Phantom Distinction


The argument appeals to a distinction that ultimately cannot be explained or defended in a meaningful way.



The fallacy is sometimes called drawing a "distinction without a difference." The term in legal circles is "de minimis," which is Latin for "about small things," as in "de minimis non curat lex," i.e. "the law does not concern itself with trifles." The idea is that the distinction is so trivial that it is not worth arguing over in court.



"Before we condemn all violence used to promote a social agenda, we must remember that there is an important distinction between freedom fighters and mere terrorists."


"I'm opposed to gay marriage, but I think gay couples should be allowed civil unions that would give them all the same rights that heterosexual couples have."


"I'm not bourgie. I just have expensive tastes."


"A certificate of live birth is not the same thing by any stretch of the imagination as a birth certificate." - Donald Trump (in the context of demanding to see President Obama's  birth certificate. Obama produced a copy of his certificate of live birth.*)


*A certificate of live birth is issued by the hospital at which the birth occurred. A birth certificate is issued by a public agency, such as an Office of Vital Records. The information on the birth certificate is copied directly from the certificate of live birth, so, unless the copyist made an error, the two documents contain precisely the same information. Where there are differences, it is the certificate of live birth that carries the greater weight of authority.



Obviously, good reasoning often involves drawing distinctions. Indeed, the error in most of the Middle Ground fallacies is precisely that we are not asked to draw a distinction that should be drawn. However, because the drawing of distinctions is so frequently associated with good reasoning, it becomes possible to mimic good reasoning by claiming to draw a distinction where in fact none exists, or where the difference is so minimal as to be not worth considering.


Source: This fallacy is referred to as "sham distinctions" in Jeremy Bentham's Book of Fallacies (1824). Bentham's book was apparently ghost-written in French by Etienne-Louis Dumont and translated into English for Bentham by Peregrine Bingham. The phrase "phantom distinction" is more modern, but I have not authoritatively identified its source.


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