On Skeptic Ink, James MacDonald recently wrote about what some people call “the fallacy of relative privation”, arguing that it isn’t always a fallacy. I agree with that, and want to register my own thoughts on the topic.
I’m sure many people remember times when they were young that they angrily refused to eat their parents’ cooking, and a parent responded “there are starving kids in Africa who can but dream of what you’re having”. In other words, you may not be a huge fan of buttered mange tout, but let’s face it; we have pretty nice lives and let’s remember that.
Perhaps your Starbucks cappuccino was served a little too cold, or your gaming rig can’t quite handle Fallout 4 on “Ultra” graphics settings. The reminder that these are “first world” problems isn’t to say that they aren’t undesirable on some level, but it is a reminder that by complaining too much about such things we are really affirming how easy our lives are; and that isn’t really something to complain about!
Is it really a fallacy to point out that none of these things are that bad when you consider the problems faced by many others? The term “fallacy” is used quite broadly, but should really be restricted to errors of reasoning, and in particular, those that are common and deceptive. “Affirming the consequent” is an error of reasoning so clear that it is beyond debate, and yet for some reason it is regularly employed. So, we call it a fallacy. Bringing up the problems of others can be an error, but as we shall see it depends. For me, the extent to which the problems of others affect how we should see our own is an open and interesting question, and as such we shouldn’t call it a “fallacy” even it we take the position that the problems of others shouldn’t affect us at all.
Let’s think about cases in which bringing up the problems of others is the wrong thing to do. Medical conditions vary in severity, but hospitals and clinics try to deal with all of them. Suppose someone was facially disfigured from an acid attack, and needs surgery solely to improve their appearance. Suggesting that they shouldn’t receive the surgery until there are no more patients with life-threatening conditions (because a scarred face is not life-threatening) needs us to accept a clearly false hidden premise; that we should only take care of the problems considered worst, before working our way back. I say “clearly false”, but even that depends on the available resources. The notion of triage makes use of “relative privation arguments”, which apply in contexts like a battlefield where resources are scarce.
Another case is with “pet causes”. Some people campaign to get religion out of government. Some people campaign for women’s rights. Some people campaign to give food to the starving. Some people campaign against abortion. Some campaign in favour of abortion. Free speech. Pro-gun. Anti-gun. And so on. Often, these causes are taken up because of some event in the advocate’s life. A parent of a cancer victim might try to raise money to help other patients with the same cancer. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking up a “pet cause”, even if other causes are more pressing. So long as some people are taking up the more pressing cause, we can be confident that there are people fighting for each thing that needs to be fought for.
Why might we bring up the problems of others? Disproportionate complaints about our “first world” problems are insulting or negligent towards those with much harsher and more brutal lives. If we claim to stand for a group, and we complain only (or most prominently) about the minor issues we and our friends in the group face, then we are hypocritical. Many of the things we believe to be bad are not actually bad at all (social media interaction can whip people into a frenzy about practically nothing…), and bringing up the problems of others might help us restore some humility in the face of our relatively privileged existence.
Context is important (is it ever not?). If I’m visiting a child cancer ward and I stub my toe, it isn’t really proper (apart from an involuntary yelp) to complain loudly about how much your toe hurts. If I stub my toe in my own bedroom, perhaps I could reasonably get away with a bit more of a moan.
Lastly, bringing up those who have it worse might just help the psychology of the person experiencing a problem. I personally find that by reminding myself that, overall, my life is an easy one, I become less stressed or depressed about some relatively minor problem. That’s surely a good thing – the problem is still there, but with less stress or depression I am in a better overall state that I would have otherwise been in.
In conclusion, “the fallacy of relative privation” isn’t really a fallacy, and its reasonableness depends on the context and the exact point being made. It is often based upon a premise that takes some position on the debate about how the problems of others should affect our own. As with other “named fallacies”, it is always best to unpack the argument as charitably as possible and seek clarification.