Middle Ground Fallacy: But…but I am being reasonable…

Remember what I told you about in the first ever post I wrote about logical fallacies? “Most people consider debates to be a bad thing”. According to them, everyone should agree about everything and live in a harmonious Utopia. However, when it comes to practical implementation, that never happens, and there will always be conflict. These peace-loving individuals claim that the people who argue think that there are two sides to every issue: their side, and the wrong side [3]. Thus they further claim that they can provide a new morally superior light to the plebs who argue. That next refuge that these “peace-loving” individuals suggest is, a compromise.

While the middle ground (compromise) might work in most situations where the truth lies between two extreme points, it does not work in all situations. Sometimes one of the supposed extreme positions is the correct answer [4]. An example for the case where one of the extremes is, in fact, the correct answer is the scientists’ idea of a spherical earth going around the sun against the church’s idea of the sun going around a flat earth. In that discussion, we know that the “extreme,” which claimed that earth is spherical and goes around the sun, is and was the true argument.

There is another set of instances in which the middle ground yields an obviously wrong answer. That is when the entire spectrum of belief is wrong. In that situation, truth exists in an orthogonal direction that has not yet been considered [4]. An example of this would be the Abrahmic religions’ claim that the humans were created by their God in his image, alongside the Ancient Greeks’ claim that humans were made using clay by Prometheus. We know that neither point is true, and that humans are a result of evolution. Thus, a compromise between the points of Abrahmics and Ancient Greeks would still have been false, because the truth lies in an orthogonal direction.

Nonetheless, the fact that, in most cases, the middle ground between two extremes is the true solution, has created a bias in our thinking. Thus, we are unable to notice situations where the point that is half way between a truth and a lie is also a lie [1].When one tries to claim that the correct answer is in the middle for no other reason but that fact that it is in the middle [6, 7], in an instance where it is actually not the case, that individual is committing the middle ground fallacy.  This fallacy’s opposite is called the false dilemma [2, 4].

Middle ground fallacy is also known as Argument to moderation [2, 5], false compromise [2, 4, 5, 8],  gray fallacy [2, 5] ,  and fallacy of Moderation [4, 6]. Sometimes it is also referred by its Latin name argumentum ad temperantiam which translates back to Argument to moderation [2, 3, 4, 5]. A false compromise is either a situation in which the proposed solution produces a deductively invalid or unsound argument, or a situation in which a sound and valid argument results in a pragmatically undesirable conclusion [2].

There are two main forms of this fallacy: the Splitting the Difference Fallacy [4, 8] and the Common Denominator Fallacy [8]. The difference between the two forms is rooted in the way they handle the two opposing view points. Splitting the Difference rejects both of two opposing views, on the presumption that “extreme” views are never true. Common Denominator Fallacy accepts both of two opposing views, on the grounds that both sides share at least some common assumptions, or in an attempt to appease both sides equally [8].

Splitting the Difference Fallacy

Figure 1: Source

When one is using the Splitting the Difference Fallacy, one claims that both of the sides have gone too far from the truth, and that thus, there is no truth in either argument. With that assumption, the person claims that the truth has to be in the middle.  The problem here comes from the fact that, here no one actually confronts any of the arguments given by either side to see if the assumption that both sides have equally moved away from the truth is accurate or not. That assumption is accepted as it is, without checking, and then it is concluded that the truth is in the middle only because, according to the assumption, both views are wrong. The position proposed by the arguer has no other merit than the fact that it is in the middle of two competing viewpoints. In some extreme cases, the arguer may propose a middle ground, even in situations where a middle ground does not exist, regardless of the truth value. An example of this would be:

“Joe thinks the Packers will win the game. Frank thinks the Eagles will win. That means the game will probably end in a tie” [4].

Most of the time, the objective or the motivation of Splitting the Difference is to bring the discussion to a speedy resolution. Following is an example for that situation:

“You think my client needs to spend twenty years in jail, but we think you do not have enough evidence to convince the jury. Let’s agree on ten years, and we can all go to lunch” [8].

