Fallacy #17: False Equivalence

The fallacy of false equivalence (also referred to as a fallacy of inconsistency) is an equivalence drawn between two subjects, using flawed or false reasoning. The user of this fallacy makes two things sound alike – usually like they’re both the same thing – while they really aren’t. Here’s an example:

A group of people called the Decians gather together and decide that their ancestors were done wrong by a group of people called Fractians. And so they grab weapons and go through the town of the Fractians, burning buildings and beating the tar out of any Fractians they find.

The Fractians, after coming to grips with what is happening, begin to hurl stones and to swing clubs right back at the Decians. By the time it ends, 24 Decians and 51 Fractians are dead.

Then, some pundit tells the world that, “Wrongs were done by both sides – many on each side are dead – we shouldn’t point fingers.”

The pundit, here, is drawing an false equivalence: that aggressors and people fighting in self defense are morally the same. But in fact they aren’t remotely equivalent. The aggressors bear the guilt for the deaths, not the self-defenders.

The false equivalence is unjust, untrue, and a hazard to human thriving.

Another version of the fallacy runs like this:

Person #1 outright abuses a second person.

Person #2 complains to someone else about this, perhaps someone in a position to mediate or solve the problem.

The mediator, however, says: “There are three sides to this: Your story, her story, and the truth.”

The mediator in this example draws a false equivalence, saying that Person #2 (the abused) is equal to Person #1 (the abuser), with a slogan that they think sounds enlightened. What it is, of course, is injustice: an abuser and a victim are very much not the same. The mediator doesn’t want to spend time and effort finding the truth. Or, perhaps, he’s pretty sure what the truth is, and dealing with it doesn’t suit his agenda.

A big historical example of this came in 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt promoted to the American people “the four freedoms.” Two of them were simply restatements of the first amendment of the US constitution. The last two ‘freedoms’, however, were of a fundamentally different character: “Freedom from want” and “Freedom from fear.”

The first amendment of the US constitution didn’t really grant or create rights (even though it’s part of the so-called Bill of Rights). The amendment begins with “Congress shall make no law…” By saying this, the text assumes that rights rest with the people, then demands that congress make no law against them. Those are typically called “negative rights;” asserting that rights may not be taken from you.

What Roosevelt did was to create positive rights: That it is your right to be provided with things. And in this case, to be provided with all the things you need, including a feeling of safety.

Those rights, however, have a gigantic but unspoken demand: That someone must provide them to you: that someone must give you food, shelter, clothing etc… that they must do whatever is required – not only to make you actually safe, but to make you feel safe.

Roosevelt’s “rights” were in no way equivalent to the rights of the “Bill of Rights.” Actually, they were a Bill of Slavery, because if taken seriously, they demand that others be forced to provide things. And that requires either the transfer of wealth (theft) or forcing one person to work for the good of another (slavery).

And just three years later, Roosevelt removed any doubt as to his false equivalence by announcing a “Second Bill of Rights,” Including things like a right to employment, a right to a fair income, a right to housing, and so on. All of these – again, if they were to be taken seriously – demanded the enslavement of others. Either that or people had to believe that Roosevelt could conjure magic.

Roosevelt’s rights were of a wholly different type than the original America rights, and yet he sold them very well with a false equivalence. Rights are rights, people told themselves, mainly because the no-cost salving of their fears appealed to them.

How The Trick Works

The hidden piece that makes this trick work is confusion. Consider the situation into which Roosevelt’s false equivalence came:

Americans of 1940 faced a mostly incomprehensible world. They had just gone through a horrendous decade of unemployment and a depressed standard of living… and no one having an answer for it. Roosevelt was given tremendous latitude to implement his “New Deal” that was supposed to fix everything, but it never really came close. The solutions put forth by business leaders had either been left untried or had failed also. And, of course, a second World War looked possible and even imminent.

And so, a “great, charismatic leader” making attractive promises and invoking cherished words (like “rights”) couldn’t easily be judged, but it sounded good.

Humans are intelligent creatures, and while they try not to admit it, they can sense their own confusion. And in that state, they’re willing to go for promises they wouldn’t in clear conditions. The train of thought goes rather like this:

I don’t know why these things are happening or how to fix them, but this guy is respected, very confident, and he’s describing a very nice result. I’m also confident that he’ll work hard to complete his plan. I’ll go for it.

And then, once they’ve thrown in for the new plan… and not wanting to feel foolish for it afterward… they will defend their choice reflexively, even as evidence against it mounts.

More than that, it seems, knowing on some level that they made their choice in a state of confusion, people realize that blame applies even more, and so they defend their previous choice with even more vigor.

In the first example we used – the Decians and the Fractarians – the false equivalence worked because of moral confusion. (In the second example too.) Most people, sadly, are morally confused and are unwilling to take on the terrifying risk of making a moral judgment. By accepting moral equivalence, however, they can pretend that there really is no necessity of choice. And if the process is handled smoothly, they can be made to feel smart and/or enlightened.

What To Keep In Mind

Probably the first necessity here is to recognize when you are confused; if we do that well enough, the false equivalence won’t be able to root within us.

And when you do recognize your own confusion, you should be clear that any choice you make is merely the best you can do under the circumstances. In other words, you must recognize and accept that you’re doing it half blindly.

There is no shame in having limited and imperfect knowledge: Perfect and complete knowledge simply doesn’t exist on this planet, and we set ourselves up for a lifetime of bad feelings and bad choices if we try to pretend otherwise.

So, if you’re confused by your choices, accept that you are. We’re all ignorant to one extent or another, and evading that truth cuts us off from improvement, as an old Jewish proverb advises:

Teach your tongue to say “I do not know” and you will progress.

When you see this fallacy being pushed upon yourself and others, your first concern is to recognize what is happening. Then, if you want to engage with someone putting forth a false equivalence, go to our standard line: Wait, please. I want to understand what you’re saying. Are you saying that…

What you’ll want to identify are statements that are mere hopes or imaginations. And when doing this, it’s almost always best to be gentle. If not for confusion the people you’d like to protect wouldn’t be vulnerable, so don’t stomp on their weak points. Rather, say something like this:

Look, I understand that you’re trying to find some answer for a bad situation, so I’m not trying to criticize… but please consider that you’re describing an empty hope. We’d all like the end state you’re describing, but we have to get there in a real, non-magical world. Hope is pretty, but it’s not a substitute for reality.

Sometimes that will work and sometimes it won’t, but if you come across as sincere and benevolent (which you should), you’ll be planting good seeds in at least some of the people present.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg