Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Moral Equivalence

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Moral confusion; deceptive moral comparison; mendacious moral equivalence (also see sanctimony); false analogy.


The advocate seeks to draw false comparisons between two phenomena which are not morally equivalent. The fallacy of moral equivalence is a strategy often used to denigrate an agency or entity by implying or stating that its policies or practices are as reprehensible as a widely (and justifiably) despised agency or entity.

An Example

Adam Polemicist is the third speaker for the negative in the Fooloomooloo High School senior debating team. He is attacking the third speaker for the affirmative who has just spoken. The topic of the debate is: "Asylum Seekers should be detained in a secure facility while their applications for refugee status are assessed."

Adam (the advocate) states: "So-called refugee facilities are nothing more than concentration camps. Just like concentration camps used by the Nazis, they are designed to break the will of the inmates while plans are made for their disposal."


At times this fallacy may be closely associated with another common fallacy – weasel words. If for example, Adam had just referred to refugee detention centres as "concentration camps" and left it at that, he would be using weasel words in an attempt to evoke an emotional response in the audience.However he has not just used this label – he has gone on to make an explicit claim of moral equivalence. He has asserted that the refugee detention centres are "just like" Nazi concentration camps. While there may be some superficial points of comparison between a refugee detention centre and a Nazi concentration camp, these would need to be made point by point on their own merits (and tested one by one by the skeptical opponent).

In the present example, the advocate's sweeping claim of aggregate moral equivalence is a mere rhetorical device which says more about his penchant for moral posturing than his grasp of the issue. It is worth noting that arguments to moral equivalence often employ the fallacy of false analogy. Adam's attempt to equate detention centres with concentration camps is a particularly egregious false analogy because he intended it to be taken as a literal analogy. Debunking opponents should explicitly repudiate instances of unjustified moral equivalence.

When egregious claims of moral equivalence are made between (say) the US Government and Nazi Germany; or between a labour union and Stalinist Russia; seekers after truth should not just reject the claim. They should address false moral equivalence as an issue in itself. It should be pointed out that those who are in the habit of claiming baseless equivalence are not primarily interested in solving problems or addressing issues – they are interested in winning an argument through the use of shallow rhetorical devices.

Thinking about this further, if the refugee detention centre example above truely was morally equivalent to a Nazi concentration camp, then there would in fact be no need to compare it to a Nazi concentration camp. Simply describe what goes on in the detention centre. If there are mass killings, why compare it to anything else? Just point out there are mass killings, and mass killings are bad. And thus we see why insincere advocates resort to moral equivalence. Without resorting to hyperbole, they have nothing to say.

An unfortunate by-product of the promiscuous use of the moral equivalence fallacy is the potential for moral confusion. For example, an individual who keeps a pampered pet cat indoors in a home unit might be castigated by an animal rights activist for confining the cat. The claim might be made that the confinement is "a form of torture". The activist advocate further claims that the cat owner is no better (in a moral sense) than a feedlot operator. The comparison is clearly inappropriate and unjustified – the cat owner knows this and so the argument is not persuasive. Further, the cat-owner would tend to be dismissive of any further points made by the animal rights activist, who otherwise might have made some excellent points regarding the treatment of animals in other contexts.

It's worth pointing out that occasonally one can find an example of a positive moral exquivalence that is fallacious. Usually it comes from an individual with an overinflated sense of self worth who chooses to compare themselves or their actions to some highly regarded person; Jesus and Gandhi seem to be popular.

The authors of this book have no doubt that their efforts in writing about fallacies and informal logic, continuing and extending the work of people such as Aristotle, Hegel, Russell, Whitehead, Wittgenstein and Jesus, will quell such behaviour.

Other examples

'Most people in this room understand that slavery is not over in America or in the Western world or in the world in general. The animals are today's slaves.' Ingrid Newkirk, President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)