This particular fallacy is well worth considering here, because it can so easily be confused with the Middle Way. An appeal to moderation (or argument from moderation, or false compromise) consists in the assumption that a belief must necessarily be correct because it falls midway between two extremes. If used in an argument, this is fallacious, because the midway point is not necessarily true or good. To assume this is the case is, indeed, an absolutisation of the middle – of the kind I have sometimes been falsely accused of myself.
A classic example can be found in the biblical story of the judgement of Solomon. The story goes that two women came to Solomon as he sat in judgement, arguing over the possession of a baby. Each of them claimed that the baby was really hers. Solomon then offered to resolve the dispute by cutting the baby in half. Now, that of course neglects a key condition – that the baby needed to remain alive to be helpful to anyone. The (rather incredible) story then goes on that one woman agreed to this solution, whilst the other (the true mother) who really loved the baby was so distressed that she immediately offered to give it up so as to save its life. Of course, one then has to ask why a woman who wanted a baby at all (whether or not she was the true mother) would consent to it being killed: which suggests that she rather represents a very narrow left-hemisphere view of the matter in which an obsession with one outcome blinds one to all other conditions.
This story also shows the problem with any kind of assumption that compromise is necessarily right. It does not tell you what the compromise is of or between, nor what the surrounding conditions are. Another example illustrating this is the philosopher’s ‘paradox of the gentle murder’. If person A wanted to violently murder C, but B did not, a compromise between A and B might be to only murder C gently. This illustrates how you can distort a compromise just by setting the boundaries of the ‘extremes’ to be negotiated closer to your desired outcome: a technique known to salesmen and known in psychology as anchoring. If a salesman wants to get £100 for an item that in market terms would only be worth £50, he just has to start the negotiations at £150, so that by the time you have beaten him down to a ‘compromise’ £100 you feel you are getting a bargain.
So how is this different from the Middle Way? The extremes to be avoided in the Middle Way are not conventional or manipulable, but consist in positive and negative absolutes. Such absolutes are focused on conquering their opposites, and tend to exclude all third alternatives to their opposite. By considering alternatives, and addressing the conditions as widely as possible, we may end up with a position that superficially looks like one of the extremes, or one that looks like a compromise: but it will not be the fact of it being a compromise that made the difference and justified the judgement. For example, if you’re trying to give up an addiction, the ultimate desirable outcome is obviously not to partake of the addictive substance at all (which looks like one extreme) – but the absolutes you encounter are likely to be the lure of the addictive substance versus the belief that you should give it up. The Middle Way requires you to find ways round this obsessive polarity, but the further solution is not a compromise at all.
To return to the earlier example, in the judgement of Solomon the absolutes might be those of justice (in the sense of fairness between the women) versus those of truth. Solomon employed what Buddhists would call a ‘skilful means’ to find a solution that only on the surface appears to be a fallacious appeal to moderation. His deeper purpose seems to have been to find out how the two women would react to his proposal. In doing so he recognised that he couldn’t reach the absolute ‘truth’ of the matter without doubt, and nor could he reach an absolutely just solution without a means of sharing the indivisible baby. The Middle Way here is widely recognised as a good way of resolving the situation, even though it does not ultimately either find out the ‘truth’, nor is it ultimately ‘just’ to all concerned. Instead, the questioning of the two absolutised extremes leads us to recognise third, alternative values: those of the value of the baby being cared for, even if the carer turns out not to be the genetic mother and even if the disappointed party turns out to indeed be the genetic mother.
In the paradox of the gentle murder, the Middle Way does not involve the acceptance of the positions of A and B as ‘extremes’. Instead, the extremes need to be absolute beliefs. These might be the value of whatever motivates the murder, versus the absolute wrongness of murder. Since a murder of any kind is most unlikely (in most cases) to fulfil the desires that motivated it once they were integrated beyond a certain very limited state of obsession, murder does not have to be absolutely wrong to justify a conclusion that it is wrong in this, and the vast majority of other cases. People who seriously contemplate murder are usually just not aware of all the horrendous short and long-term effects murder has – on the victim, the murderer and others. Such effects would not be greatly reduced by doing the murder gently. So, again, the ‘compromise’ solution is very likely to be wrong, and the Middle Way points towards an approach that looks very close to one of the extremes. Even if the solution looks like just following the rule against murder, however, the motive of a Middle Way approach is more far-reaching and, by allowing the absoluteness of the rule against murder to be questioned, actually offers much stronger experiential reasons for refraining from murder.
Finally, in the example of the salesman who exploits our anchoring vulnerabilities, the Middle Way requires us to become aware of anchoring and compensate for it. Of course, if this proves impossible this will just remain as a condition we have to put up with, and we will continue to be taken in by the ‘compromises’ of salespeople. But psychological evidence suggests that people can make progress with anticipating anchoring in the contexts where it is more likely to have an effect. If we are sufficiently aware of anchoring, we can insist on more acceptable parameters for ‘compromise’ at the beginning of the negotiations.
In practice, moderation often has a lot going for it as a rule of thumb. For example, my own approach to alcohol is based on moderation. Some people might not find this practicable, and prefer to abstain altogether, but for me, moderation generally works. However, it is quite possible to absolutise moderation – and the Middle Way should on no account be confused with a tendency to do this.
Do these examples show an appeal to moderation? If they do, how does it differ from the Middle Way?
- John and David are arguing over a cake. John wants to divide the cake in half, but David wants all of it. “OK,” says David, “Let’s compromise. I have three-quarters of the cake, and you have a quarter of it.”
- Lena and Olga are sisters engaged in a lengthy lawsuit contesting their sadistically patriarchal father’s will. The most recent will states that Lena should receive the whole estate, but only on condition that she is married. If Lena is not married, Olga inherits the whole estate (whether Olga is married or not). At the time of her father’s death, Lena was not married, but she has since married. Lena is contesting the award of the estate to Olga, but Olga proposes an out-of-court settlement whereby she gives Lena one quarter of the estate.
- In the recent Climate Change talks in Paris, the world’s nations agreed to pursue efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C compared to pre-industrial levels. However, no detailed programme was agreed to actualise this aspiration, only further ongoing reviews. Critics complained of the inadequacy of the non-binding target, but defenders insisted that more progress had been made than might have been expected, and that the agreement was the best compromise available.