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Moral equivalence

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Moral equivalence is a form of equivocation and a fallacy of relevance often used in political debates. It seeks to draw comparisons between different, often unrelated things, to make a point that one is just as bad as the other or just as good as the other. It may be used to draw attention to an unrelated issue by comparing it to a well-known bad event, in an attempt to say one is as bad as the other. Or, it may be used in an attempt to claim one isn't as bad as the other by comparison. Drawing a moral equivalence in this way is a logical fallacy.


Just as bad as...[edit]

All such arguments boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread.
George Orwell[1]
  • Use of the term, "the moral equivalent of war", to refer to any grand crusade somebody wants society to undertake.
  • In an admittedly well-intentioned attempt to avoid the fallacy of relative privation, RationalWiki contributors from more liberal countries like Sweden will list everything which the country still needs to improve on on its page, to show that it isn’t the utopia that the American users think it is... but completely ignore the fact that no Swedish politician or special interest group advocates anything close to what the Republican Party gets away with.
It's Godwin time![edit]
See the main article on this topic: Godwin's Law
  • Drawing a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Israeli actions toward the Palestinians.
  • PETA drawing a moral equivalence between the consumption of meat and the Holocaust in an ad campaign.
  • The term Axis of evil, drawing a moral equivalence between Iraq, Iran, and North Korea with the original Axis of World War II.

Just as good as...[edit]

  • Ronald Reagan claiming the Contras in Nicaragua were the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers. Note that people like Howard Zinn would agree.
  • While Reagan was drawing a moral equivalence between the Contras and the Founding Fathers, ironically his ambassador to the United Nations, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, meanwhile published an article, "The Myth of Moral Equivalence" in which she chastised those who treated the NATO and Warsaw Pact blocs as having no moral difference between the two.

Not as bad as...[edit]

The "not as bad as" argument is always popular with people who know perfectly well they're doing something immoral. Being fully aware of this problem, they feel compelled to attempt to justify it, and they do so by pointing to other, usually worse, immorality. It is practically synonymous to the idea of "the lesser of two evils".

  • Claiming that Nazism wasn't as bad as Communism, by drawing a moral equivalence between the Holocaust, and the mass deaths under Mao's Great Leap Forward, Stalin's purges and gulags, and Pol Pot's killing fields.
  • Claiming that communism is not so bad compared to Nazism, by insisting that the ends justify the means, and thus drawing a moral equivalence between Nazis who were forthright about their ethnic policies vs. hypocritical communists. Or claiming communist objectives were good, even if corrupted or taken too far, while Nazi ones were simply inherently evil.
  • Claiming neither side in World War II was morally superior because of Allied atrocities, such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden.[2]
  • Drawing a moral equivalence between 9/11 and U.S. policy in the Middle East, thereby attempting to justify or excuse 9/11.
  • Slavery in the southern United States wasn't so bad because slaves were treated better than workers in northern factories and company towns — or the counter-use of the same examples, that conditions during the early Industrial Revolution were not that bad because the people were at least free to choose their jobs, unlike in slavery.
  • Adherents of any religion pointing out atrocities committed in the name of other religions, as a way of saying the atrocities committed in the name of their own religion weren't so bad (sometimes used in conjunction with a no true Scotsman argument that the atrocities committed in the name of their own religion weren't committed by "real" Muslims, etc.)
  • U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s, which drew a distinction between "authoritarian" dictatorships and "totalitarian" dictatorships, saying one was less bad than the other and the U.S. could morally work with "authoritarian" dictatorships as allies (such as the military dictatorships in Latin America) but had a moral obligation to oppose "totalitarian" dictatorships (such as the Soviet Union).
  • US President Barack H. Obama mentions former US President George W. Bush's deficit spending in response to and as a way to dismiss criticism of his own deficit spending. Note: Deficit spending is arguably good during a depressed economy, depending on where it's spent,[3] so Obama may be excused depending on how his argument is framed.
  • "Smoking may be a bad thing, but it's not as bad as global warming/car exhausts/body odor, etc."
  • Drawing a moral equivalence between Native Americans and U.S. settlers by pointing out that natives were equally as guilty of committing acts of violence against the settlers.

See also[edit]