Many people compromise for the sake of compromising, even when they shouldn’t. This is called the middle ground fallacy.
This fallacy can have disastrous consequences for your life. That’s why you must learn to spot it.
Learn what exactly qualifies as a middle ground fallacy, why we are so prone to it, and how to avoid it.
Definition: What Is the Middle Ground Fallacy?
The middle ground fallacy claims that the middle between two extremes must be the truth. So, if you say, “All elephants can fly,” and I say, “No elephants can fly,” then we could compromise on, “Some elephants can fly.” Obviously, that is not true.
The middle ground fallacy is also known as the argument to moderation (from the Latin argumentum ad temperantiam), the false compromise, or the golden mean fallacy.
Why You Must Watch Out for It
Most people understand that flying elephants are not a thing. However, in many real-world situations, we are quick to settle for false compromises.
Take business for example. You and your co-founder are having a discussion. You say, “If we don’t cut our costs by 40% next year, the company will go under.” You have done the math and you know that it needs to happen.
But your co-founder disagrees. “This is a terrible idea. We will miss out on important growth opportunities. Our competitors will pass us by.” So, after some debate, you meet in the middle. You agree to only cut costs by 20% next year.
One year later, the company must file for bankruptcy. You were right all along. It was a 40% or the end. Being agreeable didn’t help with anything.
Bottom line — the middle ground fallacy is not some abstract scenario for academics. It directly affects your life. If you don’t learn to spot it, the consequences could be disastrous.
Common Middle Ground Fallacies
Here are some middle ground fallacies you are likely to encounter.
Partner A might say, “I don’t want children. My autonomy is very important to me and I also don’t want to compromise on my career.”
Partner B might be the opposite. “I want at least five children. I have always dreamed of having a big family. Let’s make some babies!”
In the end, they settle for two children. Partner A, predictably, still ends up unhappy. For them to stay true to themselves, it was no children or nothing.
An anti-vaxer and a scientist are having a discussion on a talk show. The anti-vaxer claims, “Vaccines are responsible for autism in children.”
The scientist responds that there is no scientific evidence supporting that claim. In the end, the well-meaning talk show host concludes, “Well, maybe vaccines are responsible for autism in some children.”
The audience applauds approvingly. A compromise has been reached — however wrong.
The in-house marketing team of a B2B company is having a strategy meeting.
Team Member A: “We should go all-in on blogging. Various studies have shown that it is the most effective strategy to generate leads for our industry. But for this to work, we must publish a new blog article twice a week.”
Team Member B: “Blogging seems so 2010. All of our competitors are doing LinkedIn. Every time we post something there, we right away get likes and comments. I think we should publish there every day.”
In the end, they settle for posting a new blog post once a month and posting on LinkedIn once a week. The results? None. SEO would have been the right approach — but by doing too little of it, they never reached critical mass on Google.
Politics are full of false compromises. Let’s take gun control for example. On a societal level, there is no question that gun control saves lives. Studies have conclusively shown that.
Yet, instead of doing away with guns, Americans settle for shallow compromises like background checks or metal detectors at school. This appeases both ends of the political spectrum, while mass shootings keep happening.
[My personal take on gun control is a bit more nuanced. I do think that the average person should not be allowed to carry a deadly weapon. As I said, it makes for a safer society. However, in societies that permit guns, you are better off learning how to use one.
Also, what applies to the average hick doesn’t apply to an autonomous, resourceful individual. If they want to, these individuals will find ways to obtain firearms, no matter what the law says.]
Why It’s So Easy To Fall For It
The middle ground fallacy is not so much a logical problem, as it is an organizational and an emotional one.
On an organizational level, it’s about speed of decision-making. We give into false compromises because it speeds up the process. You can move on to the next item on the agenda. However, this is a miscalculation. The time you save now, you will pay for many times over later when the consequences of your false compromise come back to bite you in the butt.
On an emotional level, the middle fallacy is about peer pressure. We don’t want to be seen as the obstinate contrarian, especially if other people are watching. So, we compromise, even though we know better.
The Middle Ground Fallacy and the Zeitgeist
On a societal level, we are now more prone to middle ground fallacies than we used to be. That’s because the current zeitgeist favors a vanilla worldview. Anything “extreme” is automatically considered bad. We would rather have consensus than truth.
The driving force is the educational system. We used to teach preschoolers that compromising at all costs was the way to go. Then, as you progressed through the educational system, you were gradually exposed to more realistic notions about the world.
This progression has been abandoned. “Why can’t we all just get along,” is now the new maxim of higher education. We must have inclusion at all costs.
To be clear — this is not a left vs. right thing. The right is just as quick to punish deviants as the left.
It’s a herd vs. individualism thing. The herd must have absolute conformity. Conformity = security. The herd can’t deal with the eclectic, nuanced individual. The self-thinking individual presents a challenge.
Ultimately, the middle ground fallacy is a byproduct of a late civilization. The older a civilization gets, the more it is concerned with moderation at all costs. Eventually, such late empires get overtaken by younger, more radical societies — until these wash out themselves. It’s a never-ending cycle.
How To Avoid the Middle Ground Fallacy
The middle ground fallacy might be inevitable on a societal level, but in your own life, you can be as radical of a truth-seeker as you wish. Here are some ideas.
1. Consider Everyone
People think in boxes when they should think in terms of quality. Quality is simply too rare to ignore.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. In terms of religion, I fall somewhere in the atheist to agnostic spectrum. I am repulsed by any kind of organized religion. It really is the opium of the people.
However, two of the most influential mentors in my life were both die-hard Christians (to be fair, the highly educated kind. Think Augustine and Plotinus, not American evangelicals). If I had sealed myself off to the tremendous value they offered, my life would have been worse for it.
Forget the middle ground. Consider everyone, without blinders. Look for quality wherever you can find it, at the extremes, and everywhere in between.
2. Don’t Fear Being Wrong
We are drawn to the middle ground because we are afraid of being wrong. In the middle, we will at least be half-right, or so we think.
Become uncomfortable being wrong. For example, I had a blog several years ago, much like the one you are reading now. I sometimes go through these old articles and catch myself disagreeing with some of my previous viewpoints.
There is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary — it is to be embraced. It is a sign of a flexible, curious mind. Don’t be afraid of being wrong. You have permission to correct your viewpoints later.
3. Embrace “Radical”
We are afraid of taking “radical” stances for fear of ruffling feathers.
But radical is a relative term. It only means that you are deviating from what is currently considered the middle. But both of these notions are always in flux.
We once thought that witches were real and should be burned on a stake. That was normal. To think otherwise was radical.
We once thought that the world was flat. That was normal. To think otherwise was radical.
We once thought that people of different skin colors should attend different schools. That was normal. To think otherwise was radical.
We once thought that the nuclear arms race was over and we would all get along. That was normal. To think otherwise was radical.
Do not be afraid of “radical.” On the contrary, it often offers more than the societal middle ground. The herd might hate the extremes. But historically, innovation always starts there.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.Mark Twain
4. Avoid Group Settings
On a practical level, you are much more likely to fall for middle ground fallacies the more you immerse yourself in a group setting. The herd wants everyone to get in line.
That’s why I always recommend becoming as self-sufficient as possible, be it in business or when it comes to relationships. As a free agent, it’s much harder to force you into false compromises.
That doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate with others. Seek out all the help and outside input you want. It just means that in the end, there must be one person calling the shots. And for your life, you want that person to be you.
I remember a BJJ coach of mine remarking once, “Here on the mats, there is no democracy. I call the shots. You are free to leave anytime. But as long as you choose to participate, you do as I say.” He had the right idea.