The Ideal-State Fallacy

[I'm aiming high this time – I'd like to outline a (formal) logical fallacy which I have yet to see formalized as such. Because I'm aiming high I've divided the post into two parts: a discussion of this fallacy for the "general readership", followed by a formalized version for the more logically inclined.]

I'd like to outline a logical fallacy which I call the "Ideal State" fallacy. It consists in thinking that because one can envision some ideal state of affairs, it must always be good, or desirable, to bring about any part of that ideal now. This fallacy is presumably based on the thinking – more of an intuition – that since every condition for an ideal state of affairs is necessary for it to come into being, each must therefore "carry" some of that ideal trait. Put another way, any partial steps that fall under the umbrella of the ideal state constitute movement towards that desirable state of affairs, so it would make sense that every partial step would be desirable¹.

I claim that this reasoning is fallacious, stemming primarily from the vagueness of the terms (of thought) I emphasized above, "movement towards" or "necessary". We can establish that installing a roof both signifies movement towards, and is necessary for, building a house; this doesn't yet mean that installing the roof is a positive development at any stage – if walls haven't been erected yet, for instance, this would be pointless at best and disastrous at worst. Just because an ideal state of affairs is better than the one we have now, doesn't mean that each half-measure variant of it must be better as well.

The degree to which partial steps are desirable or constructive really depends on the internal intricacies and dependencies of what constitutes an ideal state, which means that vague notions are not really an option: Is there a particular order things have to be done to reach this ideal? Is it an all-or-nothing proposition? Can we estimate the unintended consequences on the one hand, and the potential loss of not trying on the other? etc. Clearly, however, the conclusion that any part of the ideal state scenario must in and of itself be always desirable is fallacious.

Critiquing of this fallacy is hardly new – for the last several millennia, all major religions (that I know of) have in some form or other created a distinction between our present reality "here on earth", so to speak, and the ideal one we should all aspire to, as imparted and/or embodied by God(s). In ancient Greece as well, several of the pre-Socratics pointed in this direction when they suggested that what goes on between the gods can't be taken to directly affect our life below the heavens.

These distinctions were never offered merely as depictions of fact, but were meant to say something of consequence about what we should do, here in the real world. The delicate balance between the ideal and the here-and-now has always been a tricky matter, far out of scope for this blog post, but it always emanated from this ideal/right-now distinction – be it logical or divine.

So what I'm proposing is nothing new, only something I'd like to formalize and name. If I'm introducing anything of worth here it's because the Ideal State fallacy is alive and well today – not only among the "usual suspects" adherents of ideologies but also, at least implicitly, among many who consider themselves beyond or "post-" ideology.


We need to define four kinds of logical relations and three logical entities:

Four logical relations:

a) Let ~X designate the negation of X (i.e. "not(x)")
b) Let Pref(x,y) designate that x is preferable to y
c) Let A→B designate that A entails B (if A, then B)
d) Let {x, y, …} designate a set of conditions (i.e. “x, y, etc. are the case”)

Three logical entities:

e) Let IDS be the ideal state of affairs
f) Let idsx be a necessary condition x for the ideal state of affairs
g) Let C be the current state of affairs.

The Ideal-State Fallacy:

1. An ideal state of affairs is preferable to the present one.[Pref(IDS,C)]

2. All necessary conditions for an ideal state of affairs, together, entail the ideal state of affairs. [{ids1, ids2,..idsx}→IDS]


3. Each necessary condition for the ideal state of affairs is (always) preferable to the negation of that condition. [Pref(idsx,~idsx)]

The conclusion is fallacious, because there's nothing in the relationship "preference" (Pref) that entails that a preference for a particular state of affairs must in every case mean a preference for each and every necessary condition for it. This relationship is simply undefined under the premises and definitions that supposedly lead to it.

The conclusion (3) is stated without any qualification, so the conclusion is taken to be universally – i.e. in every case – true. We can therefore demonstrate that the drawing of the conclusion is fallacious (i.e. not always true) by constructing a counterexample wherein adding some ideal-state conditions to a current state does not make it preferable:

Suppose a person’s (quite simple) ideal state of affairs consists in having a spouse, two cars, and two children. Suppose further, that in the current state of affairs that person does not have a spouse. In such a scenario, the person may actually prefer to own only one car (e.g. due to the cost of upkeep, etc.), whereas according to the Ideal-State Fallacy, two cars are always preferable to one. Our person's preferences thus negate conclusion (3) above.

In the example just shown, preferring one necessary condition of the ideal state (“two cars”) is contingent on the fulfillment of another (“spouse”), negating the unconditionality of the conclusion (3). The dependency of one condition of the ideal state upon another is one reason why the conclusion cannot be claimed to hold universally; we can envision others (see above).

There is, in fact, only one state of affairs in which we can say that (3) logically entails from the premises: in the Ideal State² itself. This is because omission of any of its necessary conditions (i.e. ~idsx) entails a separate current reality (C) that is necessarily less preferable, according to (1).

[My thanks to Dooby Harvey for providing valuable suggestions to improve this post.]

¹ Economics students are particularly prone to intuit this, as most graphs and functions studied are continuous (meaning unbroken), and generally monotonic, meaning that there's a single continuum. studying these tends to promote a worldview of single, clear "bad"-"good" continuums. This ignores some of the real-life complexities alluded to way back in the "About" section (particularly point number 5).
² thus the only formulation in which (3) would be a correct consequent, given (1) and (2), would be by adding a further antecedent (3'):
(3') IDS (The Ideal State is the case)
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