Also Known as: Should be Grateful Fallacy, Lucky Fallacy
This fallacy occurs when it is argued that something is not bad (or as bad as claimed) simply by asserting that it could be worse. This fallacy is commonly used to dismiss concerns or complaints by simply asserting that it could be worse. This fallacy has the following basic form:
Premise 1: Person A claims that X is bad (to degree D).
Premise 2: But person B claims there are things worse than X.
Conclusion: Therefore, X is not bad (to degree D).
This is bad reasoning because even if there is something worse than X, it does not follow that X is not bad or that it is not as bad as claimed. To use a silly illustration, consider size. If it is claimed that something has a specific size, pointing out that there are bigger things does not refute this claim:
Premise 1: Ted claims that Sally is six feet tall.
Premise 2: But Andrew points out that the sun is much larger than Sally.
Conclusion: So, Sally is not six feet tall (or Sally has no size at all).
While the size analogy illustrates why this is bad reasoning, it also suggests why it can be appealing. It is true that a larger thing is larger than a smaller thing and this can imply that the smaller thing is not large relative to the larger thing. For example, a large mouse is smaller than an elephant and it makes to say the mouse is not large relative to the elephant. Likewise, a comparison between a relatively minor evil and a greater evil can lead one to sensible infer that the minor evil is not that bad relative to the greater evil. But it does not follow that the smaller thing lacks the claimed size or degree of evil. In sum, even if there is something worse, this does not prove that something is not bad.
As noted earlier, this fallacy is often employed to dismiss or downplay concerns or complaints. This variant can be presented as having this form:
Premise 1: Person/Group A expresses concern or complains about X.
Premise 2: Person/Group B claims Y is worse than X.
Conclusion: Therefore, A has no grounds for concern or complaint about X.
This is bad reasoning because it does not follow that the existence of something worse proves that there are no grounds for complaint or concern about lesser evils. If this were good reasoning, then it would imply that people would only be warranted in complaining or being concerned about the worst thing possible, which must be something infinitely infinite in its badness. This could also be seen as a form of False Dilemma in which the only two options are being unjustified in complaining or being justified in complaining if it is the worst thing. But this is not to say that all refutations of concerns or complaints must be fallacious.
There can be reasonable arguments aimed at showing complaints or concerns are not well-founded or are overblown. One way to do this is by making reasonable comparisons and drawing a well-founded inference about relative levels of badness, things that are lacking in this fallacy. But this reasoning goes far beyond “pure” logic and hence beyond the scope of this work.
This fallacy is also often presented with a slight variation in wording. Instead of saying something like “it could be worse”, the phrasing can be something like “you are lucky that it is not worse” or “you should be grateful for…” This technique involves “refuting” a complaint or concern by asserting the person or group is lucky it is not worse or should be grateful that it is not worse. The poor reasoning is the It Could Be Worse Fallacy, but there is the additional reference to luck or gratitude aimed at giving it a boost in psychological force. This variant has the following structure:
Premise 1: Person A expresses concerns about X or complains about X being bad.
Premise 2: Person B says that it could be Y rather than X.
Premise 2: Person B says that A is lucky or should be grateful because Y is worse than X.
Conclusion: X is not bad (A has no grounds for concerns or complaint).
This is poor reasoning because the fact that a person or group is claimed to be “lucky” that it is not worse does not prove that it is not bad or worthy of complaint. While the reasoning is the same as the standard version of this fallacy, the Lucky Fallacy and Should be Grateful fallacy variants add an extra psychological factor intended to give them more psychological force.
The Lucky variant attempts to persuade by trying to make the bad thing seem less bad (or even positive) simply by claiming that it is lucky that it was not worse. This variant gets its psychological force from the fact that it is better to suffer a lesser evil than a greater evil; but this does not entail that a lesser evil is not evil nor worthy of complaint.
There is non-fallacious reasoning that does resemble this bad reasoning. This would typically occur in situations in which a worse outcome was likely and rational consideration shows that the less bad outcome was “lucky” (against probability). This reasoning does not involve simply dismissing complaints or inferring that something is not bad because it could be worse, so it does avoid this fallacy. For example, if I get hit by a car while running and only suffer a broken leg when I could have been killed, I would be “lucky” if my death was a possible outcome. But my broken leg would still be bad, and I would have reason to complain that a car hit me. Luck, of course, is a subject in metaphysics and goes far beyond the scope of this work.
The Should Be Grateful variant tries to create and exploit the feeling of gratitude to persuade the target that something is not bad or that they have no grounds for complaint. It gets its psychological force from the fact that it can be reasonable to grateful that one has suffered a lesser evil rather than a greater evil. But this does not entail that the lesser evil is not evil or that it is not worthy of complaint.
