The fallacy of the “middle ground.”

The belief in a “middle, moderate position” is pervasive in public discourse. Many people believe that extremes are automatically wrong and that some sort of moderate position must therefore be correct. People who can temper their beliefs are seen as superior thinkers.

This, of course, assumes that all possible positions can fit on a line with two opposite extremes, which is rarely the case. But most importantly, it also assumes that truth cannot be found on any “extreme.” This is trivial to refute: on a line between true and false, the truth will always necessarily be on the “true” extreme. This is not very impressive, I admit, but nevertheless illustrates the problem.

So let’s take a concrete example, the atheist-religion line. It is often posited that agnosticism is a “middle ground” between atheism and religion, and that it is the most “neutral” or “level-headed” position. But the definition of agnosticism is a denial of the possibility of knowing whether gods exist or not. Being an agnostic is, in reality, more of an evasion than an answer. Either one believes, or one does not believe: the issue of whether one can know or not is irrelevant. Someone who is agnostic because he thinks belief is irrelevant would automatically be an atheist, as he would not believe in the concept. Someone who is an agnostic because he believes in a higher power but does not believe in any currently popular ones would still be a theist, just not a religious one.

The issue is very simple: either one finds the notion of “gods” credible, or one does not. To say that one finds the notion of “gods” credible but holds out on belief is silly, and to say that one does not find the notion of “gods” credible but holds out on unbelief is equally silly. The notion of the “middle ground,” in this case, is more akin to that of the top of a chain-link fence.

Now let’s look at the Anarchy-statism line. Either one believes in the State, or one does not. But huddled between these two extremes is minarchism, a curious group of ideologies (non-Anarchist Libertarians, Objectivists, Constitutionalists, classical liberals, paleo-conservatives, etc) which holds simultaneously that:

1. Government is by nature corrupt, inefficient, immoral, has bad incentives. This is why it needs to be severely limited (“severely” relative to most or all the governments currently existing).

2. We need government to perform functions X, Y and Z, and no others.

3. We need government as the final arbiter in society, otherwise we’d have chaos.

As I already discussed, the basic premises of minarchism are mutually contradictory. It is absurd to claim that government, by its very nature, does most things badly but is needed to perform some other functions, let alone be the final arbiter of social rules. It is equally absurd to claim that government must be the final arbiter, which implies that it could not be limited by anyone or anything, but then to limit it to certain functions or a certain size.

The problem is that each premise leads to a completely different conception of government. Premise 1, if fully accepted, must lead us to the conclusion that government is undesirable for any purpose, since it would inevitably act immorally and corrupt whatever it does. Premise 2, if fully accepted, must lead us to the conclusion that government is desirable for certain functions only. Premise 3, if fully accepted, must lead us to the conclusion that government should be authorized to take over any function it desires.

The minarchist must hold to contradictory premises, because his “middle ground” demands both that he fully justify government as an entity and claim that government is vastly unjustified, at the same time. Like the agnostic who is caught between belief and unbelief, he is caught between two basic principles: belief in the State, and rejection of the State.

If you believe in the State, then believe in the State. Fully accept your moral premise that “might makes right,” and do not hold any pretenses that you can “limit” a group of people who establish themselves as the final authority, who hold all the guns, and make the laws.

If you don’t believe in the State, then don’t believe in the State. Fully accept your moral premise that political power corrupts society, and promote the elimination of political power. Do not hold to the pretense that the State can operate without coercion, extortion, kidnapping and murder, or that the State can effect social peace.

The most fundamental issue in such positioning is that the “middle ground” generally represents a compromise between two distinct and opposite sets of principles, which one must then pick-and-choose. We can see this with the cavalier treatment that “liberal Christians” give their own religion, picking and choosing rules and beliefs like a hungry hippo at a salad bar.

If we look at the kind of people who adopt the extreme positions, we find that one of their common property is that of being principled. This is what unites both devoted atheists and fundamentalist Christians. Their fervor comes from the fact that they fight for what they believe is right (and I am no exception to that fact). Both see their moral principles as being part of a larger worldview which gives meaning to their lives. Both want to change the world, or at least change the way people think.

