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Phantom distinction

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A phantom distinction (also sham distinction or distinction without a difference) is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone spends time arguing for the superiority of one term over another (rather than the intended debate), yet there is no effective difference between the two terms or in the final result of the argument. The substitution of words is often made because one word has emotional connotations, or an established history. This fallacy is the opposite of equivocation (where two different words are treated as the same) and is a parent of the masked man fallacy.

The fallacy is a fallacy of ambiguity (because it blurs the line between words) and an informal fallacy.

Carl Schmitt, a (literal) Nazi philosopher, recognized that a political distinction between friend (those to care for) and enemies (everyone else) can be very arbitrary; even without any semblance of logic or reasoning, they persist and propagate as long as the populace believes them. Considering what happened because of those distinctions in Schmitt’s time, it is probably wise to pay very close attention to, and relentlessly question, linguistic distinctions between different groups of people now, especially when one is said, implied, or connotated to be better than the other.


This fallacy occurs whenever the three following beliefs are present:

  1. X (using term 1) is preferable over X (using term 2).
  2. X (using term 1) is true.
  3. X (using term 2) is not true.


  • Instead of saying "A", why not say "the first letter of the alphabet"?
  • Before we condemn violence used to promote a social agenda, we must remember the distinction between freedom fighters and terrorists.
  • I'm opposed to gay marriage, but I think gay couples should be allowed civil unions that give them the same rights that heterosexual couples have.
  • "Creationism" is a word with a history, and thus many anti-evolutionists want to avoid the "Creationist" label (preferring intelligent design), even if they use the same ideas, the same arguments and come to the same conclusions.
  • I'm for equal rights between men and women and for an end to sexism and discrimination, but I don't subscribe to feminism (or instead, egalitarianism).
  • I believe Western countries should be for white people only and want to purge them of Jews, homosexuals, feminists, and cultural Bolsheviks cultural Marxists, but I'm not a Nazi.
  • The White House didn't lie about the size of the crowd in Inauguration Day, they gave alternative facts.

In legal terminology a "distinction without a difference" is more specific, it means a change in definitions which does not change the set which is defined. For example changing "unseparated married men" to "males who have a non-separated spouse" is a distinction without a difference.


When used for emphasis, preferring one term over another may be relevant. (e.g., a coach tells his players that he doesn't want them to kick the ball, but to KICK the ball.)

Alternately, certain terms may (while functionally the same) have emotional, political, or social connotations. For example, a "shit" may be different from a "turd" only in how people perceive it, but in a significant way. Other emotionally charged words, often slurs, fall into this category.

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