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Argument of the Beard

(also known as: fallacy of the beard, heap fallacy, heap paradox fallacy, bald man fallacy, continuum fallacy, line drawing fallacy, sorites fallacy)

Description: When one argues that no useful distinction can be made between two extremes, just because there is no definable moment or point on the spectrum where the two extremes meet.  The name comes from the heap paradox in philosophy, using a man’s beard as an example.  At what point does a man go from clean-shaven to having a beard?

Logical Form:

X is one extreme, and Y is another extreme.

There is no definable point where X becomes Y.

Therefore, there is no difference between X and Y.

Example #1:

Why does the law state that you have to be 21 years old to drink?  Does it really make any difference if you are 20 years and 364 days old?  That is absurd.  Therefore, if a single day makes no difference, then a collection of 1095 single days won’t make any difference. Therefore, changing the drinking age to 18 will not make any difference.

Explanation: Although this does appear to be typical 18-year-old thinking (sorry 18 year-olds), it is quite a common fallacy.  Just because any single step makes no apparent difference, there is a difference that becomes more noticeable as the number of those steps increase.

Example #2:

Willard: I just realized that I will probably never go bald!

Fanny: Why is that?

Willard:  Well, if I lose just one hair, I will not be bald, correct?

Fanny: Of course.

Willard: If I lose two hairs?

Fanny: No.

Willard: Every time I lose a hair, the loss of that one hair will not make me bald; therefore, I will never go bald.

Fanny: Congratulations, you found the cure to baldness -- stupidity!

Explanation: What Willard did not take into consideration is “baldness” is a term used to define a state along a continuum, and although there is no clear point between bald and not bald, the extremes are both clearly recognizable and achievable.

Exception: The larger the spread, the more fallacious the argument, the smaller the spread, the less fallacious.

Tip: Realize that there are very few clear lines we can draw between categories in any area of life.  Categories are human constructs that we create to help us make sense of things, yet they often end up creating more confusion by tricking us into thinking abstract concepts actually exist.

References:

Murray, M., Murray, R. M., & Kujundzic, N. (2005). Critical Reflection: A Textbook for Critical Thinking. McGill-Queen’s Press - MQUP.



Registered User Comments

Jacob
Tuesday, September 11, 2018 - 09:39:55 PM
Say a friend tells you that you have a behavior which they find annoying and they ask you to stop doing it. Then the next day they ask you to stop doing a different thing. Then there is a month in a row where each day your friend asks you to stop doing a new small thing... Then on the 31st day your friend asks you to stop doing yet another thing. You say no, enough already, I have changed a great amount for you and all you want is more change. There is no end in sight. I am done changing. Your friend says its just one small thing. Why won't you do this one little bity small thing for me. Is this the fallacy?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Wednesday, September 12, 2018 - 08:15:09 AM
That is a good question. I am thinking of a similar situation where a teach tells a student to "just" memorize one new term each night, claiming this is not a lot to ask. Then by the end of the year, the student has memorized 200+ terms (a significant achievement). Is anything fallacious (unreasonable) going on here? I don't think so. Great achievements are often accomplished by small steps. In the example you give, the friend is asking for a small step. I think the proper response is that you don't want one thing, you want dozens of things. This seems more like a problem of ignoring frequency. I think if you told your friend, "do you see the difference between asking me to do one thing and one thing every day for 30 days?" he would say "yes," indicating that he is aware of the difference.

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Jacob
Wednesday, September 12, 2018 - 10:30:01 AM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That’s a good way to learn to be a doctor. There are a million things to learn and you learn gradually over 8 years. I am still wondering if this fallacy is at work in the case of manipulation.

What if you have a lot of personal freedom and then your friend gradually takes those freedoms away. If I tell you you can’t drive you are still free, right? If I tell you you can’t see your friends you are still free, right? Now you are not allowed to leave the house. You are still free because this is only a small change from before. I think that if the bad friend believes the locked down friend is still free then he is committing the fallacy and if the locked down friend believes that he is still free then he is committing the fallacy.

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