Although I have much less experience with extreme statists, I would say the same thing is probably true of Anarchists and extreme statists like communists or fascists. Both certainly hold to moral principles and fight for what they think is right. Both hold to some form of class theory and have integrated their political beliefs into a larger framework of understanding.

I would certainly have more respect for a principled fundamentalist Christian or a principled communist than I would any obedient sheeple.

15 thoughts on “The fallacy of the “middle ground.”

  1. Michael December 15, 2009 at 22:33

    For one, I do not believe that someone who calls themselves a moderate is an obedient lamb. I think that you can have more power from the middle, than from the extreme points of view. This is because, if you call yourself a moderate you have the ability to shake the ground where you see fit; whether it is republican, democratic, libertarian, communist, socialist, fascist, etc.

    I also do not believe that you have a good example for why the middle ground is a fallacy. This is because using the agnostics (the unsure people) as an example does not compare with being a person who stands in the middle ground. I agree, that there is an equality fallacy in which someone gives equal consideration to each side. However, I think you are misinterpreting the middle ground as a place for those who are torn between two points of view. The people you are thinking of become swing voters in a Democratic society. That does not mean that law makers who say they are standing on the middle ground are sheep. However, many of them are more interested in lucrative deals and pet projects which become huge bargaining chips for what legislation they pass.

  2. Rose April 8, 2010 at 16:21

    “Someone who is agnostic because he thinks belief is irrelevant would automatically be an atheist”

    No, that’s not how it works. Atheism means that you reject belief in God. Agnosticism is, as you said, a refusal to answer the question – the person is neither accepting nor rejecting belief in God, therefore they are neither a theist nor an atheist.

    I am an agnostic and I agree with you that agnostic is not the “middle ground” between theism and atheism; it is a separate question. There are agnostic theists and agnostic atheists, and there are agnostics who are neither. I’m really sick of this bullshit argument that comes from atheists so often that everyone must be one way or the other. Not answering does not mean the answer is automatically “no.” It means you didn’t give an answer and therefore no one should assume that you are one way or the other. I am not an atheist.

    Also, to the last commenter: agnostics are not the “unsure people.” It’s not that we can’t make up our mind; it’s that we reject the question altogether due to the lack of proof for either side.

  3. Francois Tremblay April 8, 2010 at 16:26

    “I’m really sick of this bullshit argument that comes from atheists so often that everyone must be one way or the other.”

    Either you have the belief or you don’t. If you want to argue with basic logic, then don’t take it up to me, take it to reality.

    Like I said, agnosticism is an evasion of the issue. It’s a weasel word, basically. In practice, it is mostly adopted by nihilists, in my experience. At least, all agnostics I’ve talked to have been nihilists.

    “it’s that we reject the question altogether due to the lack of proof for either side.”

    But that’s impossible. If we rejected any question where no proof was established, we would die off pretty quickly. For one thing, I have no proof that my food wasn’t poisoned while I turned away. So necessarily I shouldn’t eat anything at all. It’s a ridiculous way of thinking.

  4. Rose April 8, 2010 at 16:30

    To be more precise – I understand that you’re going with pure linguistics, that “atheist” means “not-theist” therefore anyone who isn’t a theist would by definition be an atheist. However, that’s not what it has come to mean in the modern definition. When people say “atheist” today, what they mean is someone who believes that gods do not exist. This has become more and more the case with the Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, etc. types of atheists who hold that there is NO way that ANY reasonable person can believe in a God, that it’s CLEAR there is no God, and saying it isn’t clear means you’re making a concession.

    I refuse to take a stance on the existence of God because I don’t see legitimate proof toward either side (theists, or atheists). I can neither accept God nor completely reject the notion of God, and to me the latter requires just as much of a leap of faith as the former. So in the modern definition, I am neither a theist nor an atheist. I’m an agnostic – I don’t know, and personally I think no one really does. I just have the courage to admit it.

  5. Rose April 8, 2010 at 16:34

    “For one thing, I have no proof that my food wasn’t poisoned while I turned away. So necessarily I shouldn’t eat anything at all. It’s a ridiculous way of thinking.”

    It’s a false analogy. You can’t just not eat; you would die. If you value survival, you would take that chance at eating unless you have significant reason to believe you were poisoned.

    I don’t see any reason why I should take a stance on this issue, so I’m not going to because I’m don’t feel inclined toward either viewpoint.

