The noncentral fallacy—the worst argument in the world?

Re­lated to: Leaky Gen­er­al­iza­tions, Re­place the Sym­bol With The Sub­stance, Sneak­ing In Connotations

David Stove once ran a con­test to find the Worst Ar­gu­ment In The World, but he awarded the prize to his own en­try, and one that shored up his poli­tics to boot. It hardly seems like an ob­jec­tive pro­cess.

If he can unilat­er­ally de­clare a Worst Ar­gu­ment, then so can I. I de­clare the Worst Ar­gu­ment In The World to be this: “X is in a cat­e­gory whose archety­pal mem­ber gives us a cer­tain emo­tional re­ac­tion. There­fore, we should ap­ply that emo­tional re­ac­tion to X, even though it is not a cen­tral cat­e­gory mem­ber.”

Call it the Non­cen­tral Fal­lacy. It sounds dumb when you put it like that. Who even does that, any­way?

It sounds dumb only be­cause we are talk­ing soberly of cat­e­gories and fea­tures. As soon as the ar­gu­ment gets framed in terms of words, it be­comes so pow­er­ful that some­where be­tween many and most of the bad ar­gu­ments in poli­tics, philos­o­phy and cul­ture take some form of the non­cen­tral fal­lacy. Be­fore we get to those, let’s look at a sim­pler ex­am­ple.

Sup­pose some­one wants to build a statue hon­or­ing Martin Luther King Jr. for his non­vi­o­lent re­sis­tance to racism. An op­po­nent of the statue ob­jects: “But Martin Luther King was a crim­i­nal!”

Any his­to­rian can con­firm this is cor­rect. A crim­i­nal is tech­ni­cally some­one who breaks the law, and King know­ingly broke a law against peace­ful anti-seg­re­ga­tion protest—hence his fa­mous Let­ter from Bir­m­ing­ham Jail.

But in this case call­ing Martin Luther King a crim­i­nal is the non­cen­tral. The archety­pal crim­i­nal is a mug­ger or bank rob­ber. He is driven only by greed, preys on the in­no­cent, and weak­ens the fabric of so­ciety. Since we don’t like these things, call­ing some­one a “crim­i­nal” nat­u­rally low­ers our opinion of them.

The op­po­nent is say­ing “Be­cause you don’t like crim­i­nals, and Martin Luther King is a crim­i­nal, you should stop lik­ing Martin Luther King.” But King doesn’t share the im­por­tant crim­i­nal fea­tures of be­ing driven by greed, prey­ing on the in­no­cent, or weak­en­ing the fabric of so­ciety that made us dis­like crim­i­nals in the first place. There­fore, even though he is a crim­i­nal, there is no rea­son to dis­like King.

This all seems so nice and log­i­cal when it’s pre­sented in this for­mat. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s also one hun­dred per­cent con­trary to in­stinct: the urge is to re­spond “Martin Luther King? A crim­i­nal? No he wasn’t! You take that back!” This is why the non­cen­tral is so suc­cess­ful. As soon as you do that you’ve fallen into their trap. Your ar­gu­ment is no longer about whether you should build a statue, it’s about whether King was a crim­i­nal. Since he was, you have now lost the ar­gu­ment.

Ideally, you should just be able to say “Well, King was the good kind of crim­i­nal.” But that seems pretty tough as a de­bat­ing ma­neu­ver, and it may be even harder in some of the cases where the non­cen­tral Fal­lacy is com­monly used.

Now I want to list some of these cases. Many will be poli­ti­cal1, for which I apol­o­gize, but it’s hard to sep­a­rate out a bad ar­gu­ment from its spe­cific in­stan­ti­a­tions. None of these ex­am­ples are meant to im­ply that the po­si­tion they sup­port is wrong (and in fact I my­self hold some of them). They only show that cer­tain par­tic­u­lar ar­gu­ments for the po­si­tion are flawed, such as:

“Abor­tion is mur­der!” The archety­pal mur­der is Charles Man­son break­ing into your house and shoot­ing you. This sort of mur­der is bad for a num­ber of rea­sons: you pre­fer not to die, you have var­i­ous thoughts and hopes and dreams that would be snuffed out, your fam­ily and friends would be heart­bro­ken, and the rest of so­ciety has to live in fear un­til Man­son gets caught. If you define mur­der as “kil­ling an­other hu­man be­ing”, then abor­tion is tech­ni­cally mur­der. But it has none of the down­sides of mur­der Charles Man­son style. Although you can crit­i­cize abor­tion for many rea­sons, in­so­far as “abor­tion is mur­der” is an in­vi­ta­tion to ap­ply one’s feel­ings in the Man­son case di­rectly to the abor­tion case, it ig­nores the lat­ter’s lack of the fea­tures that gen­er­ated those in­tu­itions in the first place2.

