The fallacy of relative privation

Many years ago, in undergrad, I took a course called “Logic.” It was, embarrassingly enough, my math credit, which tells you why I did so badly in my advanced econ class four years later. I remember the Professor, Dan Cohen, and I remember liking the structure of logic – formulas that dissected arguments and made it easier to sort fact from fiction, or a really good argument from truth.

These last two things are something I think we could use a little more of in our world. So today, I retreat to logic to address something that’s bothering me.

TWICE today, in my social media feeds, I came across a situation of someone expressing their dismay or opinion about something, only to be told that there are worse things happening out there in the world, so therefore he/she shouldn’t be expressing their opinion, or should feel bad about doing so, or should somehow qualify their opinion with all of the worse things that they could be talking about.

For example, people who are upset about a lion being killed are wrong to a) have that emotion, or b) say so because people are also being killed. Or someone complains about needing a dental procedure is told “you’re lucky you have dental insurance. So many people don’t.”

I might offend with this statement, but I think this kind of shaming sucks. It has reached the point where sometimes I’m afraid to even have an opinion because I’m pretty sure someone’s going to write a tweet or blog post that’s going to make me feel bad for having it.

Explain to me why I can’t be horrified both at a lion being killed and people being shot in their cars. Explain to me why it’s ok to make someone feel guilty for being lucky enough to have dental insurance.

Explain to me why we must always be working to invalidate other worldviews in order to validate ours. (This, in my humble opinion, is one of the biggest problems facing writers/bloggers today)

Here’s the answer – we don’t have to. There is a term for this kind of shaming/argument: The fallacy of relative privation. In logic terms, it’s an informal fallacy, which means there are misleading errors in reasoning that seem to support the conclusion, but actually are irrelevant or false.

Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

The fallacy of relative privation, or appeal to bigger problems, is an informal fallacy in which it is stated an opponent’s arguments should be dismissed or ignored, on the grounds that more important problems exist, regardless of whether these problems are relevant to the question at hand or not.

A well-known example of this fallacy is the response “but there are children starving in Africa,” with the implication that any issue less serious is not worthy of discussion.

Take this fallacy to its extreme, and you could say that someone who just lost a loved one to a horrible car crash shouldn’t be sad because thousands of people died of Ebola this year. You wouldn’t say that, would you? (I sure hope I didn’t break some other logic rule with that extrapolation)

Anyway, it was nice to find a definition for this particular tactic, and to know that the undefined unease I always feel at such arguments is at least grounded in logic.

But then again, there are all kinds of people out there with no internet and no means to while away an evening blogging, so I should probably feel bad for writing this post.


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