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The Specious Appeal to Fairness

There are many kinds of fallacious arguments and logical fallacies. There’s one I see from time to time that doesn’t appear to have a name. At least I haven’t found it in any list of fallacious arguments. I call it the Specious Appeal to Fairness or SAF for short. I want to spotlight it for a moment so you can recognize it.

Note that there is an argument called an Appeal to Fairness but it’s not specious. An example of an appeal to fairness would be, “It’s not fair that a man is paid $15 an hour and a woman is paid $10 an hour for the same job.”

The Specious Appeal to Fairness has been around for a long time. It seems to crop up whenever there’s talk of loosening rules or requirements, forgiving debts or crimes, granting amnesties, or increasing inclusivity.

Below are some examples. Some examples appear more specious than others, but they are all specious.

Amnesty to Immigrants

Granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants isn’t fair to those who came here the right way.

(Ignoring that many who are here legally now were granted amnesty under President Reagan or who came illegally and gained residence later.)

Student Debt

Forgiving student loan debt isn’t fair to those who worked hard and paid theirs.

Code Requirement

In my hobby of ham radio, the ability to receive Morse Code used to be a stringent requirement. It took long hard practice, months for some, years for others, to build this skill to pass the higher tests. In the 1980s and 90s, the arguments raged red hot over whether the requirement should be dropped. One of the arguments was that dropping the code requirement isn’t fair to those who got their licenses the hard way. Well, code was dropped and the hobby not only survived but is thriving. Not only that, voluntary learning and use of Morse Code is growing rapidly. No one ever imagined that would happen.

Freeing the Slaves

During the U.S. Civil War, there was talk of freeing the slaves. An opinion piece was published in a newspaper arguing against it saying that freeing the slaves wasn’t fair to those who had escaped on their own.

Jesus and The Five-Thousand

Jesus feeding the five-thousand from five loaves and two fishes wasn’t fair to those who brought their own food.

SAF Trolley Problem

You’re probably familiar with the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment in morality / ethics. Here you see a trolley car heading for a track where it will kill five people. You can pull a lever and route the trolley to another track where only one person will be killed. Should you pull the lever?

The SAF version goes like this. You see a trolley car has just killed five people. It’s heading for a track where it will kill another five people. You can pull a lever to reroute the trolley to a track where no more people will be killed. Is it fair to those already killed to reroute the trolley?


All of the above arguments strike me as ridiculous. But they don’t seem ridiculous to everyone.

Depending on which poll one believes, somewhere between 30 and 50 percent feel that forgiving student loans isn’t fair to those who paid theirs. That’s a lot of people who feel this way so a lot of people subscribe to this way of thinking.


I think that agreement or support of these SAF style arguments implies an elitist worldview. It implies a person that wants to be a gatekeeper with an exclusive rather than inclusive mindset.

What do you think?


  1. Andreas Geisler

    It’s a simple logic knot.
    There is an established unfairness, and the argument is that … somehow … removing the unfairness isn’t fair to those who have already suffered through it.

    So, suddenly, an unfair world is more fair than a more fair one?

    It clearly breaks down the moment one thinks it through.

    Which is why so many people don’t see a problem with it.
    They haven’t got an ounce of thought for the world around them.

    • Phil

      Yours would seem to be the more likely explanation.

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