    The better analogy is when you hear about a new political issue and research it because you don’t feel informed enough to have an opinion yet. That’s all we’re doing – acknowledging that we don’t have enough information on this yet.

  6. Francois Tremblay April 8, 2010 at 16:36

    You don’t see any reason to take a stance on the issue of whether there is a being that exists outside of the universe dictating the course of your life based on your belief in it?

  7. Rose April 8, 2010 at 16:38

    “Like I said, agnosticism is an evasion of the issue. It’s a weasel word, basically.”
    I’ll agree that it is, but that’s the point – we don’t see a reason to take a stance on it. We think it’s a non-issue.

    “In practice, it is mostly adopted by nihilists, in my experience. At least, all agnostics I’ve talked to have been nihilists.”
    I don’t see how you can be an atheist and not be a nihilist, since a lack of a deity means accepting that there is no higher moral order to the universe, that your ethics are no better than anyone else’s and thus, to quote Alyosha Karamazov, “everything is permissible.” Also, funny that you’re condemning one fallacy in your main post but promoting another here (hasty generalization).

  8. Rose April 8, 2010 at 16:40

    “You don’t see any reason to take a stance on the issue of whether there is a being that exists outside of the universe dictating the course of your life based on your belief in it?”
    Yes, exactly. Why take a stance at something that you have no control over and no proof of anyway, where both sides are basically grasping at straws?

  9. Francois Tremblay April 8, 2010 at 16:41

    A nihilist is not someone who believes that “there is no higher moral order in the universe” or that “everything is permissible.” It’s the position that nothing exists outside of the human mind. You are thinking of existentialism, although existentialism doesn’t hold that “everything is permissible,” but rather that each individual must make his own morality.

  10. Rose April 8, 2010 at 16:44

    What you’re referring to is solipsism, not nihilism.
    Still, I don’t see why agnosticism automatically equates to either philosophy. It’s not like saying that there’s no proof that God either exists or doesn’t exist is saying that the world we live in doesn’t exist. The debate is over the creator of existence, not existence itself.

  11. Francois Tremblay April 8, 2010 at 16:45

    All right Rose, that’s your opinion. I don’t think many people share your apathy towards their own lives, but if that’s really what you think, what can I say? Let’s agree to disagree.

  12. Rose April 8, 2010 at 16:49

    I did want to add that I mostly really like this post though. I’m a strong pro-choice activist and I’m really sick of this belief that both sides of the abortion debate are equally ugly and the “rational” thing to do is take this middle position that involves contradictory premises (fetuses are live human beings, but not if they’re the result of rape or incest; or, women should be able to choose but not if they’re stupid sluts). I got in an argument recently where I was explaining that the anti-choice movement is about a lot more than abortion, that while I trust the intentions of most rank-and-file “pro-lifers” the movement at large is more anti-sex than saving-babies, and she insisted I was just being biased – even though I told her that she could see for herself, I was getting this info from anti-choice orgs, not from pro-choice ideas of them. She just told me to shut up. I was beginning to get the idea that it wasn’t me who was biased toward what my side says, but her who was biased against either side possibly having more of a case than the other.

  13. Rose April 8, 2010 at 16:51

    “I don’t think many people share your apathy towards their own lives, but if that’s really what you think, what can I say? Let’s agree to disagree.”

    I don’t see how being apathetic toward the question of the existence of god means I’m apathetic toward life in general, but I’ll agree to disagree. I don’t see the point in continuing an argument over one aspect of a post I don’t like when for the most part I love this and want to shove it in the face of every stupid moderate who insists I’m intellectually deficient for having strong opinions.

  14. Francois Tremblay April 8, 2010 at 16:53

    Abortion is another good example. But the fact of the matter is, even anti-choice people are not consistent in their position. If you ask them, “if abortion is murder, how long should women who have abortions go to jail?”, they will stammer like there’s no tomorrow.

  15. Rose April 8, 2010 at 21:03

    Or there’s also just the fact that, if their cause is REALLY “saving babies,” what’s with the anti-birth-control and abstinence-only-sex-ed stuff, when access to and education about birth control have been statistically linked to lower unplanned pregnancy rates (and abortion bans have not)?

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