Logical Fallacies: Argumentum ad Temperantiam

“I would say that easily more than 50% of the arguments I hear in politics are based on fallacies. That includes people on both sides of the aisle. Learning to identify fallacies and making other people aware of them is a huge part of winning the battle.” – Mafia Rose

Today, I want to address Argumentum ad Temperantiam. Temperantiam means temperance.

This logical fallacy is also known as the Middle Ground Fallacy, the Golden Mean Fallacy, the Gray Area Fallacy, the Fallacy of Moderation and Splitting the Difference. It has a sub-category containing False Compromises in which the arguer proposes a middle ground position that doesn’t actually exist.

Argumentum ad Temperantiam states that the correct position is the one in the middle. Since compromise is essential in many areas of life, we are tempted to fall into the trap of assuming that compromise is always desirable. But compromise, in and of itself, has nothing to do with truth.

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I had never even heard of Argumentum ad Temperantiam before I began researching for this series and it doesn’t show up on every list of logical fallacies that I looked at. But it did show up on a few and it really stuck out for me, because we encounter it so often in politics. Just last week, I had someone sitting on my couch who said something I said myself for decades, but now reject. You’ve all heard versions of it:

Why can’t we just get along?

Bipartisanship is wrong.

We should just compromise.

In our system of government, it is often necessary to make trade-offs in order to get a law passed. The resulting law generally makes no one group totally happy, but at least it got passed and sometimes (i.e., the federal budget) that is better than nothing. But compromise, in and of itself, has nothing to do with truth.

When you consider the propensity we have to prefer compromise over confrontation and the necessity of compromising to get laws passed, it’s little wonder politicians so often accuse their opponents of blocking solutions by refusing to compromise. I used to uncritically buy their arguments, but then I noticed how often Democrats (aided by the media) would sit firmly on their extreme Leftist position and act all outraged at the alleged intransigence of Republicans who had already compromised repeatedly.

Another reason I bought their argument is that I naively assumed they were telling the truth. Duh me.

In his December 3, 2011, weekly address, Obama said, “This week, they [Republicans] actually said ‘no’ to cutting taxes for middle-class families.”

My not-so-gullible-now self notes (a) Democrats lie a lot, (b) Republicans are very unlikely to have objected to extending the payroll tax cut, and (c) legislators don’t have a line item vote on bills.

So, my inquiring and cynical mind wants to know … what ELSE was in the bill that forced Republicans to vote against the payroll tax cut?

None of this is to say that compromise is a bad thing, only that compromise – in and of itself – is not evidence of the truth of a proposition. Sometimes the middle position is a good choice. But those who want to argue on behalf of some compromise must demonstrate logically why their proposal is superior.

For example, a moderate amount of exercise is better than too much or too little exercise. This is a dumb argument, since too much and too little are, by definition, not the best. Still, we can use the example to show how to properly argue on behalf of a moderate position.

In order to show that a moderate amount of exercise is best, we must:

  1. Define the actual meanings of “too much” and “too little” exercise. Remember Dudley Dursley who demanded a television in the kitchen, because he considered walking from the living room to the kitchen for snacks to be too much exercise.
  2. Define what we mean by “best” with respect to exercise. Off hand, I’d say we’d have to define an age group and existing health issues in any discussion of exercise. Buzz and his great-grandma hardly have the same need for exercise.
  3. Demonstrate that what has been defined as “moderate” is actually healthier for our target group. Even professional athletes have different exercise needs when their sport is in season than they do when they’re on hiatus.

False Compromise Fallacies

Sometimes a Middle Ground arguer proposes a compromise that doesn’t actually exist. These generally fall into one of these two categories:

The Common Denominator Fallacy where the arguer claims there is no dispute by focusing on some minor point of agreement while ignoring all the central points of disagreement. “Whether abortion in the case of rape is right or wrong, at least we all agree that rape is wrong, so you see, we really do agree.”

The Phantom Distinction Fallacy draws a distinction without a difference. Since the drawing of distinctions is so frequently associated with good reasoning, these often slip right past us. I said the following to Dearest a few minutes ago: “I’m not a feminist. I just think women should have the same rights as men.” He accepted it without argument. Granted, he’s at the end of his day and thinking more about dinner than logic, but still … he let it go right past him because it sounded “logical.”

Middle Ground fallacies are commonly used to keep the peace.

E.g., Before someone gets a turkey wing shoved up his nose, Mom will say, “I think we all agree that we want what’s best for this country. Anyone for pie?”

They are also invoked to speed up a resolution.

E.g., A busy public defender says to the District Attorney, “You think my client needs to spend some time in jail, but we think twenty years is excessive. Let’s agree on ten years, and we can all go home.”

These may be useful in greasing the wheels of life, but we should be cautious about using them, because they do nothing to help us arrive at truth.

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5 responses to “Logical Fallacies: Argumentum ad Temperantiam

  1. Ting

    This has been really interesting to me. I was a math major, and I concentrated on proofs. It is a lot easier to prove an abstract, I can see that now.

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  2. Another great addition to the series, Chrissy. I took Latin in high school but some of these terms are new to me. (Hmmm… guess I should have paid more attention in class.)

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  3. I’ve seen/heard it said by several people, seeking to find middle ground on an issue, including President Obama, that this country was founded on compromise.

    One of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard, given that this country was founded by engaging in the Revolutionary War.

    You can’t really get much farther from compromise than war, can you?

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    • It may be true that our founding fathers did compromise on certain things in the founding of our nation, but you’re absolutely correct. There were certain things on which they were not willing to compromise, based on a strong sense of who they were and what they stood for. Compromise is effective only when it moves BOTH sides closer to achieving their goals without significantly violating the values/morals of any particular side.

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