Common Denominator Fallacy

The Common Denominator Fallacy accepts both of two opposing views, on the grounds that both sides share at least some common assumptions, or just to appease both sides. The Common Denominator Fallacy claims that there is really no dispute between the two sides, so they may both be accepted. However, it makes this claim by focusing on minor and preliminary points of agreement, while overlooking the central points of disagreement that really are at issue [8]. As the more common of the two sub-types, tje Common Denominator Fallacy is also referred to as: the golden mean fallacy [2, 3, 5, 6], the balance fallacy [4], the false balance [3, 4], and the fallacy of the mean [5]. Examples for the Common Denominator Fallacy from two of the hottest contemporary debates are shown below;

Figure 2: Source

“Holly said that vaccinations caused autism in children, but her scientifically well-read friend Caleb said that this claim had been debunked and proven false. Their friend Alice offered a compromise that vaccinations must cause some autism, just not all autism” [1, 9].

Conservatives say ‘global warming isn’t real’. Liberals believe in man-made climate change. Therefore, climate change is real, but we’re not the ones causing it” [4].

To show the absurdity of this fallacy, consider the following example;

“Assume Adam is selling a car that has the actual value $20k. Ben who comes to buy the car claims that the best value he can see for the car is $1. So after haggling, Adam agrees to compromise and sells the car for $10k” [5].

Here, Ben’s estimate of $1 was an unreasonable extreme while Adam’s initial estimate of $20k was true and reasonable. Just becuse Ben thought, said or believed the car to be $1, it does not become as valid as Adam’s reasonable estimate. Thus, there was no reason for a compromise. The problem arises here because Bob’s false belief is given the same value and same standing as Adam’s correct one. Just because someone is holding an idea or because that idea “matters a lot” to that person, or “has helped that person through hard times,” or any other excuse does not make that belief true.

Usually, an appeal to the Common Denominator fallacy is used to break up a discussion on a friendly note. The very common phrase, “Let’s just agree to disagree”[8] is an invocation of this; because there is the inherent assumption that both arguments are true, and that thus, both can leave the discussion with their own “truths” instead of coming to a resolution, on the grounds that otherwise it might mean that the discussion will not culminate on an amicable note. This defies the whole definition of the end goal of a discussion: to end by reaching eventual agreement. Instead, here it ends in such a way that eventual agreement, even at a later time, is more difficult, if not impossible [8].

True Compromise

In many cases where there is conflict, there actually may be sound arguments from both sides. In those cases,  argument to moderation might not be a fallacious method to arriving at truth. In those situations, this method becomes pragmatic and utilitarian. The idea is the creation of a new argument from the best parts of both sides [2]. In these cases, in which both the contending arguments either are sound, or they are perceived to be sound at the moment, it is possible to come to a true compromise. So by definition, a true compromise is reached when the proposed solution is not only built on deductively valid and sound arguments,  but also yields an acceptable, utilitarian, and desirable solution to both parties involved [2].

It is observed that in some practical situations people are tend to consider a compromise a true compromise if it is accepted by a majority on both sides of the argument. This is the most common heuristic used in compromises in political opinions [2].

These are some situations in which the middle ground is not fallacious.

Presidential candidate Mickey King wants to deport all illegal immigrants. Another politician wants to grant full citizenship and “amnesty” to all illegal immigrants. Senator Mario Rubin claims that the only right answer is a “path to citizenship,” where illegal immigrants are not deported or granted citizenship. Rather, they have to fulfill the regular requirements to eventually earn citizenship. [7]

Sam believes his sister Tina should always wash the dishes and he should always cut the grass. Tina believes that she should always cut the grass and Sam should always wash the dishes. The only solution is for them to alternate the two chores.” [7]

Mrs. Jones has scheduled a math test for tomorrow, but there is also a compulsory pep rally tomorrow. The class says that Mrs. Jones should just cancel the test. The only solution is for Mrs. Jones to move the test to a different day.” [7]

Historical Basis

You would be happy to know that it is not only regular people who have brushed with this fallacy. In fact, the name, golden mean, was initially proposed by none other than the father of Western logic, Aristotle, himself. He described the golden mean to be a virtue, an example of the excellent ideal of behavior. However, obviously, he was not a fool. He claimed that the golden mean does not have to be in the exact middle. He suggested that the mean can be varied from situation to situation by considering the excess or deficiency. Further, he has observed that there are some actions that are so bad that they can never be justified [3]. So it is possible to give Aristotle the benefit of the doubt and say that he was talking about true compromises and not of false compromises.

