Phantom distinction

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A phantom distinction 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 (1888–1985), a (literal) Nazi philosopher, recognized that a political distinction between friends (those to care for and by whom to be cared 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.

Alternate names[edit]

  • distinction without a difference
  • difference without a distinction
  • phantom difference
  • sham difference
  • sham distinction


This fallacy occurs whenever the three following beliefs are present:

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


  • It is equally valid to count several forms of logical fallacy as either formal or informal, including the various forms of equivocation, of which this fallacy is one. Which it ultimately gets called just depends on how charitable one wants to be to an opponent who uses it in a debate.
  • If-by-whiskey arguments mean "I don't have either position on X, but I have both rather than neither because I will flip from side to side depending on which connotation(s) you define it to have".
  • 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.
    • I think about having same-gender sex, but I’m completely heterosexual because I never act on these thoughts (although that's more related to definitions).
  • I'm not disclaiming any revenue at all from my creative work, I just don't want to claim a copyright/patent on it for a certain philosophical reason.
  • "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.
  • In music, equal-step tunings are said to be dividing (or multiplying where it makes sense) the simplest harmonic ratio they have in preference to any other equally-valid possibility.
    • Equality of steps in tunings with 600 or more steps per 13 octaves cannot really be said to make them "better" or "worse" because they cannot have a very material noticeable difference, to the human ear, from pure rational intervals either way.
    • 432Hz and the Solfeggio frequencies blur the distinction between the absolute concert pitch (not really important to humans) and the relative pitches tuned against it (very important).
  • XiangqiWikipedia systematically uses ideograms to connote the superiority of the red pieces over the blacks even though the two armies have identical abilities of movement.
  • In the card game Preference and its clones, there is a fixed hierarchy between suit contracts which are equally difficult to actually win by the respective definition of each given game.
    • Occasionally in Coinche in particular among Jass games, "all trump" also beats "no trump" when the only operational difference between them is whether the suits play as if trump suits or not.
  • I'm no vegetarian, but I (generally) do not eat the animals this buffet is serving (might be not fallacious depending on the buffet and its meat standards).
  • I won't openly admit when my preferred alternative media are faking the news, but the mainstream media don't really report facts about what I'm emotionally attached to either, they just lie about that in their own way.
    • I already don't follow [insert "categorically biased" media outlet here] as a rule, but I'll say I'm boycotting them in order to appear to be sticking something to them.
  • The White House didn't lie about the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day, they gave alternative facts.
  • I'm not a white supremacist, I'm a white nationalist.
  • In the United States, the same two major parties contest offices in constitutionally "separate" branches of the government.
  • Metaphysical naturalism effectively removes the difference between the physical and the metaphysical.
  • Determinism occasionally means effectively removing the difference between contingency and Libertarian Free will.
  • Astrology isn’t indeterminism, it just posits a mystical determinant for human behavior.
  • Admitting self or judging other or argument(s) thereof as "not wrong but right for the wrong reason(s)"/"not right but wrong for the right reason(s)".
  • I have no enemies, most of my friends just think they’re more important to themselves than I am./I’m nobody’s enemy, I just think I’m more important to myself than my friends.
  • They're not called the CCP, They're called the CPC.

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. The same goes for David Wynn Miller stylizing his name as :David-Wynn: Miller, and various other sovereign citizen/freeman on the land schemes to try to evade the law.

Specific people examples[edit]

Unintentional examples[edit]

  • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: Though it fixes a phantom distinction in Jung’s original theory (both objective preferences are “Introversion/Extraversion”), the "Sensing", "Feeling", and "Perceiving" personality types are supposed to be related to different cognitive functions but Myers and Briggs have kept a sloppy word choice from the same theory[1] and they appear not to mean entirely different things ("Sensing" comes form part of sentiō, which means "to feel" in Latin and "Perceiving" can just be a more sophisticated word for the five senses). However, the difference of these proposed cognitive functions ironically doesn't matter anyway because the cognitive functions themselves are judged construct invalid perhaps in part for not being the aspect which correlates most strongly to the more reliable Five-Factor Model which is the basis of the NEO PI-R and its clones, although the way the studies judged this becomes itself erroneous upon examination of exactly what they found as both traits Neuroticism and Extraversion were judged to correlate most strongly to Intraversion-Extraversion but cancel each other out and make Openness (to experience) to Sensing-iNtuitive the real strongest correlation between the two personality inventories though it is doubtful whether Openness (to experience) to Sensing-iNtuitive is a strict one-one correlation.[2]
  • “16” personalities: Though it fixes phantom distinctions both in MBTI itself (it renames "Sensing" and "Perceiving" to “obServant” and “Prospecting”) and created by correlation between MBTI and the more reliable Five-Factor Model (both traits Neuroticism and Extraversion were judged to correlate most strongly to Intraversion-Extraversion but cancel each other out), it uses bad initials for the new scale correlated one-to-one with trait Neuroticism which make the distinction between traits Neuroticism and Agreeableness appear false.


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 or obscenities, fall into this category.

External links[edit]