Two Fallacies

The Self-Centered Fallacy. The Fallacy of Inevitability.

Can you think of better names for these fallacies? Do they already have names?

People commit the self-centered fallacy when they believe some rule only because they think it would be useful for everyone else to believe that rule.  It is self centered because it implies a megalomaniac faith that your beliefs really have an important effect on everyone else’s beliefs.  Examples of the self-centered fallacy (these are examples, not statements of belief):

  • I believe it is bad to pick flowers in the park, because it would be bad if everyone else thought they could pick the flowers in the park.
  • I believe it is important to vote, because everyone else should believe it is important to vote.
  • I believe that it is immoral to violate the law, because it is important for everyone else to believe it is immoral to break the law.
  • I believe that people should give to charity, because it would be good if everyone believed they should give to charity.
  • I believe that the Constitution is a binding document, because I want everyone else to believe that it is a binding document.

People commit the fallacy of inevitability when they believe something is good because it is inevitable.  This often manifests as an endorsement of the status quo.  Mickey Kaus recently confessed:

I don’t favor policies that would hurt unskilled American workers even if they would help unskilled Latin American illegal immigrants…. I’m happy to acknowledge a commitment to moral nationalism. [Others have] a plausible but extreme and eccentric libertarian position that we have no moral obligation to help fellow nationals before we help everyone else on the planet, because [they view] borders as a “global system of socio-economic apartheid.” Well, OK. Let’s vote!

I’ve insisted, on the contrary that:

It may be inevitable for democratic processes to discount utilitarian gains to poor foreigners.  But there is no reason for any individual utilitarian thinker to adopt the utilitarian constraints of their nation’s politics.  Neither should a natural rights thinker accept the practical constraints of his political system as a moral constraint on natural rights.  Justice is justice, whether or not it is procedurally obtainable.

When people insist that a law is good because it exists “everywhere”, or that the state is good because there is no alternative to it, they are committing the fallacy of inevitability.

I think these fallacies are pretty important to common sense morality.  Here is a just-so evolutionary story to explain the psychological strength of these fallacies:

In the evolutionary environment, we lived in small bands with few people.  A small minority of those few people had more authority than the rest.  It would be dangerous for the rest of the people to challenge the often inevitable power of the few people with more authority.  It would be useful for them to accept the moral claims of these few people.  Because people did in fact accept their moral claims, it was useful for the few people with authority to believe that their own moral beliefs affected the beliefs of everyone else.

We no longer live in that environment.

Update: Here is a list of some fallacies.  The self-centered fallacy is similar to the “Appeal to the Consequences of a Belief”.  I don’t see anything like the fallacy of inevitability.


  • wallaceforman

    It is very much like the categorical imperative. It’s fine to adopt the categorical imperative as your moral principle (in the same sense that you could logically adopt an ad hominem principle), but I think that most people who use this kind of reasoning really mean something like “I say I believe X because I want everyone else to believe it.” It is not good instrumental logic.

    The Kaus quote could be interpreted two ways. He is either taunting people (i.e. Will Wilkinson) for being in the political minority, or implying that they/Wilkinson are wasting their time advocating a moral principle that people will never vote for. He may be right about that, but that isn’t a reason for anyone to adopt Kaus’s position instead of Wilkinson’s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.