• Dawkins Elucidates Relative Privation

    The fallacy of relative privation is an informal fallacy by which one compares the subject under discussion to something else which is generally agreed to be far more serious, in an effort to “suggest that the opponent’s argument should be ignored” or else to justify the lesser privation as zero bad. According to Rational Wiki, the “most blatantly fallacious form of the argument” runs like this:

    B happened, and is worse than A.

    Therefore A is justified.

    Human Probably the most glaring example of this fallacy widely known in atheist circles is a satirical letter from an American feminist to an hypothetical Muslim woman, penned by Richard Dawkins:

    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

    He would later (unconvincingly) claim that he was not attempting to invoke the fallacy of relative privation, but it’s difficult to see how this particular missive can be seen as anything other than an attempt to justify the actions of the boorish fellow in the elevator by way of comparison to vastly more oppressive and systemic sexism. He would much later walk back that entire line of argument:

    There should be no rivalry in victimhood, and I’m sorry I once said something similar to American women complaining of harassment, inviting them to contemplate the suffering of Muslim women by comparison.

    (It would have been plainly uncharitable to fail to note this evolution in his thinking, naturally.)

    I bring up the fallacy of relative privation here and now mostly because I was feeling cramped talking about it on Twitter. At least one esteemed colleague takes a different view, and I’d like to give them the chance to argue their case in a more robust way.

    Category: Philosophy

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.