Spotting the Fallacy of Composition

27 Sep

Just because one member of an organization acts a certain way, it does not follow that the whole organization shares that same attribute.

This is called the Fallacy of Composition.

A recent letter to the editor in the Asheville, NC paper gave evidence that the writer does not understand this faulty thinking.  When people resort to using fallacies (inaccurate assumptions), they undermine the persuasiveness of their point.

Understanding fallacies can be a useful tool for policing up OUR own positions, whether verbal or written.

The way the letter preceded was thus:

The author wanted to attack an organization, so he brought up a fact (which I am going to take as true, for the sake of this explanation) that a past director of that group had been arrested and charged with aiding & abetting prostitution.   We actually don’t know the outcome of the charge.  But if it were found out to be true, no one would deny that the guy had done something bad.     

BUT, it does not follow that others associated with that organization engages in illegal exploitation of women.  The attributes of individual members of a set do not translate into a group attribute or even mean that other members share the same attribute.

Here are some other common examples:

  • a few Catholics supporting abortion rights does not mean the Catholic Church is in favor of this policy
  • mom & dad liking okra doesn’t mean the whole Jones family likes okra

  • Westboro Baptist Church engaging in hateful practices at the funerals of fallen servicemen should not be taken to be the way ALL Christian churches are

The next time someone hits you with an argument based on the Fallacy of Composition, respond with that useful 2-letter word:




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