Two Wrongs Make a Right
Consider that two wrongs never make a right,
But that three lefts do.
Source: "Deteriorata", National Lampoon Radio Dinner Album, but see the Reader Response, below.
The operation cost just under $500, and no one was killed, or even hurt. In that same time the Pentagon spent tens of millions of dollars and dropped tens of thousands of pounds of explosives on Viet Nam, killing or wounding thousands of human beings, causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. Because nothing justified their actions in our calculus, nothing could contradict the merit of ours.
Source: Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, from his memoir Fugitive Days, defending a bombing attack by the Weathermen on the Pentagon. Quoted in "Radical Chic Resurgent", by Timothy Noah, Slate, 8/22/2001.
This fallacy involves the attempt to justify a wrong action by pointing to another wrong action. Often, the other wrong action is of the same type or committed by the accuser, in which case it is the subfallacy Tu Quoque. Attempting to justify committing a wrong on the grounds that someone else is guilty of another wrong is clearly a Red Herring―that is, a fallacy of irrelevance―because if this form of argument were cogent, one could justify anything―assuming that there is another wrong to point to, which is a very safe assumption. Nonetheless, such arguments often succeed as distractions, just as a pickled herring drawn across the trail would distract bloodhounds from the chase. By changing the subject from one wrong action to another, the arguer may manage to throw you off the scent. Don't be distracted!
- Why do people think that two wrongs add up to one right? This is speculation, but perhaps they are misled by the logical fact that two negations cancel out, or the similar mathematical fact that two negative numbers when multiplied produce a positive number. It is common to think of wrongs as morally "negative", but this is distinct from the logical notion of negation and the mathematical notion of negative number. Thus, an analogy between moral negatives and logico-mathematical negatives based on equivocating on the word "negative" is a weak one.
- This fallacy is most likely to be committed in its more specific form of the Tu Quoque fallacy―see the Subfallacy, above―in which the wrong pointed to was committed by the person or group criticizing the arguer. Even in its more general form, the second wrong is likely to be one committed by someone that the critic will feel obliged to defend against the accusation, which is how the fallacy may succeed in distracting the critic. For instance, in the Ayers example above, critics of the bombings committed by the Weathermen may feel that they have to defend the Pentagon against Ayers' criticisms. However, whether the Pentagon's bombing of North Vietnam was unjustified is logically irrelevant to the actions of the Weathermen, that is, it is perfectly possible to hold that both were unjustified.
- Two Wrongs Make a Right needs to be distinguished from retaliation or punishment, as it would not do to condemn these on logical grounds, though they may be morally objectionable. So, when children defend themselves by hitting or kicking another child, they may be morally to blame but not logically. If a parent spanks a child for hitting another child, this may be bad parenting, but it is not a logical mistake. Punishment, or retribution, is behavior aimed at modifying behavior, not argument.
Nicholas Capaldi, How to Win Every Argument: An Introduction to Critical Thinking (MJF, 1987), pp. 147-148.
This is a very clear example of the fallacy. The terrorists tried to justify bombing the Pentagon on the grounds that the Pentagon had unjustifiably bombed Viet Nam. The gist of the fallacy is contained in the last sentence, which claims that the wrongness of the Pentagon's actions justified a similar wrong: "Wrong + wrong = right."
Alert reader Ken Smith sent in the following correction of the National Lampoon quote:
The quotation from National Lampoon's "Deteriorata" that you list on your page is incorrect. The word "lefts" does not appear in the text at all. As spoken by Norman Rose on the album, which I have in front of me and playing, the words go:Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do.
I've seen this misrepresentation in other places on the web; it must have been made by people who have never actually heard the recording (considering its scarcity on vinyl, and that it has not been issued on CD.).
It's a shame, because the "lefts" version is more clever. Also, it puns on two meanings of "right", which is an example of a funny equivocation. Thanks to Ken, though, for the correction.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Aidan Bissell-Siders for pointing out a broken link.