Apologia

Two Wrongs Make a Right Fallacy

  • Hendrik van der Breggen, Author
  • Retired Associate Professor of Philosophy, Providence

Do two wrongs make a right? Nope. It’s a fallacy – a mistake in reasoning.

Philosopher Trudy Govier, in her university-level critical thinking textbook A Practical Study of Argument, describes the fallacy of two wrongs make a right as follows:

Fallacy of two wrongs make a right. Mistake of inferring that because two wrong things are similar and one is tolerated, the other should be tolerated as well. This sort of argument misuses the appeal to consistency. This fallacy is often simply called two wrongs.

The mistaken reasoning runs like this: Two actions are similar and wrong, but we allow or tolerate one, so, to be consistent, we should also allow or tolerate the other one, i.e., the one I’m thinking about doing (or have done). The problem, however, is that the consistency goes the wrong way! If the action that’s tolerated is wrong, then it shouldn’t be tolerated – and neither should the action I’m wondering about or attempting to justify.

Here’s an example that should help illustrate the error, from philosopher T. Edward Damer’s book Attacking Faulty Reasoning, but slightly modified by me (in an attempt to add some humor):

Background: A father and son are out for a drive, with dad driving.
Father: Son, I really don’t think you should drink and drive.
Son: Why not? You’re driving with a martini in your hand.

Clearly, neither the father nor the son should drink and drive! If drinking while driving is wrong (which it is), it’s wrong for both of them.

Govier provides a more serious example and helpfully explains the problem:

“Animals are ill-treated when they are raised for food, so it is all right for animals to be ill-treated when they are kept in zoos.” Two-wrongs arguments misuse analogy. If the treatment of animals when they are raised for food is indeed wrong, and the treatment of animals in zoos is indeed relevantly similar to it, then the proper conclusion is that reform is needed in both cases. It is not that the second wrong is somehow justified in virtue of the fact that the first one has been permitted to persist.

Here’s another example: “What’s the big deal if Canadian military prisons engage in torture? Similar stuff occurs in many countries around the globe.” Surely, the wrongness of torture elsewhere doesn’t make torture here okay.

Here’s another example: “He stole my car. So it’s okay that I steal his car.” Surely, the wrongness of one theft doesn’t justify another theft. Historically, relying on two-wrongs-make-a-right reasoning often leads to ongoing and escalating feuds.

Here’s another example: “Other people harmed my ancestors, friends, and family who are innocent, so it’s okay for me to hurt other innocent people by looting and rioting and killing them.” Surely not. To borrow (and liberally embellish) a comment from American conservative commentator Candace Owens, if your response/solution is as bad as (or worse than) the problem (which is bad), it’s not a solution – and it’s not good.

Govier helpfully explains the problem of the two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy:

[Two wrongs is] a misplaced appeal to consistency. A person is urged to accept, or condone, one thing that is wrong because another similar thing, also wrong, has occurred, or has been accepted and condoned… The two-wrongs argument seems to rely on the supposition that the world is a better place with sets of similar wrongs in it than it would be with some of these wrongs corrected and the others left in place. It is not justifiable to multiply wrongs, or condone them, in the name of preserving consistency.

Govier adds:

If one practice is wrong and another is relevantly similar to it, then a correct appeal to consistency will imply that the other is wrong too. Two wrongs do not make one right. Two wrongs make two wrongs. There is no ethical or logical justification for multiplying wrongs in the name of consistency. Consider two proposed actions: (a) and (b). If both are wrong, and similarly wrong, then the best thing would be to prevent both from occurring.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College in Otterburne, Manitoba. The views expressed in Apologia do not always reflect the views of Providence.