What is Composition?

The fallacy of composition occurs when it is claimed that what is true for individual members of a class is also true for the class considered as a unit. Some nouns can be taken to refer either to the thing as a whole or to the various parts which make it up. It is fallacious to suppose that what is true of the parts must also be true of the new entity which they collectively make up.

 

This must be a good orchestra because each of its members is a talented musician.

(Each individual might be excellent but totally unable to play in unison with colleagues. All of these virtuosos might be far too busy trying to excel personally to play as an effective team.)

 

Many a football manager has similarly transferred in many first class players, only to find himself transferred out. Unless they can work as a team, it is easier to get the manager out of the ground than the ball into the net.

 

I have gathered into one regiment all of the strongest men in the army. This will be my strongest regiment.

(I doubt it. The strength of a regiment depends on such factors as its morale and its teamwork, not to mention its speed, its ability to operate with minimal supplies, and similar attributes.)

 

The fallacy arises from a failure to recognize that the group is a distinct entity of which things can be said which do not apply to individual persons. Evidence advanced to attest to the qualities of the members is therefore irrelevant to an appraisal of the group.

Americans are particularly vulnerable to this fallacy because their grammar makes no distinction between the collective entity and the individuals within it. It seems to be universal in the American language to use singular verbs for collective nouns, regardless of whether the members or the group are being referred to.

In English we would say ‘the crew is a good one’, referring to it as a separate entity, but ‘the crew are tired’, if we are speaking of its members. In American one uses the singular verb in both cases, losing an important distinction.

 

If everyone in society looks after themselves, then our society will be one that looks after itself.

(It will certainly be a society of people who look after themselves; but maybe society has aspects which need to be looked after by people acting in concert.)

 

A variant of the fallacy of composition covers cases in which things which are true for individuals become untrue if they are extrapolated to cover the whole group.

 

Farmers benefit from price supports on beef; shoemakers gain from price supports on shoes, and so on. Obviously the whole economy would benefit if all products were subsidized.

(The point is that farmers and shoemakers only benefit if they are in a small group which benefits at the expense of everyone else. If the principle is extrapolated, everyone receives the subsidies, everyone pays the taxes to fund them, and everyone loses out to the bureaucrats who administer the transfers.)

 

Society, indeed, provides the best place to use the fallacy with intent to deceive. You should attribute all kinds of sympathetic qualities to the people in our country. An audience of your countrymen will have no difficulty in attesting to the truth of them. When you slide in a surreptitious fallacy of composition to urge the same for society as a unit, they will be reluctant to let go of the good qualities they just claimed.

 

We all know that the average Briton is noted for a warmhearted generosity. That is why our society has to increase the rights of the old, the sick, the unemployed, and those in less developed countries.

(These actions might be worthwhile, but are only generous when done by individuals. To take money away from people to give to others actually diminishes their opportunity to be generous.)

 

You might just as well try: ‘Irishmen tend to die young, you know. I’m surprised the country is still going.’

The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!