One of the worst and widespread arguments these days is the “just as bad” argument. It happens when one criticizes some (often extreme) position, and the response is simply that the alternative (often neutral) position is “just as bad,” at which point the discussion is basically terminated, because the accuser will use no means other than repeating “just as bad.”
The most prominent case today is that of religion, particularly of Islam vs some other religion, or sometimes religion vs atheism.
Earlier in the year we had the Boston marathon bombings, committed by Islamic fundamentalists. This is not to mention bigger events such as 9/11 or 7/7. And yet, the West is afraid to call out Islam, afraid not of the Islamic world itself, but afraid of being viewed by other Westerners as racist or intolerant. (Neither of these labels is sensible, as Islam is not a race, and intolerance of intolerance is not the same as intolerance.)
In fact, many liberals defend Islam indirectly by saying “fundamentalist Christians are just as bad,” and they are smug about saying this, as if just to show off their “tolerance” of other people. Now, if the assertion were true, it would be a good argument. However, it could not be much further from the truth.
One person in a debate (I shall leave the name anonymous) tried to use Timothy McVeigh as an example. McVeigh killed 168 people and wounded many more via an explosion in Oklahoma City in 1995. He was also a Christian. However, his motives for the event was not strongly based on Christianity. He was not trying to protect Christianity, or trying to conquer in the name of it. His quarrel was with the government. Almost all Christians rightfully condemned the attack.
On the other hand, the marathon bombers spoke strongly about Allah, justifying it based on Islam. And while there are not yet any poll numbers for the marathon, we can extrapolate from Muslim world’s reaction to 9/11 and 7/7 that there was NOT universal condemnation of the attack. For example, from the poll linked previously, 20% of British Muslims sympathize with 7/7 bombers. Sure, 20% is still a minority, but not the “tiny” minority that politicians and politically correct liberals make it seem to be. I’m sure the percentage of Christians supporting McVeigh’s actions is under 0.001%.
From the Oatmeal comic:
An important idea to keep in mind is that there are different degrees. This is the famous Isaac Asimov quote about it:
“When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
At least Westboro doesn’t kill or bomb people. And stalling the advancement of society is better than actively moving it backwards.
Of course, I put the phrase in quotes because there aren’t any holy pillars or dogmas that atheists must adhere to.
Overall, the “just as bad” argument is an intellectual cop-out move. Of course, there exist cases where “just as bad” is actually valid (stealing something on a Monday is just as bad as stealing something on a Tuesday). However, for most of the cases it is used, the person making the argument has no other argument than to equate two unequal things without justification. What worries me the most is that I know otherwise very smart people who are religious, and when I ask them about their views, they almost all have nothing more than fancy statements of this argument (circular reasoning being the other main argument).
Along with “just as bad,” we have the “just as extreme,” which is intrinsically not a bad argument since extremes are normally to be avoided. However, just as it is wrong to equate different levels of wrongness, it is very wrong to equate extremes.
(Unsure of the source for the following table, but it’s pretty funny to read and then think about how both sides are just as bad.)
In addition, many otherwise logical people are drawn to this type of argument because it makes them look tolerant and politically correct. However, if you ask them whether it is worse to wear clothes mixed fabrics or to murder someone, they will always respond using proper reason, even if these two sinful acts have the same Biblical punishment.
A while back I wrote a post called “On Giving Too Much Legitimacy to the Inferior Position,” which also condemned blanket statements of two things being equal when they are not. I think these two posts are two different perspectives on the same issue. The other criticizes “just as good,” whereas this one criticizes “just as bad.” More broadly, it is wrong to equate two things without any justification.
To summarize, the “just as bad” argument has many real-world issues:
- It draws otherwise smart people due to its political correctness.
- It draws people who have otherwise no argument.
- Smart people don’t realize they are using it.
- It sounds at first like a legitimate argument.
- It is much easier (and takes far less time) to use this argument than to criticize it it.
- It makes people afraid to condemn destructive issues in Islam or religion in general, because they will be mocked by the statement that their own worldview is just as bad.
- It helps to inhibit social progress, as those who advocate it are just as bad as those who are holding it back.
Watch the first comment be, “You’re just as bad as the people you’re criticizing!”