Nguyen's article as much, because it is one-sided.

Nguyen must really believe in that position, because the essay has nothing positive at all to say about the other side.

1. Which of the following is an example of a false compromise? You answered:

Used car salesman to customer: "We advertised the car at $5000 and you're offering $4000. Let's split the difference and say $4500."

The salesman is not saying $4500 is the "correct" price, based only on the two figures mentioned so far. He is offering a compromise, which the customer is free to reject. Not all compromises are false and fallacious, only those that imply or claim that they are necessarily true or accurate simple by virtue of being a comprose.

1. Which of the following is an example of a false compromise? You answered:

Teacher to class: "Half the class answered 1775 on that question, and the other half answered 1777, but the correct date is 1776."

Had the teacher said, "... so the correct date is 1776," implying that it is the correct date because it is halfway between the two the class gave, then this would be a false compromise. But the teacher is only correcting the class's errors, and her knowledge of the correct date appears to come from information other than the class's wrong answers.

1. Which of the following is an example of a false compromise? You answered:

Cop to lawyer: "Well, the first driver said the light was green, and the other one said it was red, so I figured it was probably yellow."

Correct!

Though the cop qualifies the conclusion with "probably," the basis for it is still the notion that a compromise between the two positions is the best choice. In fact, if the cop has only conflicting evidence from the two drivers, then there is no basis to draw any conclusion at all.

1. Which of the following is an example of a false compromise? You answered:

One friend to another: "You want to watch Back to the Future III, and I want to watch Back to the Future I, so let's compromise and both watch Back to the Future II.

The speaker is offering a compromise, but not all compromises are fallacious. There's no sense here that the speaker is suggesting Back to the Future II is the "correct" movie or a better movie, only that it is something they might watch together.

2. Which of the following sounds most like an example of false equity? You answered:

I like Nguyen's article better, because it gives equal time to both sides.

"Liking" an essay is quite different from accepting its conclusion or thinking its arguments are valid. Since giving equal time to both sides is part of the style of an essay, it might well be a factor that could cause a person to enjoy or appreciate the writing more.

2. Which of the following sounds most like an example of false equity? You answered:

I agree with Nguyen's article, because it gives equal time to both sides.

Correct!

According to the statement, the reason for agreeing with the article is not the article's claims and arguments, but the fact that it gives equal time to both sides. This is clearly a fallacy, since the decision on the validity and soundness of the arguments is made without analyzing them.

2. Which of the following sounds most like an example of false equity? You answered:

I didn't like Nguyen's article as much, because it is one-sided.

Being "one-sided" has nothing to do with making valid and sound arguments, and this statement never suggests that the person disagrees with Nguyen's arguments because the article is one-sided. An example of false equity might be, "I don't agree with the arguments in Nguyen's article, because it is one-sided."

2. Which of the following sounds most like an example of false equity? You answered:

Nguyen must really believe in that position, because the essay has nothing positive at all to say about the other side.

This is a fallacy, but not that of false equity. Here, the speaker is basing the conclusion ("Nguyen must really believe in that position") on little or no evidence ("nothing positive to say"). So this is more likely explained as another fallacy, such as an example of a hasty generalization, or perhaps a false dilemma ("either you say something positive or you believe completely the opposite").

Congratulations

You have finished the section on unfair fallacies.