A Philosopher's Blog

The “Two Bads” Fallacy & Racism

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by mclfamu on June 24, 2015

The murder of nine people in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina ignited an intense discussion of race and violence. While there has been near-universal condemnation of the murders, some people take effort to argue that these killings are part of a broader problem of racism in America. This claim is supported by reference to the well-known history of systematic violence against blacks in America as well as consideration of data from today. Interestingly, some people respond to this approach by asserting that more blacks are killed by blacks than by whites. Some even seem obligated to add the extra fact that more whites are killed by blacks than blacks are killed by whites.

While these points are often just “thrown out there” without being forged into part of a coherent argument, presumably the intent of such claims is to somehow disprove or at least diminish the significance of claims regarding violence against blacks by whites. To be fair, there might be other reasons for bringing up such claims—perhaps the person is engaged in an effort to broaden the discussion to all violence out of a genuine concern for the well-being of all people.

In cases in which the claims about the number of blacks killed by blacks are brought forth in response to incidents such as the church shooting, this tactic appears to be a specific form of a red herring. This fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic.

This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:

  1. The topic of racist violence against blacks is being discussed, specifically the church shooting.
  2. The topic of blacks killing other blacks is brought up.
  3. The topic of racist violence against blacks is abandoned in favor of focusing on blacks killing other blacks.


This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim. In the specific case at hand, switching the topic to black on black violence does nothing to address the topic of racist violence against blacks.

While the red herring label would certainly suffice for these cases, it is certainly appealing to craft a more specific sort of fallacy for cases in which something bad is “countered” by bringing up another bad. The obvious name for this fallacy is the “two bads fallacy.” This is a fallacy in which a second bad thing is presented in response to a bad thing with the intent of distracting attention from the first bad thing (or with the intent of diminishing the badness of the first bad thing).

This fallacy has the following pattern:

  1. Bad thing A is under discussion.
  2. Bad thing B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to A (when B is actually not relevant to A in this context).
  3. Bad thing A is ignored, or the badness of A is regarded as diminished or refuted.

In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:

  1. The murder of nine people in the AME church, which is bad, is being discussed.
  2. Blacks killing other blacks, which is bad, is brought up.
  3. The badness of the murder of the nine people is abandoned, or its badness is regarded as diminished or refuted.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that something else is bad does not entail that another bad thing thus has its badness lessened or refuted. After all, the fact that there are worse things than something does not entail that it is not bad. In cases in which there is not an emotional or ideological factor, the poorness of this reasoning is usually evident:

Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Well, some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “Yeah, so much for your broken arm being bad. You are just fine. Get back to work.”

What seems to lend this sort of “reasoning” some legitimacy is that comparing two things that are bad is relevant to determining relative badness. If a person is arguing about how bad something is, it is certainly reasonable to consider it in the context of other bad things. For example, the following would not be fallacious reasoning:

Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “That is worse than one broken arm.”
Sam: “Indeed it is.”
Joe: “But having a broken arm must still suck.”
Sam: “Indeed it does.”

Because of this, it is important to distinguish between cases of the fallacy (X is bad, but Y is also bad, so X is not bad) and cases in which a legitimate comparison is being made (X is bad, but Y is worse, so X is less bad than Y, but still bad).

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 24, 2015 at 9:36 am

  2. WTP said, on June 24, 2015 at 9:47 am

    Let’s travel to a little place of instantiated philosophy I like to call “reality”. Roll the tape, please…

    Mike makes a statement such as (well exactly as): “While acting alone, he (church killer) certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.”

    Mike is asked several times to provide some context for the number, or relative number, of white supremacists and black supremacists. He coyly demures.

    The subject morphs, as any normal discussion does, to considerations of how violent the black community is relative to the white community. The commenter ronster12012fromOz asks rhetorically, “Don’t blacks manage to shoot each other on a regular basis?” To which Mike replys with “Most violent crime is within the “race.” That is, whites tend to kill white, etc.”