Ge­netic en­g­ineer­ing to cure dis­eases is eu­gen­ics!” Okay, you’ve got me there: since eu­gen­ics means “try­ing to im­prove the gene pool” that’s clearly right. But what’s wrong with eu­gen­ics? “What’s wrong with eu­gen­ics? Hitler did eu­gen­ics! Those un­eth­i­cal sci­en­tists in the 1950s who ster­il­ized black women with­out their con­sent did eu­gen­ics!” “And what was wrong with what Hitler and those un­eth­i­cal sci­en­tists did?” “What do you mean, what was wrong with them? Hitler kil­led mil­lions of peo­ple! Those un­eth­i­cal sci­en­tists ru­ined peo­ple’s lives.” “And does us­ing ge­netic en­g­ineer­ing to cure dis­eases kill mil­lions of peo­ple, or ruin any­one’s life?” “Well...not re­ally.” “Then what’s wrong with it?” “It’s eu­gen­ics!”

″Evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy is sex­ist!” If you define “sex­ist” as “be­liev­ing in some kind of differ­ence be­tween the sexes”, this is true of at least some evo psych. For ex­am­ple, Bate­man’s Prin­ci­ple states that in species where fe­males in­vest more en­ergy in pro­duc­ing offspring, mat­ing be­hav­ior will in­volve males pur­su­ing fe­males; this posits a nat­u­ral psy­cholog­i­cal differ­ence be­tween the sexes. “Right, so you ad­mit it’s sex­ist!” “And why ex­actly is sex­ism bad?” “Be­cause sex­ism claims that men are bet­ter than women and that women should have fewer rights!” “Does Bate­man’s prin­ci­ple claim that men are bet­ter than women, or that women should have fewer rights?” “Well...not re­ally.” “Then what’s wrong with it?” “It’s sex­ist!”

A sec­ond, sub­tler use of the non­cen­tral fal­lacy goes like this: “X is in a cat­e­gory whose archety­pal mem­ber gives us an emo­tional re­ac­tion. There­fore, we should ap­ply that same emo­tional re­ac­tion to X even if X gives some benefit that out­weighs the harm.”

“Cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment is mur­der!” Charles Man­son-style mur­der is solely harm­ful. This kind of mur­der pro­duces re­ally strong nega­tive feel­ings. The pro­po­nents of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment be­lieve that it might de­crease crime, or have some other at­tend­ing benefits. In other words, they be­lieve it’s “the good kind of mur­der”3, just like the in­tro­duc­tory ex­am­ple con­cluded that Martin Luther King was “the good kind of crim­i­nal”. But since nor­mal mur­der is so taboo, it’s re­ally hard to take the phrase “the good kind of mur­der” se­ri­ously, and just men­tion­ing the word “mur­der” can call up ex­actly the same amount of nega­tive feel­ings we get from the text­book ex­am­ple.

“Affir­ma­tive ac­tion is racist!” True if you define racism as “fa­vor­ing cer­tain peo­ple based on their race”, but once again, our im­me­di­ate nega­tive re­ac­tion to the archety­pal ex­am­ple of racism (the Ku Klux Klan) can­not be gen­er­al­ized to an im­me­di­ate nega­tive re­ac­tion to af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. Be­fore we gen­er­al­ize it, we have to check first that the prob­lems that make us hate the Ku Klux Klan (vi­o­lence, hu­mil­i­a­tion, di­vi­sive­ness, lack of a mer­i­to­cratic so­ciety) are still there. Then, even if we do find that some of the prob­lems per­sist (like dis­rup­tion of mer­i­toc­racy, for ex­am­ple) we have to prove that it doesn’t pro­duce benefits that out­weigh these harms.

Tax­a­tion is theft!” True if you define theft as “tak­ing some­one else’s money re­gard­less of their con­sent”, but though the archety­pal case of theft (break­ing into some­one’s house and steal­ing their jew­els) has noth­ing to recom­mend it, tax­a­tion (ar­guably) does. In the archety­pal case, theft is both un­just and so­cially detri­men­tal. Tax­a­tion keeps the first dis­ad­van­tage, but ar­guably sub­verts the sec­ond dis­ad­van­tage if you be­lieve be­ing able to fund a gov­ern­ment has greater so­cial value than leav­ing money in the hands of those who earned it. The ques­tion then hinges on the rel­a­tive im­por­tance of these dis­ad­van­tages. There­fore, you can’t dis­miss tax­a­tion with­out a sec­ond thought just be­cause you have a nat­u­ral dis­gust re­ac­tion to theft in gen­eral. You would also have to prove that the sup­posed benefits of this form of theft don’t out­weigh the costs.

Now, be­cause most ar­gu­ments are rapid-fire de­bate-club style, some­times it’s still use­ful to say “Tax­a­tion isn’t theft!” At least it beats say­ing “Tax­a­tion is theft but nev­er­the­less good”, then hav­ing the other side say “Ap­par­ently my wor­thy op­po­nent thinks that theft can be good; we here on this side would like to bravely take a stance against theft”, and then hav­ing the mod­er­a­tor call time be­fore you can ex­plain your­self. If you’re in a de­bate club, do what you have to do. But if you have the lux­ury of philo­soph­i­cal clar­ity, you would do bet­ter to for­swear the Dark Arts and look a lit­tle deeper into what’s go­ing on.

Are there ever cases in which this ar­gu­ment pat­tern can be use­ful? Yes. For ex­am­ple, it may be a grop­ing at­tempt to sug­gest a Schel­ling fence; for ex­am­ple, a prin­ci­ple that one must never com­mit theft even when it would be benefi­cial be­cause that would make it harder to dis­t­in­guish and op­pose the re­ally bad kinds of theft. Or it can be an at­tempt to spark con­ver­sa­tion by point­ing out a po­ten­tial con­tra­dic­tion: for ex­am­ple “Have you no­ticed that tax­a­tion re­ally does con­tain some of the fea­tures you dis­like about more typ­i­cal in­stances of theft? Maybe you never even thought about that be­fore? Why do your moral in­tu­itions differ in these two cases? Aren’t you be­ing kind of hyp­o­crit­i­cal?” But this us­age seems pretty limited—once your in­ter­locu­tor says “Yes, I con­sid­ered that, but the two situ­a­tions are differ­ent for rea­sons X, Y, and Z” the con­ver­sa­tion needs to move on; there’s not much point in con­tin­u­ing to in­sist “But it’s theft!”

But in most cases, I think this is more of an emo­tional ar­gu­ment, or even an ar­gu­ment from “You would look silly say­ing that”. You re­ally can’t say “Oh, he’s the good kind of crim­i­nal”, and so if you have a po­ten­tially judg­men­tal au­di­ence and not much time to ex­plain your­self, you’re pretty trapped. You have been forced to round to the archety­pal ex­am­ple of that word and sub­tract ex­actly the in­for­ma­tion that’s most rele­vant.

But in all other cases, the proper re­sponse to be­ing asked to sub­tract rele­vant in­for­ma­tion is “No, why should I?”—and that’s why this is the worst ar­gu­ment in the world.


1: On ad­vice from the com­mu­nity, I have de­liber­ately in­cluded three mostly-liberal ex­am­ples and three-mostly con­ser­va­tive ex­am­ples, so save your­self the trou­ble of count­ing them up and try­ing to spec­u­late on this ar­ti­cle’s bi­ases.

2: This should be dis­t­in­guished from de­on­tol­ogy, the be­lief that there is some prov­able moral prin­ci­ple about how you can never mur­der. I don’t think this is too im­por­tant a point to make, be­cause only a tiny frac­tion of the peo­ple who de­bate these is­sues have thought that far ahead, and also be­cause my per­sonal and ad­mit­tedly con­tro­ver­sial opinion is that much of de­on­tol­ogy is just an at­tempt to for­mal­ize and jus­tify this fal­lacy.

3: Some peo­ple “solve” this prob­lem by say­ing that “mur­der” only refers to “non-lawful kil­ling”, which is ex­actly as cre­ative a solu­tion as re­defin­ing “crim­i­nal” to mean “per­son who breaks the law and is not Martin Luther King.” Iden­ti­fy­ing the non­cen­tral fal­lacy is a more com­plete solu­tion: for ex­am­ple, it cov­ers the re­lated (mostly sar­cas­tic) ob­jec­tion that “im­pris­on­ment is kid­nap­ping”.

4: EDIT 8/​2013: I’ve ed­ited this ar­ti­cle a bit af­ter get­ting some feed­back and com­plaints. In par­tic­u­lar I tried to re­move some LW jar­gon which turned off some peo­ple who were be­ing linked to this ar­ti­cle but were un­fa­mil­iar with the rest of the site.

5: EDIT 8/​2013: The other com­plaint I kept get­ting is that this is an un­in­ter­est­ing restate­ment of some other fal­lacy (no one can agree which, but poi­son­ing the well comes up par­tic­u­larly of­ten). The ques­tion doesn’t seem too in­ter­est­ing to me—I never claimed par­tic­u­lar origi­nal­ity, a lot of fal­la­cies blend into each other, and the which-fal­lacy-is-which game isn’t too ex­cit­ing any­way—but for the record I don’t think it is. Poi­son­ing the well is a pre­sen­ta­tion of two differ­ent facts, such as “Martin Luther King was a pla­gia­rist...oh, by the way, what do you think of Martin Luther King’s civil rights poli­cies?” It may have no re­la­tion­ship to cat­e­gories, and it’s usu­ally some­thing some­one else does to you as a con­scious rhetor­i­cal trick. Non­cen­tral fal­lacy is pre­sent­ing a sin­gle fact, but us­ing cat­e­gory in­for­ma­tion to frame it in a mis­lead­ing way—and it’s of­ten some­thing peo­ple do to them­selves. The above pla­gia­rism ex­am­ple of poi­son­ing the well is not non­cen­tral fal­lacy. If you think this es­say is about bog-stan­dard poi­son­ing the well, then ei­ther there is an al­ter­na­tive mean­ing to poi­son­ing the well I’m not fa­mil­iar with, or you are miss­ing the point.