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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Guest Post: Middle Ground Falacy

This week, something different is happening on the blog. My name is Kent, and I'm a lifelong atheist and skeptic. Due to the fact that Zaq has a heavy workload this week, he asked to me to fill in with a guest post. I'm going to cover one of the most common fallacious arguments lodged against atheist activists. This argument is usually launched by either moderate religious believers, or by non-confrontational atheists. I'm speaking, of course, about the Middle Ground Fallacy, (AKA argumentum ad temperantiam, or argument to moderation).

What exactly is the middle ground fallacy, and why is it fallacious?
Simply put, it's a fallacy that asserts that the truth can be found between opposed 'extreme' positions. For example: Imagine two groups arguing about what 2+2 equals. One group claims that 2+2=4, and the other claims that 2+2=22. These are the 'extreme' positions. Now envision a third party stepping in to the debate, saying "Oh those guys are wrong. They're such extremists. Of course, 2+2=13. That's the only fair compromise! See, it's right in the middle! Can't we all just get along?"
It should be obvious, at this point, that something is very wrong here. Actually, two things are wrong here: there are two unstated assumptions being committed by the third party, and neither assumption holds.

The first assumption is that "extreme positions must be incorrect." This is empirically disproved by even one example and the best one from history would seem to be civil rights. The middle ground between total equality for minorities and subjugation was what we got in Plessy v. Ferguson. "Separate but equal" was established as the law of the land. This position was still completely unethical, and subjugation was still the rule. The 'extreme' position of total equality really was the correct one.
The second false assumption is that truth is something that can be reached through compromise. This is not accurate, and it's certainly not a reliable truth-finding methodology. If anything, when addressing questions about reality, it's much more likely that an 'extreme' position will be correct. If the middle ground positions is correct, it's usually only correct by chance. Hell, sometimes the middle ground doesn't even exist. What exactly is the middle ground between 2+2=4 and 2+2≠4? There isn't any.
But compromise is a good thing, isn't it? Shouldn't we try to reach a compromise, at least some of the time?

Yes, but the key is knowing when and what to compromise. The middle ground fallacy is only fallacious because one is trying to compromise on what is actually true. Coming to a compromise about what action to take is something different, and can be the correct decision. This sort of compromise must always be evaluated based on the specific circumstances, though. There's no hard and fast rule that compromise is necessarily the right move. As a general rule, if you have two groups who each benefit from different courses of action, and neither can take any action without the agreement of the other, compromising for each group to get something they want (but not everything) may better than both sides getting nothing. The exception, of course, is that in some cases by granting the other group a benefit in return for a benefit of your own, you actually harm your own group more than you gain. A compromise on action should thus make both sides happier than no action at all, but less happy than if they got everything they wanted.
Many people want to find compromise and thus tend to shy away from extreme positions. The problem is that when you're arguing about a truth claim, you're arguing about the nature of objective reality. Reality is the way it is, regardless of whether we like it or not. No matter how much you might want to reach a compromise, reality isn't going to accede to anyone's wishes. We're much better off examining reality to find out what's really true, and making our decisions based on that. After all, if you want your actions to have good consequences, it's important that the information you're working from is correct.

In the end though, it all comes down to one simple fact: there is no middle ground between truth and falsehood.
If you would like to send in a guest post, feel free to email:  Remember to put the words “Guest Post” in the subject line.


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