There is non-fallacious reasoning about gratitude that does resemble this bad reasoning. This would typically occur in situations in which a worse outcome was likely, and someone (or something) intervened to prevent that. This reasoning does not involve simply dismissing complaints or inferring that something is not bad because it could be worse, so it does avoid this fallacy. For example, suppose a driver tries to run me over and another driver intentionally collides with them to try to stop them and as a result I am only badly injured rather than killed. I would be grateful to the driver who saved my life. But it would not follow that my serious injury is not bad or that I have no grounds for complaint against the driver who tried to kill me. When gratitude should be felt is a matter of normative reasoning (usually ethics) and goes way beyond “pure” logic.
Defense: To avoid falling for this fallacy, the general defense is to keep in mind that simply asserting that things could be worse does not prove that something is not bad or that there are no grounds for concern or complaint. While it is reasonable to keep things in perspective, this fallacy is not about doing that.
This fallacy can be self-inflicted but can also be used to try to persuade you that the evil you face is not bad (or as bad as you claim) or that you have no grounds for concern or complaint. The Lucky and Grateful variants can even be used to try to persuade you that the apparent evil you face is actually a good thing (or the best you can expect). While it is reasonable to consider when you have been “lucky” or should be grateful, mere assertions about luck or gratitude are just that, mere assertions.
When self-inflicted, this fallacy is often combined with Wishful Thinking, so you should be on guard against that as well. For example, a person who has a terrible job might tell themselves that they are lucky to even have a job and that they should be grateful that they were hired so that they feel better about their awful job. They could engage in Wishful Thinking by believing these claims because they want them to be true; otherwise, they would need to face the truth.
This fallacy can also be used to attempt to persuade you that the plight of others is not bad (or as bad as they claim) or that you should not take their complaints or concerns seriously because they are “lucky” that things are not worse for them or that they should be grateful for what they have (that things are not worse). For example, a pundit might use this fallacy to try to persuade their audience that the plight of underpaid workers is not that bad because other workers have it even worse. This pundit could also use the fallacy to try to persuade their audience that the complaints of these workers lack merit simply because they are “lucky” to have jobs and they “should be grateful” that a business hired them. The defense against this use is to remember that simply asserting that things could be worse, that someone is lucky, or that someone should be grateful does not prove that something is not bad or that there are no grounds for complaint. While it is reasonable to consider matters of “luck” and when gratitude is appropriate, someone simply making such assertions does not prove their claim.
To avoid mistakenly accusing others of committing this fallacy you will also need to consider their intent when they say, “it could be worse”, “you are lucky” or “you should be grateful.” For examples, these phrases are often used in attempts to make people feel better about something bad that has occurred. For example, years ago I tore my quadriceps tendon when a ladder I was climbing failed, and I was told that “it could have been worse.” Those who said this were certainly right; a friend of mine died after a fall last year. In this situation, they were not committing a fallacy. This is because they were attempting to make me feel better rather than trying to “prove” that my injury was not bad. While I was certainly grateful that I had “only” suffered a quadriceps tear, I did not find much consolation in knowing that worse things could (and do) happen.
Sam: “When she gets mad, my wife hits me. I need to get away from her.”
Ted: “Well, it could be worse. Some husbands get killed by their wives.”
Sam: “So I should stay with her?”
Ted: “Yeah, you should be grateful you have a woman who will put up with you at all.”
Tucker: “These ungrateful Amazon workers have been complaining that they must pee in bottles to keep to their schedules. They also whine about low pay. Well, I say that they should be grateful that they have jobs. They are lucky they are not living on the street. So, they should shut up and stop talking about unionizing.”
Claudius: “I have heard some Christians complain about how they are treated. But it could be worse. When Christianity was just starting out, Christians were sometimes harshly persecuted. I mean, think of the martyrs executed by the Romans. So, these Christians today have nothing to complain about.”
Tucker: “So, these liberals are crying for the poor, saying that they do not get adequate food, health care or income.”
Laura: “I know. So many tears. But when you think about it, the poor today have things that the Roman Emperors or medieval kings never had. I mean, a poor person today will have a TV. Nero did not have a TV. A poor person probably has a microwave. King Arthur had Excalibur, but that would not make popcorn for him.”
Tucker: “Exactly. And a poor person probably has a cell phone. Napoleon did not have one of those.”
Laura: “So poor people have got it good. I mean, can we even really call them “poor” when they have all these treasures?”
Tucker: “Umm, I do like calling them ‘the poor.’”
Laura: “As do I.”
Rico: “Look, I know you are mad that your guy lost the election…”
Rudy: “Had the election stolen from him.”
Rico: “Yeah…well…at least he wasn’t arrested or, you know, executed for treason. It could be worse.”
Rico: “So, you should shut up and be grateful about how lucky you are.”
Megan: “While I agree that women are better off now then they were 50 years ago, there are still many problems that women face because of how they are treated. Women are still paid less than men even when there is no relevant difference and women still need to be afraid of being harassed and assaulted.”
Brett: “Whatever. I hear women complain about this and that. But things could be worse. Look at places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. You are lucky you get to drive and vote. Think about that before you start whining about pay. Now get back on stage and work that pole.”