If fallacies were assigned to the nations of the world, the argumentum ad temperantlam would be allocated to England. It is the Englishman’s fallacy. The argumentum ad temperantiam suggests that the moderate view is the correct one, regardless of its other merits, it takes moderation to be a mark of the soundness of a position.
The unions have asked for 6 per cent, the management have offered 2 per cent. Couldn't we avoid all the hardship and waste of a lengthy strike, and agree on 4 per cent?
(If we did, next time the unions would demand 20 per cent and the management would offer minus 4 per cent.)
The argumentum ad temperantiam appeals to a common instinct that everything is all right in moderation. Moderate eating, moderate drinking and moderate pleasures have been widely praised by cloistered philosophers without any extreme desires of their own. The ad temperantiam appeals to that upper-class English feeling that any kind of enthusiasm is a mark of bad manners or bad breeding. One shouldn’t be too keen. It helps to explain why none of them are particularly good at anything, and accounts for their steady, but moderate, decline.
The fallacy enters in because, while moderation may be a useful maxim to regulate our desires, it has no specific merit in argument. Where one view is correct, there is no rule that it will be found by taking the average or mean of all of the views expressed.
If two groups are locked in argument, one maintaining that 2+2 = 4 and the other claiming that 2+2 = 6, sure enough, an Englishman will walk in and settle on 2+2 = 5, denouncing both groups as extremists. He is correct to describe them as extremists, but incorrect to suppose that this proves them wrong.
I have tried, during my term of office, to steer a middle course between partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other.
(He might have added: between truth and falsehood, between vice and virtue, between falling asleep and staying awake, between sense and nonsense.)
In countries and situations where bargaining is more common than fixed price transactions, people routinely manipulate the extremes in order to influence the idea of a ‘fair’ average. Exactly the same procedure can be used in public life, advocating an extreme position in order to pull the eventual settlement closer to your way of thinking.
Only in England do people write books with titles like The Middle Way, elevating the argumentum ad temperantiam into a guide for public policy. The Liberal Party used to make a career of the fallacy, regularly taking up a position midway between those of the two main parties, and ritually denouncing them for extremism. The main parties, in their turn, contained this threat by bidding for ‘the middle ground’ themselves. This led the Liberals to become extremists in order to attract attention. In Britain New Labour was built upon the temperantiam. They called it the Third Way.
One side represents capitalism; the other stands for socialism. We offer instead a policy of co-partnership to replace the old politics of conflict and extremism.
(So alluring is this type of thing to the ad temperantiam mind, that the other parties hastily produce versions of it.)
When you use the argumentum ad temperantiam yourself, you should try to cultivate that air of smug righteousness which shows it to best advantage. Remember that your opponents are extremists, probably dangerous ones. They are divisive and destructive. Only you, taking the middle course, tread the vir-tuous path of moderation.
You will find it useful to invent extreme positions on one side, in order to cast the opposing views as extremist also.
Councillor Watson has urged free travel for senior citizens. Others have suggested we should charge them 50 pence per journey. Surely the sensible course would be to reject these extremes and opt for a moderate charge of 25 pence?
(Of course, the debate was between 25 pence and zero. The 50 pence advocates are conjured up in support of your ad temperantiam.)
Try to cultivate the company of Foreign Office officials. It comes so naturally to them when someone makes a claim against Britain to concede half of it that you will learn to commit the fallacy at speed with apparent ease. You will need to be quick off the mark because the fallacy has a large following.
When two countries are disputing the ownership of a couple of islands for example, you should be the first to leap in with the ‘one each’ suggestion. There will be plenty of British diplomats trying to beat you to it.