Lately, I have been hearing many arguments of the form: A is better than B, therefore A should be more like B. This is despite B being considered the less desirable option (often by the one posing the argument). For example: The poor in our country have plenty of food and places to live. In other countries, the poor go hungry and have little to no shelter. It is then implied that the poor in our country should go hungry and have little to no shelter. I was thinking this was a fallacy of suppressed correlative, but that doesn't quite seem to fit. What is the error or fallacy in this form of argument? How might one refute such an argument?

Years ago, I used to teach informal reasoning. One of the things I came to realize was that my students and I were in much the same position when it came to names of fallacies: I'd get myself to memorize them during the term, but not long after, I'd forget most of the names, just as my students presumably did. Still, I think that in this case we can come up with a name that may even be helpful.

Start here: the conclusion is a complete non sequitur; it doesn't even remotely follow from the premises. How do we get from "The poor in some countries are worse off than the poor in our country" to "The poor in our country should be immiserated until they are as wretched as the poor in those other countries"?

Notice that the premise is a bald statement of fact, while the conclusion tells use what we ought to do about the fact. By and large, an "ought" doesn't simply follow from an "is", and so we have a classic "is/ought" fallacy. However, pointing this out isn't really enough. After all, in some cases the facts don't leave much moral room. To borrow a case from Peter Singer, if there's a child drowning in a shallow pond and I could easily rescue her, then I ought to—even if I'll get me boots wet in the process. As a matter of sheer logic, the "ought" doesn't follow from the facts about the child, but it's not hard to come up with a plausible premise that bridges the logical gap. Singer suggest this: if you could easily prevent a great misfortune for someone else at very little cost to yourself, you ought to. Add the obvious fact that in the case of the drowning child you could do that, and we get the conclusion.

Here's where we are so far: the argument you're describing is fallacious as a matter of sheer logic; if we need a name we can say it's an "is/ought" fallacy. But your opponent might say that you aren't really being fair. He might say that you're ignoring some obvious premise that—of course—he was simply taking for granted. The problem is that there's no such premise. After all, here's a premise that's actually plausible:

               If you could make some people worse off without making anyone better off, then you ought not to do so.

Offhand, I can't think of any serious moral position that would disagree. In fact, if a moral theory told us that this premise is wrong by and large (as opposed to wrong in some very special cases such as punishment, perhaps) that would be strong evidence against the theory. But the view you're describing seems to break down in this very way. Your opponent is saying that it would be morally better if the poor in this country were poorer than they already are, even if no one else's lot was improved.

We could add some curlicues, but that's probably enough to refute the argument you're asking about. However, I suspect that very few people really endorse that argument. My guess is that what's really at issue is something like this: poverty is relative. What we call "poor" in this country would amount to something close to wealth in some places. Improving the lot of the poor in this country, the argument would continue, is not a high priority, even if we can all agree that actively making them worse off is wrong.

I don't agree, but at least we're now in territory where there are glimmers of interesting issues. For example: some people think individuals should be charitable but that it's wrong for the government to take money from some of us to improve the lot of others. There are also people who think that some state-mandated redistribution is okay, but that there's a threshold beyond which it's wrong. Some of these people say that the poor in this country are mostly above that threshold. I'd guess that the people you're describing actually think something more like this.

We're now in the realm of serious issues. After all, if we set the threshold high enough, then we'll pretty much all agree that government isn't obliged to move people even higher. Many of us don't think the poor in this country are above any such threshold, but it's clear that reasonable people can disagree about how to draw the lines. On the other hand, these issues call for a lot more discussion, and so this is probably a good place to stop.

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