The Fallacy of Comparative Justice

Posted on June 12, 2012


The identification of logical fallacies is a really clever philosophical innovation, because it catalogues all the most common bad arguments, so that they do not need to be exhaustively refuted every time they crop up. is a great example of how this concept can be put to good use. Unfortunately, however, this concept has thus far been applied mainly to epistemic and factual arguments- arguments about how the world is, rather than about how the world should be. I therefore propose that there needs to be an equally comprehensive catalogue of ethical fallacies.

I got this idea because there is one such fallacy that is absurdly prevalent today. I’m calling it the fallacy of comparative justice, and it can be formally described as follows:

When people in place x complain about condition y, but there is also a place z in which condition y is worse than it is in x, the fallacy of comparative justice argues that the people in x should not be concerned about y, because they compare favourably with z.

That description might seem overly analytical, but fortunately there is no shortage of real-world examples. From a Canadian perspective, the most obvious example is the political discourse around the Quebec student strike. Anybody who has even casually followed the situation in Quebec knows that the most common argument against the strikers’ demand for a tuition freeze is that they have the lowest tuition in the country. Margaret Wente, always happy to demonstrate fallacious logic, gives a good example:

“It’s a little hard for the rest of us to muster sympathy for Quebec’s downtrodden students, who pay the lowest tuition fees in all of North America. Even if the government has its way – no sure thing if the Parti Québécois gets back in power – they’ll still have the lowest tuition fees in North America.”

Wente limits her analysis to North America, conveniently ignoring the fact that Quebec’s tuition fees-even without the hikes-remain far above most European countries. Many European countries-including cash-strapped Ireland-charge no tuition fees at all. Wente, along with most opposition to the Quebec student strikers, has introduced a meaningless comparison with the rest of North America in lieu of an argument as to why the tuition increases are necessary or justified.

Another excellent example of this fallacy can be found in anti-feminism. Western feminists are told that their concerns are irrelevant because there are parts of the world where the state of women’s rights is worse than it is here. This was demonstrated well by Richard Dawkins’ ill-advised sarcastic contribution to the elevatorgate fiasco:

“Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.”

Dawkins uses a sensationalized description of muslim countries to distract from the real issue Rebecca Watson was raising, namely that there are some places where it is not appropriate to proposition people. The suggestion that injustices far away preclude our consideration of basic mutually respectful conduct at home is ridiculous and insulting.

This also crops up in human rights issues, as shown when Kathryn Marshall took some time off from shilling ‘ethical’ tar sands oil to berate Amnesty International after they criticized Canada in a human rights report:

“By calling out Canada, Amnesty is hurting their credibility to call out the real, serious human rights violators around the world. They are pushing the childish idea that all countries should be treated the same instead of drawing real attention to real abuses.”

Marshall is correct that human rights in Canada are better than average, but in this quote she completely misses the point of Amnesty International’s human rights report: human rights cannot simply be earned and then forgotten-they need to be constantly maintained. It’s not childish to suggest that all countries should be treated the same (justice is supposed to be blind, isn’t it?). It is childish to suggest that that by being better than Saudi Arabia, Canada has somehow earned the right to be complacent about human rights.

The frequency with which the fallacy of comparative justice can be seen today is disturbing, because it is an argument that is fundamentally against progress. It would have been easy to point out to Martin Luther King that there are countries where race relations were worse than they were in 1960s America, or to suggest that the Stonewall Rioters had no right to be angry about being arbitrarily arrested on the basis of their sexuality because other countries executed gay people, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that that would have missed the point of both those struggles. We should be constantly pushing the ethical envelope, and this means that the countries that are most progressive on a particular issue will be the ones with the strongest reaction when that progress is threatened.

Don’t fall for this nonsense argument. Call it out when you hear it.

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