Bronze-level articleNot as bad as

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Bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem.
("To be good, it is not enough to be better than the worst.")
—Lucius Annaeus Seneca

The "not as bad as" argument, or the fallacy of relative privation, is a form of the moral equivalence fallacy that takes note of the existence of things that are worse than what is actually under discussion — for different purposes, as outlined below.

It's popular with people who know perfectly well they're doing something wrong; being fully aware that they're doing something wrong, they feel compelled to attempt to justify it and do so by pointing to other (usually worse) actions.

Contents

[edit] Forms

There are a few different reasons someone will want to pull a "not as bad as" comparison. Consider a generic argument about something, A, and the reasoning below:

B happened, and is worse than A.
Therefore A is justified.

This is the most blatantly fallacious form of the argument and is a hindsight version of the "not as bad as" argument that states past actions can legitimise current actions. The existence of a worse atrocity in the past, however, does not actually justify anything — it merely points out that there have been similar things in the past. People who use this as a justification may be well aware that it's logically fallacious, and use it purely as rhetoric, or as a distraction.

Holocaust deniers and apologists use this quite frequently: "the Holocaust was bad, but Stalin killed more" is technically true, but this ignores the Axis' willingness to encourage World War II and is irrelevant if discussing murders carried out under Hitler's regime. Similarly "Internet censorship in the US isn't as bad as internet censorship in China" is true, but not relevant to discussing the erosion of free speech in a country that holds free speech to be an important part of human rights. Good and evil may be on a sliding scale, but the baseline of what makes something wrong shouldn't be set at the worst possible atrocity!

It is also used occasionally as a particularly underhanded emotional appeal, in an attempt to guilt trip someone, in order to have them stop voicing a complaint. For example: 'Feminists of the past had it WAY harder than modern feminists, so modern feminists should shut up!!'

[edit] Sometimes valid

Action B is worse than action A.
Therefore action A is the right thing to do.

This is perhaps the most valid comparison that can be drawn if discussing two courses of action that can be taken, but like most "not as bad as" arguments potentially suffers from the fallacies of the false dichotomy and argument from adverse consequences. If the argument is about ranking things from bad to worse then it's fine; but you cannot justify A by citing only B because the two may not have anything to do with each other. This is common if secret option 'C is actually the best, but someone wants to make a red herring to avoid anyone spotting its existence.

B happens more frequently, is more dangerous, or causes more harm than A.
Therefore A can be ignored.

This form crops up most often when discussing discrimination, but seriously falls into the false dichotomy trap by implying that one can only focus their attention on A or B and is incapable of expressing moral outrage over both. It can be valid as a practical if you have to split limited resources and must prioritise the most dangerous and pressing problems — but it doesn't morally absolve A of any wrongs.

A is a better option because its only alternative is B, which is worse.
Therefore we must keep A.

This is a pragmatic argument if the alternative, B, really does pose a real threat, and there is no secret option C. Would assassinating a dictator in some random country create a power-vacuum that plunges the entire region into war? Then we best put up with the bastard for now! It's also a common pro-choice argument; legal medical abortions in clinics are statistically the safer option compared to backstreets with bottles of bleach and a coat hanger.

Whether these latter forms of the "not as bad as" argument are fallacious comes down to the use of a false dichotomy and whether moral justification is sought exclusively through this argument.

[edit] Other examples

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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