    As the conversation is bouncing all around, several commenters question why white on black killings get more attention than black on white. Which leads one WTP character to actually go to real, objective FBI statistics for the year 2013. I, er WTP, points out that the black murder rates are significantly higher and black on white crime significantly higher than the reverse. These facts presented solely to provide perspective. Mike of course has to twist this into a pejorative, sugestive “narrative” of implied…well, he’s too chickenshit to admit what he is implying.

    But of course, we would be committing a terrible logical fallacy to observe Mike’s (and the media’s) consistency in making much hay out of every media focused white on black act of violence. Be that violence criminal or justifiable. Yet at the same time he ignores the tremendous number of stories going the other way, dodging any acknowledgemnt that perhaps, just perhaps, that black and, as I include, certain Latino communities have a significant’ amount of responsibility for the violence and violent actions they take. That these acts occur not just on people outside their race/ethnicity but that they do such to themselves, this is not relevant to the general discussion.

    I submit yet again, the only universe Mike can function in is one of his own construction. He only wishes the subjects be discussed as he wishes to discuss them. He, of course, is free to bring in tangential issues or even unrelated issues. But lo to those who raise salient points that undermine his view. Out comes the Book Of Fallacies. Mike knows the Book Of Fallacies because Mike wrote the book on fallacies. See first sentence of this paragraph.

    Mike, those of us who live out here in the real world, where we have to make hard decisions, where the lines between concepts that (weak) men draw up in their heads between one concept or another while sitting safely up in their ivory towers, have absolutley no fucking meaning when some violent criminal scum is sitting on your chest beating you MMA style or has reached for your service revolver or has so little care for his own life he’ll do anything to take as many innocents with him as he can and you’re the only thing between him and the murder of innocents.

    I wish I had the time to clean that up and cut down the run-on sentences, but I gotta get to work. Some of us suckers have to deal with the hard choices of reality so wealth can be created so ivory tower bastards can sit on their asses and ponder how many ways the people who do the real work in this country disappoint them.

  3. TJB said, on June 24, 2015 at 10:47 am

    No society is perfect and we as a people need to decide which problems deserve our focus at any given time.

    The people bringing up black-on-black crime are simply pointing out that this is a much bigger problem than racially motivated crime against blacks.

    Mike, you did the very same thing years ago when you argued that the odds of an individual American getting killed by an Islamic terrorist are very small. Similarly, the odds of a black person getting killed in a racist hate crime are also very small.

    Mike, just how many blacks do you think get killed every year for no other reason except the color of their skin?

    • WTP said, on June 24, 2015 at 11:02 am

      Mike, you did the very same thing years ago

      As usual, you are too kind. He does this and similar frequently whenever it is convenient to advance his argument. Yet he has no problem with calling out others on usually much weaker fallacies as his get-out-of-the-argument-free card when presented with opposing views for which he has no viable response. The only universe Mike (and by extension, much of the political left) can function in is one of his own construction.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 24, 2015 at 1:39 pm

      I completely agree-we do need to decide which problems get the most attention and resources. However, we are not limited to addressing one problem at a time. If people were honestly saying “look, we are giving 110% to addressing the causes of black on black crime and have no one left to address racially motivated crimes against blacks”, that would be one thing. But we are clearly addressing stacks of problems of greatly varying importance and threat levels at once-and usually focusing too much on less important problems rather than those that tend to kill the most Americans.

      Quite right-the odds of getting killed by a terrorist in the US are extremely low, be it an Islamic terrorist, supremacist terrorist, or whatever. Being rational, I think resources should be deployed based on the scope and probability of threats. However, the murders in the church are the bloody tip of the iceberg-behind it is a mass of social, economic and political ills. Islamic terrorism is primarily an external threat, although it also has underlying causes.

      Far less than when the KKK rode openly. But still too many.

