Welcome to Logical Fallacies 101, an ongoing exercise to help foster more reasonable debate on Newsvine and wherever else you may find yourself discussing differences of opinion.
This is the sixth edition of Logical Fallacies 101, after ad hominem, association, argument from ignorance, begging the question, and argument by consensus. The series is now old enough for grade school.
These are meant to be quick logic primers. Think flash cards for debate. The basic definition of a fallacy established earlier in the series is...
A fallacy is a rhetorical sequence that doesn't logically connect. For a variety of reasons, logical fallacies are invalid. A logical fallacy does not necessarily render the point invalid, but it means you need to rethink how you're making your point.
This week, we run with a fallacy your mother probably warned you about...
It's an old axiom that we all remember from growing up. Maybe you got in a fight at school or with a sibling. As your mother pulled on your ear, you were heard to whine out, "but mo-oooom, he called me a name!" And her infuriating (but correct) response was, "two wrongs don't make a right."
So why do we forget this basic rule of conduct in debate?
The two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy is a particularly common one, especially in an area so divided by politics. When it's "us versus them," we think that whatever "they" do justifies it when "we" do. Maybe they even did it first!
I'll skip the basic examples, since the schoolyard fight serves as an adequate one. The important thing to keep in mind for this fallacy is that an ethical wrong remains wrong no matter how common it is. This can, but doesn't have to, conflict with moral relativism. We accept as a given during debate that, absent of any mitigating factors, we're referring to one particular and modern society that accepts social norms.
Since the two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy points to another party committing the same wrong, it's a deflection. It's not arguing that the action isn't wrong, just that it's common. Arguing that an action isn't wrong in the first place, or that subtle differences separate one action from another, are both logically consistent responses that side-step the fallacy.
But by using the two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy, a person is tacitly conceding the point that the action in question is wrong. In an attempt to deflect, they're acknowledging the very thing they're trying to deny.
This is most common a fallacy used to defend a position, since it relies on finding accompanying support of the other side doing it as well. Most of the time you'll find people using it when challenged to justify a position that they know is unjustifiable -- or at least difficult to justify. That makes it either dishonest or lazy, neither of which has no place in a proper debate.
I had planned to make this the next entry in the series, but current events have given me a great hot-button example:
"How do you [a Democrat] justify Obama taking unilateral action against Libya?"
"Bush started two wars on his own!"
Even if Bush did start two wars, that fact in itself doesn't mean Obama is justified in Libya. You could pick from a number of different valid arguments -- both for and against our involvement in the Libyan crisis -- but merely pointing to a similar action from George W. Bush doesn't cut it. At best, you'll prove both yourself and the other party a hypocrite, which isn't exactly an ideal outcome.
And for the sake of fairness, let's look at an argument from the other side.
"Why aren't Republicans passing any jobs legislation?"
"The Democrats didn't fix the economy either!"
While true that the Democrats didn't "fix the economy" (a loaded term), that doesn't excuse the Republicans from working on it. They campaigned on jobs, and now have a responsibility to attempt job legislation in whatever form it takes. Again, there are valid counter-arguments to the initial claim, but merely deflecting isn't one of them.
This fallacy should be easy enough to remember, if nothing else than because it was drilled into our brains in our childhood. Just remember what your mother told you. And eat your vegetables.