Moral Equivalence
KSU   -   English 1101/55 & 57   -   Mr. Hagin   -   Fall 2002   -   Revised: 27 November 2002

Moral Equivalence – defining distinct and conflicting moral behaviors in similar terms.

An author who suggests that one act of serious wrongdoing does not differ from a minor offence commits the fallacy of moral equivalence.  Many people say that “all sins are equal in God’s eyes,” which effectively equates ethnic cleansing with stealing a pencil.  Our laws make many precise distinctions amongst the various types of violent crimes.  Motives are different, and so these criminals are held accountable accordingly.


An anti-smoking moralist barks: “Smoking cigarettes is nothing short of suicide – the smoker is willingly killing himself.”

National anti-smoking campaigns often avoid the moral argument because the public understands that smoking is a personal choice that probably will not impact one’s morality.  To suggest that smokers are immoral is faulty thinking, usually combining other fallacies (such as false causality and red herrings)  If you know any smoker who is “a good guy” and a non-smoker who is a jerk, you can easily use these examples to refute this fallacy.  Additionally, the fallacies of equivocation, slanting, and loaded language apply here too.


A wily politician argues: “Yes, I used illegal money to fund my campaign … but so did my opponent!”

This type of moral equivalence fallacy is called the “tu quo” argument (“But you’re one too!”).  Similar to the bandwagon fallacy, this type of reasoning assumes that a candidate should be allowed to break the law because others have set a different moral standard.  This would retain the clean candidate’s campaign a better competitive advantage since his opponent was breaking the law all along.  This example is akin to changing the rules in the middle of a game.

NOTE: a tu quo differs from the bandwagon appeal here because the politician changed his moral standard (deciding to use illegal funds after all) as a response to his opponent’s illegal operation.  We jump on a bandwagon because it feels good, but people fall into moral equivalence when they shift their moral attitudes for selfish reasons.  It is also a form of distortion, and we see it often from our children and politicians.  Two wrongs do not make a right.