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False equivalence

In some ways the False equivalence fallacy is the direct opposite of a False dilemma.

False equivalence is an informal fallacy that describes a situation where there is an apparent similarity between two things, but in fact they are not equivalent.  The two things may share some common characteristics, but they have important differences that are overlooked for the purposes of the argument.

The pattern of the fallacy often looks like this: if A has characteristics c and d, and B has characteristics d and e, then since they both have characteristic d, A and B are equivalent. In practice, often only a passing similarity is required between A and B for this fallacy to be committed.

The following statements are examples of false equivalence:

‘They’re both soft, cuddly pets. There’s no difference between a cat and a dog.’

‘We all bleed red. We’re all no different from each other.’

‘Hitler, Stalin and Mao were evil atheists; therefore all atheists are evil.’

A more complex example is where somebody claims that more Australians are killed by sharks or road accidents than by terrorism, therefore we should not do anything to stop terrorism. This example ignores the fact that terrorist acts are prevented by doing something, such as surveillance and intelligence.  We also choose to take the risks of swimming in the ocean and driving in cars, but we cannot avoid the risk of terrorism no matter what we do.

False equivalence is occasionally claimed in politics, where one political party will accuse their opponents of having performed equally wrong actions, usually as a red herring in an attempt to deflect criticism of their own behaviour. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

On the other hand, politicians might accuse journalists of False equivalence in their reporting of political controversies if the stories are perceived to assign equal blame to opposing parties.  However, False equivalence should not be confused with False balance – the media phenomenon of presenting two sides of an argument equally in disregard of the merit or evidence on a subject (a form of argument to moderation).

Moral equivalence is a special case of False equivalence where it is falsely claimed, often for ideological motives, that both sides are equally to blame for a war or other international conflict. The historical evidence shows that this is rarely the case.

Another special case of False equivalence is Political correctness, which may be defined as language, ideas, policies, or behavior that seeks to minimise social offence in relation to occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, to an excessive extent thus inhibiting free speech.

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Moral equivalence

Moral equivalence is a form of equivocation often used in political debates. It seeks to draw comparisons between different, even unrelated things, to make a point that one is just as bad as the other or just as good as the other. Drawing a moral equivalence in this way is an informal fallacy, a special case of False equivalence.

A common manifestation of this fallacy is a claim, often made for ideological motives, that both sides are equally to blame for a war or other international conflict. Historical analysis show that this is rarely the case. Wars are usually started by one side militarily attacking the other, or mass murdering non-combatants, with or without provocation from the other side.

Some specific examples of this fallacy are as follows:

  • Claiming neither side in World War II was morally superior because of the British firebombing of Dresden in Germany, or the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. This is despite the fact that Germany started the war in Europe and Japan started the war in the Pacific. Whilst the morality of the British fire bombing of Dresden is questionable, the aim of the US atomic bombings was to force Japan to surrender, without the necessity of a land invasion in which millions of people were expected to die on both sides. The purpose was to end World War II as opposed to starting it.
  • Drawing a moral equivalence between 9/11 and U.S. policy in the Middle East, thereby attempting to justify or excuse the 9/11 atrocities against innocent non-combatants.
  • Drawing a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Israeli actions toward the Palestinians.
  • PETA drawing a moral equivalence between the consumption of meat and the Holocaust in an ad campaign.
  • The excuse that slavery in the southern United States wasn’t so bad because some slaves were treated better than workers in northern factories and company towns — or the counter-use of the same examples, that conditions during the early Industrial Revolution were not that bad because the people were at least free to choose their jobs, unlike under slavery.

An early populariser of the expression was Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was United States ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration. Kirkpatrick published an article called The Myth of Moral Equivalence in 1986, which sharply criticized those who she alleged were claiming that there was ‘no moral difference’ between the Soviet Union and democratic states.[1]


[1]  Kirkpatrick, Jeane. ‘The Myth of Moral Equivalence’, Imprimis January 1986, Vol. 15, No.1.

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