The use of a collective term without any meaningful delimitation of the elements it subsumes.
“We” “you” “they” “the people” “the system” and “as a whole” are the most widely used examples.
This fallacy is especially widespread and devastating in the realm of political discussion, where its use renders impossible the task of discriminating among distinctively different groups of people.
(The term “as a whole” is an assertion that a group of people somehow becomes an entity endowed with attributes other than those attributes possessed by an aggregate of individuals. It would be better to use the
expression “composite” than “as a whole” as this preserves the awareness that the group is merely a collection of independent elements.)
Social problems are difficulties resulting from the interactions of groups of people. Before a social problem (or indeed any kind of problem) can be solved, it is imperative that the problem be precisely identified. To identify a social problem, you must delineate exactly the groups of people who are involved in that problem. The Ambiguous Collective fallacy prevents this identification.
An antecedentless pronoun is an example in the singular of the Ambiguous Collective fallacy. I often challenge those who commit this fallacy to eliminate from their discussion all general collective terms, and each time they want to use such a term to use instead a precisely delimiting description of the group the term is intended to subsume. Very few people are able to do this.
One reason this fallacy is so prevalent and difficult to deal with is that it is built into the English language. Consider the question “Do you love anyone?” The ambiguity arises from the fact that the word “anyone” can denote either of two completely different meanings:
1. An individual, specifiable human being. A single, particular person, in the sense that there is some one person whom I love.
2. A non-selected unitary subset of the human race, in the sense that I love whichever person happens to be in my proximity.
Here are some examples of the Ambiguous Collective fallacy:
“Last November, 77% of us voted in favor of term limits.”
In this statement, who exactly are the “us”? The speaker wants to convey the idea that term limits are very widely supported, but if in fact the 77% refers only to those who voted, the supporting subgroup may well be a quite
small percentage of the total population.
“We need to train doctors to teach us how to get and stay healthy.”
In this statement, who are the “we” and who are the “us”? Is the speaker trying to promote socialized medicine by advocating government control of the medical schools? When he says “we need to” does he really mean “the government should”? And is the “us” merely a subtle way of saying “me”?
South Africa sanctions as an example of the consequences in real life of
the ambiguous collective fallacy:
“I imagine you support your government’s sanctions against South Africa?”
“Of course. Every decent person does.”
“What about disinvestment of American business from my country, you are
all for that too?”
“I campaigned for it on campus. I never missed a rally or a march.”
“Even if it means a million blacks starve as a direct consequence? Your plan is similar to trying to convert a country by withdrawing all your missionaries and burning down the cathedral. You forced your own businessmen to sell their assets at five cents on the dollar. But it wasn’t the impoverished blacks who purchased those assets. Overnight you created two hundred new millionaires in South Africa, and every one of them had a white face! That’s maliciously stupid! We would be grateful to you if your efforts had been failures!”
Perhaps the most widely-known example of the Ambiguous Collective fallacy is the statement:
“Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
In this statement “the people” has three distinctly different meanings:
One group of “the people” (the victims, or producers) are ruled by another group of “the people” (the bureaucrats, with their action arm, the police) in order to achieve the goals of another group of “the people” (the politicians).
Here is an excellent demonstration of the significance of the Ambiguous Collective fallacy (from THE TEN THOUSAND by Harold Coyle):
Dixon was ready. “Who, Colonel Stahl, would you be betraying?”
Stahl looked at Dixon with a quizzical look on his face before responding. “Why, I would be disobeying my orders. I would betray Germany.
Dixon switched tactics. Leaning forward for dramatic effect, he looked into Stahl’s eyes as he spoke with a clear, sharp voice. “Whose Germany Colonel Stahl? Chancellor Ruff’s Germany, the Germany of his dreams and ambitions? The Parliament, who are at this very minute debating the constitutional right of Chancellor Ruff’s authority and actions? The mayor’s Germany, one of working people and their families who have had no say in the past weeks over Chancellor Ruff’s provocative actions and unreasonable demands upon my government? Or your Germany – a theoretical Germany that knows only blind duty to orders and traditions? Who, Colonel, will you be betraying?
The concept that a soldier is honor-bound to obey Orders without question allowed the German Army to be drawn into helping the Nazis create the nightmare that led ultimately to the death of millions of Germans and the near total destruction of Germany.