False Compromise


Noting the presence of opposing views, the argument concludes, without considering the arguments for or against either side, that a compromise, or middle-ground position, must be true.



The False Compromise Fallacy takes to distinct forms:

Splitting the Difference rejects both of two opposing views on the presumption that "extreme" views are never true. Splitting the Difference claims that both sides have gone too far, and that the truth must be in the middle. However, the claim that both sides have gone too far is made without confronting the arguments that either side might give. If the arguer using the fallacy proposes an actual position, it is merely an arbitrary position defended by no rationale other than that it is in the middle. In extreme cases, the arguer may even propose a middle ground position for two views between which no middle ground exists.

The Common Denominator Fallacy accepts both of two opposing views on the grounds that both sides share at least some common assumptions. The Common Denominator Fallacy claims that there is really no dispute between the two sides, so they may both be accepted. However, it makes this claim by focusing on minor and preliminary points of agreement while overlooking the central points of disagreement that are really at issue.



"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."


"Animal rights activists say that animals have rights. That's an extreme view, but it is equally extreme to say they have no rights at all. I think we should reject both extremes."


"The National Hurricane Center says that Hurricane Dorian could make landfall anywhere between Miami, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina. Does that mean it will probably hit Jacksonville?" - Heard on National Public Radio on August 28, 2019.



Much can be said about the virtues of compromise. In order to get laws passed it is usually necessary to make sure that a wide range of interests are taken into account. Some trade-offs may be needed, and the resulting laws can be something that makes no one happy. On the other hand, everyone gets something, and everyone goes away feeling that an imperfect law is an improvement over no law at all. That is how democracy works, and Americans (generally) respect "pragmatic" statesmen who get things done by proposing and accepting compromises.

Compromise may even be involved in the very structure of rational inquiry. As Hegel describes dialectic, it is a process of finding the kernel of truth in both of a pair of opposites (the thesis and the antithesis), and devising a synthesis (a compromise?) that resolves the conflict.

Because the path to truth, or at least to acceptable law, so often passes through a compromise, and because defining common ground is often a first step toward the genuine resolution of disagreements, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that compromise is always desirable, even just for its own sake. The fallacy of False Compromise mimics the dialectical move to a rational synthesis, but does so, not by confronting and resolving the issues in question, but by diverting attention away from those issues.

The False Compromise fallacy, like other fallacies, is often used to end discussion rather than move it forward. People hate uncertainty. Splitting the Difference can be used as a (false) salve for uncertainty by taking a middle value within a range of possibilities. Hurricane models cannot accurately predict, more than a week in advance, where a hurricane might hit. Saying that a hurricane might hit anywhere between Miama and Charleston means only that we do not know where it will hit. It does NOT mean that Jacksonville (which is roughly half way between Miami and Charleston) is in extra danger. In the above example, the spokesman for the NHC replied by quickly pointing out the fallacy. Splitting the Difference is sometimes proposed simply to bring the discussion to a speedy resolution. For example, "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 to lunch." Similarly, an appeal to the Common Denominator fallacy is often used to break up a discussion (presumably on a friendly note), as in, "Well, I have to go home now, so, let's just agree to disagree." Sometimes, of course, discussions have to come to an end without resolution, and when this occurs it is better that they end amicably. I confess that I myself sometimes use the Common Denominator fallacy to avoid getting into discussions I don't want to have. Even so, the proper goal of argumentation is to end discussion by reaching eventual agreement, not to end it in a way that makes eventual agreement more difficult, or even impossible.

Perhaps a less technical version of the fallacy of False Compromise is calling something a compromise when it is actually not one. Even in a context in which there is technically room for compromise, one side may make a rhetorical plea for compromise, but then offer no actual concessions to the other side. The Republicans have been especially guilty of this tactic over the past decade or so, calling for "compromise" on the budget, but insisting that only spending cuts be considered, while tax increases are utterly off the table. This tactic may mimic good reasoning precisely because there is actually room for compromise, so calls for compromise are not, logically speaking, absurd. However, calling for compromise and actually offering a compromise are two quite different things.


Soruce: An email correspondent brought this fallacy to my attention. My correspondent cited William Hazlitt's 1816 essay, "On Common-Place Critics," as the probable source of the fallacy. In that essay, Hazlitt says of the common-place critic that he "believes that truth lies in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong." A second email correspondent, Nicholas Juzda, is largely responsible for helping me think through the details. It was he who suggested recognizing the Common Denominator fallacy as a separate form of the fallacy.


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