Fallacies - Ambiguous Collective

by David King

To commit this fallacy is to use a collective term without any meaningful delimitation of the elements it subsumes.

"We", "you", "they", "the people", "the system", "the general public", and "society 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 "society as a whole" is an assertion that a group of people somehow becomes an entity endowed with attributes other than those attributes possessed by individuals in an aggregate. 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 precisely 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.

I suspect that quite often an Ambiguous Collective is used as an attempt to make a flimsy idea seem more significant or more valid by making the entities it refers to seem larger or more important.

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 involved here 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"?

The economic sanctions against South Africa provide 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 yet another group of "the people" (the politicians).

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