Damning with Faint Praise


The argument "attacks" a position by complimenting or praising the opponent or the opponent's argument. However, the praise is misdirected or unenthusiastic, suggesting that relevant, enthusiastic praise would be undeserved.



Some common forms of faint praise might include calling an opponent's position "well intentioned," "a fine ideal," or "based on legitimate concerns." They might include saying that the opponent "makes some good points," or "shouldn't be blamed."



"Unilateral disarmamant is a fine ideal, and we cannot help feeling a certain respect for the blindly innocent faith that prompts people to adopt such a position."


 "[William] Paley was not a particularly original writer. For example, his famous analogy of the watch at the beginning of the work was not his invention. And he probably took too much for granted. But he showed very considerable skill and ability in his arrangement of his matter and in the development of his argument. And it is, in my opinion, an exaggeration to suggest, as is sometimes done, that his line of thought is worthless."  - Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy



There is an important principle that the philosopher P. T. Grice labeled "conversational implicature." This is the principle that we are generally expected to make the strongest statement that we can (given our knowledge of the facts). For example, if someone asks directions to the restroom, and I happen to know that it is down the hall to the left, then it is somehow dishonest for me to say, "It is down the hall, either to the left or to the right." My statement is literally true, and might even be an appropriate thing to say if my own knowledge were less than it is; but, it implies something that is not true, namely that the restroom could be to the right. The Damning with Faint Praise fallacy operates on the same principle. Normally we offer the strongest, most enthusiastic praise we feel is justified. Offering weak or unenthusiastic praise suggests (without asserting) that no stronger praise is warranted.

The Damning with Faint Praise fallacy is bad reasoning for the same reason that any Ad Hominem fallacy is bad reasoning: the personal qualities of the reasoner, whether good or bad, are irrelevant to the quality of the argument being made. The fallacy mimics good reasoning when we mistakenly think that praise of the reasoner (or relative lack thereof) is taking place in a context in which such praise is actually relevant.


Source: The earliest description of this fallacy appears around 110 C.E. in the works of Favorinus of Arelate, a sceptic philosopher of the Hellenistic period. The literal phrase "damning with faint praise" first appears in a poem, "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," by Alexander Pope, 1734.


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