  4. ologun36 said, on June 24, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Of course when people discuss the context of violence or a bad thing happening it really depends on perspective. B as you discussed should be added to (a) rather than replacing (a). So that a matrix of contexts help us to understand the canvas of elements with more texture. Thus if a man kills people in a church and we say it is bad without going through a vast list of why, it does not further the topic or allow for any sense until a version of B or C or D are considered. In fact in the case of such a shooting I imagine the whole scenario would start with the shooter so that regardless of colour, the said person is assessed thoroughly for motive. If in the end the buck stops with colour and it should have really ended with the answer of poverty or mental illness, even a grudge against society for whatever reason, then we have a problem with the end result of the discussion. In the end I imagine that many people will pick the most simple or well trodden narrative, for most people are not empathetically connected to the badness of such events. The separation from the ‘other’ via media or distance does not allow for an emotional response that would dictate thorough consideration as to whether it was down to race or social factors or absolutely anything other than just race. You could apply this reasoning to other issues such as for example terrorism. If we are to believe that a radicalised Muslim becomes a terrorist on the motive of faith alone then we are either being ignorant or misled. If you ask the general public to consider western involvement in said countries or to learn about the history that has led to acts of terrorism, then things become ultimately complicated and perhaps even depressing due to the level of culpability not simply resting with the radicalised group alone. Very few make the effort to cause harm unless provoked could be a generalised reasoning behind many events of badness. It just depends how far the masses want to look rather than simply accepting the first answer or the next answer, whether correct or not, that might replace it.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 24, 2015 at 10:38 pm

  6. nailheadtom said, on June 25, 2015 at 7:15 am

    “This claim is supported by reference to the well-known history of systematic violence against blacks in America….”

    There’s a systematic violence against blacks? Blacks and their supporters have always been more focused on discrimination in employment and housing, college admissions and mortgage availability than violence.

    • ronster12012 from Oz said, on June 25, 2015 at 9:41 am


      Perhaps you americans should consider giving a couple of states to the blacks and just let them get on with it without discrimination or violence. Just say here are two or three states, here’s say, $100 bil now piss off and make your own way. Would it be any more successful than Liberia?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 25, 2015 at 10:00 am

      There is. Decent people have been worried about that since the days of slavery.

      • WTP said, on June 25, 2015 at 11:16 am

        Give one example of systemic violence against blacks today. What part of the American system engages in violence against people because they are black?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2015 at 12:08 pm

          An obvious example would be the treatment of black Americans by the legal system.

          • WTP said, on June 26, 2015 at 5:01 pm

            Really? Where in the American legal system TODAY is it defined that blacks are to be subjected to violence? Where in the system is it stated that blacks should be treated differently than other people?

            Or by “legal system” are you taking a another populist swipe at cops? Please, inform us as to what specifically you refer. And for God’s sake, drop the “obviously”. It comes across as an insult to the intelligence of anyone who might disagree with your position. I seriously doubt you are intimidating anyone here.

          • WTP said, on July 3, 2015 at 7:40 am

            It’s an “obvious” example, this generalization he presents. Yet when asked for some concrete evidence supporting the systemic problem he says exists, it’s one week later and still nothing. The only part of the American legal system that recognizes the race of the accused is the cops. And that is only due to the inherent nature of making an arrest. If you are accusing the cops, systemically of racism please clarify. If you are accusing some other aspect of the legal system of mistreating people based on their being black, please provide some concrete examples. Otherwise you are making an unfounded and insulting accusation.

            • WTP said, on August 10, 2016 at 9:51 pm

              Heh. Now one year later and nothing.

              Thanks, spambot.

  7. ronster12012 from Oz said, on June 25, 2015 at 12:18 pm


    Would the introduction of colonial white slavery into a discussion of black slavery be a “two bads fallacy” or a proper contextualizing of the subject? It would be misleading to have a conversation that assumed that blacks were somehow special in their being enslaved, when in reality they were just one of many that have been enslaved over the past few thousand years.

    If someone got up and publicly said “well yeah, there were white slaves and black slaves and white slavemasters and jewish slavetraders and black slavetraders in Africa and basically everyone has done everything to everyone”………they’d be lynched or prosecuted or something, I’m sure. At the very least they would be called a ‘hater’ for simply stating facts.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2015 at 12:28 pm

      It would obviously depend on how it was used.

      For example, this would be fallacious:

      1. Bill: “Whites enslaving blacks was bad.”
      2. Sally: “But, Arabs had a slave trade as well and the Greeks enslaved white people. These were bad.”
      3. Sally: “So, whites enslaving blacks wasn’t bad.”

