• Are “first world problem” reminders fallacious?

    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.

    Category: FeaturedReason and Argument

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.
    • “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.”

      So it is okay to have one group of people campaigning to prevent awkward sexual advances in Irish pubs or hotels while another group works to end genital mutilation in Africa?

    • People can campaign for what they like. Though, I’m not sure why any group would exist to campaign for the former…

    • The actual goals of Atheism Plus may be just a bit broader than what I wrote. For more info, please visit their official Twitter account.


    • Otto Greif
    • Great read, Otto.

      …we are all increasingly anxious in America to be unobtrusive, we are reluctant to make our voices heard, hesitant about claiming our right; we are afraid that our cause is unjust, or that if it is not unjust, that it is ambiguous; or if not even that, that it is too trivial to justify the horrors of a confrontation with Authority; we will sit in an oven or endure a racking headache before undertaking a head-on, I’m-here-to-tell-you complaint. That tendency to passive compliance, to a heedless endurance, is something to keep one’s eyes on — in sharp focus.

      As skeptics, we constantly face derailing efforts at whataboutery, people saying that we ought not to have generated the unpleasantness of social confrontation over some silly faith-based belief or another. Just live and let live. Children don’t even have access to medicine in Africa, why complain about the occasional preventable outbreak here?

    • That’s the sort of view I was trying to describe in the “pet causes” paragraph. Skeptic activism is a perfectly legitimate thing to pursue, and yet it is true that there are worse things in the world than (say) the practice of homeopathy.

    • I can sympathise with Buckley – in Taiwan (where I lived and worked for a couple of years) I’m told that the culture is that you should know your place and not kick up any sort of fuss. They seem to work longer hours, on lower pay, and can’t really complain (as much) to their bosses if something is up.
      But, that’s culture, and I don’t think it’s affected by the plight of some remote group of people (though I might be wrong).

    • You can count me among those fighting to call attention to the scourge of manspreading.

    • Someone must, lest we succumb to the soft misandry of low expectations.

    • Gaujo

      In regards to “Pet Causes”, once we accept that the purpose of charity is to do good magnanimously for others, then how can a pet cause of relatively little use be acceptable? It boils down to the same thing as your original premise, the matter of universal morality. If there is universal morality, then one should evaluate the causes available, and support the one which does the most good. If there is suffering in the world, and we are all one body as a human race, then all my sufferings should be taken in the context of the whole.

      If, on the other hand, my existence is my own, I owe it to none other, and charity is at my discretion, then my own petty grievances are the only ones that matter, and their internal rank is real. Thus a hangnail, being the worst thing that happened to me today is worse than the broken arm a stranger incurred.

    • Mind-Forged Manacles

      It is a fallacy, an informal fallacy. That’s why some uses if the argument are valid, while others are invalid. 🙂

    • Mind-Forged Manacles

      It is a fallacy, an informal fallacy. That’s why some uses of the argument are valid, while others are invalid. 🙂

    • Well, I accepted that one can use fallacious relative privation arguments, but surely the ones that are sound, or at least reasonable, aren’t fallacious.

    • Mind-Forged Manacles

      All I meant is that informal fallacies all have exception cases. Like, a slippery slope argument is valid, as it’s just a series of Modus ponens arguments. But of course, some uses are invalid because the content of the argument makes unjustified leaps. 🙂