The later philosopher Hegel, when describing dialectic,  claimed that in conflicts, the very structure of rational inquiry is to find the kernel of truth in both of a pair of opposites (the thesis and the antithesis). Then he proposed to use those kernels of truth to devise a synthesis (compromise) which will ultimately resolve the conflict [8].


In  business deals,  usage of this fallacy is called low-/high- balling [5]. An extreme situation of this was mentioned in the above example of Adam trying to sell his car. While that was exaggerated,  it is not uncommon in real-world business deals. When you are the person selling something, the buying party initially quotes a very low price (aka low-ball). Then you would be more susceptible to be haggled down to a value that is in between that proposed value and the estimate that you had in mind initially. The counter to low-balling is unsurprisingly, high-balling, in which you quote a higher price than your estimate when you are the seller. If both parties correctly used low-balling and high- balling, the haggling  process involving the Middle ground fallacy will most probably settle at a value closer to your initial estimate.

Especially in the case of passing laws, it is important to take a wide range of interests into account. Thus trade-offs come into play; the resultant law does not make anyone perfectly happy. But on the other hand, everyone gets something [8]. However, this is only valid when there is a true compromise. For example, in the case of Treaty of San Francisco, where the victorious allies were convinced by the finance minster of Ceylon, J. R. Jayewardene, to not put harsh restrictions on the defeated Japan, while this compromise meant that allies were not going to get the proverbial “pound of flesh” from Japan, it also meant that the allies would secure cordial connections with Japan that would rise to be a technological giant in a few short years. Obviously, on the side of Japan this compromise meant a reduction of the burden that they were already under to rebuild. A counter-example, or in other words, a false compromise in the political field, is the Missouri compromise, which tried to find a “middle ground” between abolitionist camp and the pro-slavery camp. Obviously, in hindsight we know that the abolitionists were perfectly correct to demand to outlaw slavery completely. And the pro-slavery camp was wrong. However, at the time, both views were considered, by those in power at the time, to have the same amount of merit, and a false compromise was reached [4].

Balance fallacy is often a problem in the media, which try to appear impartial and true to affirmative action in confrontational or adversarial matters. They try to give equal time to fringe minority viewpoints as much as they would to legitimate, well-supported views. This is quite evident in the coverage in the media on the anti-vaxxer movement, where anti-vaxxers get equal time as the scientists claiming there is no evidence of vaccines causing autism. Similarly in the GMO debate and in the climate change debate, media give equal time to the anti-science fronts, denouncing GMOs or denying that climate change is man-made, as much as they give to legitimate scientists talking on behalf of GMOs and proving that climate change is existing and is man-made. Media should have observed that the scientists are supporting their claims with empirical evidence and formal logic [4] while the anti-science camp is doing nothing but providing anecdotal evidence. Thus, they should have concluded that the anti-science camp should not be given equal space to voice their opinion as it is given to the scientists.

Just like the media, some educational institutes also commit the middle ground fallacy by giving equal opportunity to truth and fiction. They call it by the fancy name “Teaching the controversy”.  This is mostly done in education institutes in areas with conservative leanings that come coupled with an association with Abrahmic religions. They force “intelligent design” to be taught in parallel with the theory of evolution [4].

Figure 3: Source

Finally what you need to remember is, as the saying goes;

“A successful compromise is not one where all parties leave thinking they won, but one where all parties leave thinking they were cheated.”

[1] https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/middle-ground
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_to_moderation [3] http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GoldenMeanFallacy
[4] http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Middle_ground_fallacy
[5] https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/59/Argument-to-Moderation
[6] http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/middle-ground.html
[7] http://www.softschools.com/examples/fallacies/middle_ground_examples/498/
[8] https://www2.palomar.edu/users/bthompson/False%20Compromise.html
[9] http://howdovaccinescauseautism.com/


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