      But this would not:

      1. Bill: “The only slavery that existed was whites enslaving blacks.”
      2. Sally: “The Greeks, Romans and Ottomans had slavery and they enslaved non-blacks.”
      3. Sally: “So you are wrong, Bill.”

      As far as the hater thing, it would depend on why the person was saying it. If someone was making an historical point to inform the audience, that would hardly be hate. If the person was trying to argue that the enslavement of blacks wasn’t really bad because there was a lot of other bad slavery, then that would be justly criticized as a bad argument.

      • ronster12012 from Oz said, on June 26, 2015 at 12:54 pm


        It is valid to contextualize arguments, no?


        1. Bill: “The only slavery that existed was whites enslaving blacks.”

        2. Sally: “The English, Arabs,Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, american native tribes, Incas, Aztecs and African blacks practised slavery and they enslaved blacks, whites anyone they could find. In fact the first slaves in the US colonies were white, either Scots or Irish, the British were bastards then but so were plenty of others
        The one virtue of the British was that they were the first to outlaw it, unlike the Africans or Arabs”

        3. Bill ” So slavery wasn’t a white crime?”

        4 Sally “Hell no, stop being a whiney guilt ridden little fag, man up!”

        5 Bill ” Hey, I feel better already since ditching the guilt. Now I understand the media agenda I will be immune to any more guilting for historical collective guilt.”

        6 Sally ” It’s now your duty to spread the truth and free other white people from the spell”

        Something like that?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 29, 2015 at 10:27 am

          Depends on the purpose of the context.

          Are you arguing that white Americans should not feel guilt about the American institution of slavery and its persisting consequences because slavery was a common practice among almost every ethnicity?

          Now, if your point is just that white folks should not believe that white people invented slavery and were the only ones who practiced slavery and the only ones who enslaved blacks and hence should not feel guilt for all slavery across all times…well, yes. You are right.

          • ronster12012 said, on June 29, 2015 at 11:21 am


            My main annoyance is the simplification, exaggeration, context stripping, emotionalization and therefore the weaponization of memes in the hands of the politically unscrupulous.

            So I don’t really care if someone using said meme is black or whiteor whatever just as long as they tell the truth and the whole truth. A bit too much to ask, I know, but that’s how I see it.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 30, 2015 at 3:26 pm

              Truth is rarely seen in the company of politics. Even when it would serve as well or better than lies.

      • WTP said, on June 26, 2015 at 5:30 pm

        Mike: This church killing is terrible, what with it being a racist white person killing black people. Fox News, Jeb Bush, NRA, white supremacists!
        Others: Black people kill white people at a much higher rate for their share of the population
        Mike: Well most killings are within race, white-on-white and such
        Others: Actually, if you want to go there, black people even kill each other at a much higher rate/volume than whites kill whites. In fact, here are some cold, hard, irrefutable statistics on the reality of such.
        Mike: What’s your point?

        Mike: What are some examples of this tribalism and the harms caused by it?
        Man from Oz: Sharia law areas in the UK, no go zones in France and Sweden…
        Mike: I have heard the FOX News claims about Sharia law, etc. but these seem to lack a foundation in fact.
        Some other guy: Here’s five news reports from sources as diverse as CNN, the BBC, and Russian TV about rather open examples of sharia patrols in the UK
        Man from Oz: And here’s another one
        Mike: (crickets)

        And thus Mike has to construct an alternate, straw-man reality in which those who disagree with him are denying that slavery was bad or one where they don’t care about the church murders. Because the only reality that counts is the one in his head. The solipsism is right there in masthead of the blog, depending on your device.

        • magus71 said, on June 29, 2015 at 5:08 pm

          As the professor says near the end of the video, 33 percent of white Brits, between 2001-2011, left the heavily Muslim populated areas. I wonder why?

  8. ajmacdonaldjr said, on July 2, 2015 at 11:22 am

  9. ajmacdonaldjr said, on July 6, 2015 at 10:11 pm

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