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False Equivalence

Description: An argument or claim in which two completely opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not. The confusion is often due to one shared characteristic between two or more items of comparison in the argument that is way off in the order of magnitude, oversimplified, or just that important additional factors have been ignored.

Logical Form:

Thing 1 and thing 2 both share characteristic A.

Therefore, things 1 and 2 are equal.

Example #1:

President Petutti ordered a military strike that killed many civilians. He is no different than any other mass murder and he belongs in prison!

Explanation: Both president Petutti and a mass murder share the characteristic that something they did resulted in the death of civilians. However, the circumstances, the level of responsibility, and the intent are significantly different for the president than the typical mass murder and ignoring these factors is unreasonable, thus makes the argument fallacious.

Example #2: Using the second amendment as justification to allow civilians to own nuclear submarines.

Explanation: In this case, the first "thing" is the weapon as understood at the time the second amendment was passed. The second "thing" of comparison is the nuclear submarine, also a weapon, but one of significantly different magnitude. This example also introduces the difference between a legal justification and an argumentative one (see Appeal to the Law).

Exception: Like most fallacies, this is one of degree rather than kind. The order of magnitude can be debated. Some may exaggerate this order of magnitude claiming a fallacy where it would be unreasonable to do so.

References:

This is a logical fallacy frequently used on the Internet. No academic sources could be found.



Registered User Comments

T Mac
Thursday, June 27, 2019 - 10:44:53 PM
I have pointed to the violinist argument as a false equivalence, would you agree with that assessment?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Friday, June 28, 2019 - 07:12:15 AM
Not sure what you mean. Where did you point to this?

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T Mac
Friday, June 28, 2019 - 07:57:38 AM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: it is a contentious argument, but it is an anecdotal example in “A Defense for Abortion” where the reader is asked to imagine they wake up attached to a world class violinist as a dialysis machine and argues that since you both have bodily autonomy then using a pro-life stance, you shouldn’t have the right to disconnect from them. My assertion was that since a mother isn’t kidnapped and forced to carry a child, this is a false equivalence as it sets up an argument that seems morally identical on the surface, but is two entirely different situations when analyzed with a little more scrutiny. My argument is not for or against either side, just that the example presented in 1971 and pointed to for decades as “common sense” is fallacious and a new argument needs to be presented.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, June 29, 2019 - 07:03:46 AM
@T Mac: Not sure if this works because the idea of being kidnapped is incidental to the argument. The analogy works because in both cases consent is not given. And the mother is being forced to carry a child, which is the reason the argument is needed.

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T Mac
Saturday, June 29, 2019 - 10:08:09 AM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: I believe the idea of being “forced to carry” is a straw man fallacy of sorts in that the pro life argument doesn’t argue to force the mother to carry the child, it is incidental to not allowing her to terminate the perceived life, which to one with a pro life stance is seen as murder. Also, I feel being kidnapped is not incidental but essential to the argument presented especially given that there are dialysis machines that would work to save the violinist’s life so the kidnapping and forcing the non consenting adult to act as one is a false premise. To conclude, I posit that, while the argument was convincing and made some very good points, it is a false equivalence. If I am misunderstanding the definition, please let me know, but I do not see in any respect how the two situations are similar.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, June 29, 2019 - 10:17:00 AM
@T Mac: All of what you just wrote aside, the violist argument as you presented it is not a false equivalence because no equality is being claimed. This is an analogy that is presented and as such, all analogies by definition are not equal situations but "like" situations. You can argue that it is a weak analogy based on your points above, but not false equivalence.

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T Mac
Saturday, June 29, 2019 - 11:24:11 AM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: ah, thank you for the explanation. I get where my misunderstanding was coming from now. This conversation has been enlightening.

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Peter Pajakowski
Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 04:31:59 AM
@T Mac:
... the idea of being “forced to carry” is a straw man fallacy of sorts in that the pro life argument doesn’t argue to force the mother to carry the child, it is incidental to not allowing her to terminate the perceived life, which to one with a pro life stance is seen as murder

Help me to understand how being "forced to carry" is a straw man. Pregnancy in that context is binary: you either terminate the pregnancy or you "CARRY" the pregnancy to date of confinement. If you do NOT want to be pregnant, and are told that you cannot terminate the pregnancy, you are, ipso facto, "forced to carry" the pregnancy to term. Perhaps the pro-life argument doesn't care about that, but it doesn't make it a straw man.

Maybe I'm missing something with regards to the analogy being used. I don't quite get the analogy, but I'm kinda dumb. The lack of adequate terminology seems to make this a rather unhelpful analogy to use for the "bodily autonomy" argument, although it's adequacy doesn't mean that the bodily autonomy argument lacks ethical plausibility.

For the record, I have no dog in this hunt. I see both sides, and REALLY wish we could get past this issue, as politically, it creates hyperpartisan animosity that bleeds into everything else. It seems to be a question of variances in axiological presuppositions as applied to the relevant categories. Not all life is valued the same. By anyone. Not even the Jains. Not all biological organisms with human DNA are the same. We feel differently about the loss of different types of humans and specific humans, no matter what we tell ourselves. It's an intractable problem with deontological ethics.

The Abortion issue seems to depend on where one feels the tipping point lies between competing ethical values, and it is manifest as the point during embryonic and fetal development that one feels it is no longer justifiable to terminate the pregnancy. And there are manifold circumstances that change the way one feels about those competing axiological variables. Logic is difficult to apply universally.

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Jason Mathias
Saturday, August 17, 2019 - 08:56:25 AM
Abortion is murder because its killing babies, and killing babies is illegal. It has human DNA and human life begins at conception. Therefor we should outlaw abortions as its murdering human life.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, August 17, 2019 - 09:08:30 AM
Problems with the first premise:

Abortion is murder because its killing babies

That is the wrong definition of murder. Murder is the unjust killing of a human.

and killing babies is illegal.

Killing babies is not illegal*, murdering them is.

* Where abortion is not illegal at least.

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Jason Mathias
Saturday, August 17, 2019 - 02:33:58 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: But is it a false equivalence? Both babies and fetuses have human DNA, therefor they are equivalent and thus should be protected under the same laws?

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Jason Mathias
Saturday, August 17, 2019 - 02:59:12 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: Also, some might argue that babies are humans and that abortion is unjust.

I would say that the definition of a baby is a post born fetus and that only citizens have protection under the law.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, August 17, 2019 - 06:39:30 PM
@Jason Mathias : It is difficult to get past the first premise because I can't tell what characteristic is supposedly shared between what two things.

Also, some might argue that babies are humans and that abortion is unjust.

I think everyone would argue that babies are humans. Arguing abortion is unjust is reasonable as well. What is problematic, is "abortion is murder because its killing babies." Murder has to be unjust, so if this is rewritten as "abortion is murder because its unjustly killing babies" then it makes more sense.

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Jason Mathias
Tuesday, May 07, 2019 - 06:09:15 PM
Is this a false equivalence fallacy?

AOC doesn't know what a garbage disposal is. Therefor she is a terrible politician.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Wednesday, May 08, 2019 - 05:57:49 AM
No. This is just an opinion.

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