Fallacy #9: The Appeal To Moderation

The appeal to moderation (also called argument to moderation) is an evasion of fact-finding and analysis. It’s most common use is the old phrase, “split the difference.”

The appeal to moderation can sometimes be sensible, but often it’s part of a strategy for deception.

Reasonable uses of “splitting the difference” usually come when the thing to be split is unimportant. For example:

Two old friends share lunch. The bill comes and it’s thirty dollars. Rather than taking time to count the precise value of each one’s food, one friend says, “I’ll pay this, just give me fifteen dollars.” Splitting the check is far easier, makes for a more pleasant experience, and wouldn’t have made more than a dollar or two difference either way.

In other words, splitting the difference is an energy saving trick that works just fine when the stakes are low. This is sensible and we tend to do it a lot, particularly among the people closest to us. We also tend to do this in business, for relatively minor concerns. Here’s an example:

I used to estimate the cost of construction projects, rigorously assigning value to each segment of the work. Some parts, however, were highly complex but not very expensive. Taking the time to develop the precise cost just wasn’t worth it. We’d end up saying, “Just throw a couple of hundred dollars at it and move on.”

That was also moderation: assigning some reasonable number to the item and saving ourselves a lot of work. So long as we threw some moderate amount of money at it, any imprecision on our part would be trivial.

Where moderation doesn’t work is where the stakes are higher. In those cases it can easily be abused. I’ve knew one person who relied upon this trick as a way to get ahead. Here’s how it worked when we were young:

At school, he’d cheat some other child out of something (a few coins, candies, or whatever). The other kid would complain to the teacher, but the abuser would swear that it was totally false. The teacher, not knowing who to believe, would just split the candy between them.

And so, this person made a career of half-thefts. At some point the teachers caught on to the trick, but by then he had stolen quite a bit. (And, of course, he moved on to other tricks.)

A compromise between two positions is not always correct; in fact it’s almost never really correct.

But the appeal to moderation isn’t just about splitting the difference. Often it involves appearing reasonable or enlightened… with “reasonable” or “enlightened” passing as “moderate.” For example,

I knew a man who was guilty of unfair and unkind dealing in the recent past, but when called to account for it would say, “Look, we can fight about past wrongs all day; I want to talk about what we’re going to accomplish now.”

By sounding moderate (even enlightened), he not only swept away his abuses in a single stroke, but with them any consideration of his ability to behave honorably in the future. Past actions are valid indications of a person’s future actions. This man, however, using an appeal to moderation, wiped them all away with phrases that sounded reasonable and even deep.

How The Trick Works

The appeal to moderation works by pulling people away from analysis. Rather than taking the time and energy to examine and decide – or to bear abuse for examining and deciding – we take a shortcut instead. Our desire to do this, or our willingness to go along with it, is how the trick works.

Bear in mind please, that thinking can be legitimately hard. This is something that the better thinkers of the world have complained about often. Here’s one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s complaints:

A sect or party is an elegant [trick] to save man from the vexation of thinking.

Emerson and others like him get frustrated with the evasion of thinking. They are right that it’s a bad thing, but they can also be rather unfair and unkind to the people they complain about.

Thinking is hard for two primary reasons:

  1. The inborn. Depending upon which research you prefer, our brains account for between 15% and 20% of all the energy our bodies expend. That’s a lot of energy, especially for something with no moving parts. Thinking, then, is energy-intensive, and thus tiring. So, people are not wrong to feel that thinking is hard. What they fail to remember, sometimes, is that not thinking is far worse, yielding painful and long-lasting results.
  2. The man-made. Intimidation, shame and fear are powerful obstructions to thinking. I like the analogy of physical exercise and sometimes say this: While thinking normally may be like doing push-ups, thinking while intimidated is like doing push-ups with someone on your back.

If the man-made difficulty of thinking went away, the in-born part of it would be far less of a problem, of course, but until we are able to expel those man-made difficulties from the world, the problem will remain acute, and the Emersons of the world will continue to be frustrated.

The appeal to moderation works by taking advantage of this condition. We see a lot of mental work in front of us and want to avoid it; we don’t want to feel stupid compared to the seemingly deep thinker; we don’t want people to detest us for going against high ideals… and so we take the shortcut and avoid the pain.

What To Keep In Mind

As strange as it may sound, one of the best tools for dealing with this problem is to be physically vibrant. When we’re healthy and strong, expending some extra energy isn’t too much of a burden.

Another key to dealing with this problem is simply to notice it. As we’ve noted before, the dark triad of fear, intimidation and shame overload our minds, making intelligent responses very hard. But they also generate a strong and particular feeling. By paying attention to that feeling, we create a base for ourselves: We know that something has gone wrong and that we should give it a moment to subside. That’s when we go to our standard line:

Wait, please. I want to understand what you’re saying. Are you saying that…

The dark triad is a set of short-duration weapons. They blast you, then they fade. Our job is to bear the initial blow, not do anything stupid while recovering from it, and then deal with the question in front of us. And we know that question is fraudulent in some way; if not, it wouldn’t have been delivered with a blow.

Also bear in mind what we said regarding the ad hominem fallacy: at some point you must be willing to be called names. Choosing to think and to judge can come at a cost. And so, as funny as it sounds, this is true:

Sometimes, being the reasonable one requires you to be the unreasonable one.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg


2 thoughts on “Fallacy #9: The Appeal To Moderation”

    1. LOL… I think my answer is, “No, it’s just annoying.” 🙂

      It could be in context, but not essentially.


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