"Starving children", or the fallacy of relative privation


All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
—Blaise Pascal

All too often, in online and offline discourse, when I (or I see someone else) voice a concern about some phenomenon, the argument gets shot down with something like "Your problems are first-world problems, there are people who have it (or historically had it) much worse than you" or "Well, it could always be worse. What if you didn't have (a job/a car/food/money/a romantic partner)?"

In a way, it feels like a special case of whataboutism ("Yes, X did a bad thing, but Y also did a bad thing, so how about we discuss that instead"). To myself, I used to call it "the African children fallacy" and sure, it's kind of insensitive, but I thought that it nicely references a well-known form of it ("how dare you complain about this when there are children starving in Africa?").

Recently, I started digging into it further and learned that it's called "the fallacy of relative privation" or the "not as bad as" fallacy (RationalWiki). In this essay, I want to investigate why I don't like it being used, as well as possible reasons for it getting brought up.

Work could be worse, but it could be better, too

In a recent Hacker News discussion on "The Workplace Is Killing People and Nobody Cares", a Stanford Business School article on the harms brought by the modern work culture, this argument was deployed fairly widely: no matter what its issues are, the modern office environment (with comfortable chairs, air conditioning and mostly interesting work) is better than the life of a medieval farmer or an industrial factory worker, so we should appreciate it.

When I published one of my earlier essays, one of the points in which was that everybody commuting to work on a 9 to 5 schedule created undue strain on all sorts of infrastructure, I got a few similar responses, too ("well, try working in a Starbucks instead of a 9-5 job and see how you like it" or words to that extent).

Thing is, all these points are valid. I wouldn't want to swap my lifestyle with that of a medieval farmer, despite that by some metrics their life might have been better than mine, or live without electricity or potable water, or even work at a coffee shop.

But that doesn't imply that I want my life to stay exactly how it is. No matter whether there are people out there whose lives are better off or worse off than mine, I always want to improve my circumstances somehow and I think it's worth contemplating how things could be made better, all the time.

In the case of work, work cultures and workplace environments, as much as I do agree office workers have it pretty good, I don't think people should treat the ability to sell most of one's waking hours to someone else as the best humanity can do. It's in fact kind of elitist to suggest that our way of life is the best one and pity those who aren't striving towards it.

Dangers of the "not as bad as" argument

In its strong form, the "not as bad as" fallacy implies that nobody can improve their lives until they have made sure everybody else is going to be better off. This kind of serves as a counterpoint to Pareto improvements, where at least one individual ends up better off without making anybody worse off.

I think, partially, using it stems from the will of the speaker to rationalise what's happening to them and why they don't want to change their own situation and examine their own circumstances. It's easy to continue doing what you're doing and not taking any risks if you've seen (or imagined) how bad it can get.

As a more extreme form of this argument, it might even be an implicit desire to not see anyone in a group become better than the group, kind of an extension of a crab mentality. A villager could be told that, sure, life in the village is tough, but the neighbouring villages have it worse, so why leave? Especially if he does make it big somewhere else, comes back and makes us all look like fools.

But, more dangerously, it can also be used as a manipulation tactic by someone who affects someone else's life and wants them to come to terms with that. Consider a boss that doesn't want to give you a raise ("well, Jimmy has worked here for a decade and never asked me for one!"). Even darker, imagine a victim of domestic abuse getting told that the problems they are facing are first-world problems and at least they still have a roof over their head. Or indeed the victim telling this to themselves as a way of self-gaslighting.

Taken to its extreme, this argument invalidates any sort of technological advancement that's attempted before every country on Earth has exactly the same quality of life. Should space exploration be (or have been) postponed until all nations have achieved Western quality of life? Or do we expect innovation in one country, no matter which side of the globe it's on, to be eventually spread around the world?

Stoicism and negative visualisation

I think Stoicism is a great philosophy and a way of life and I've been trying to use it in my life too. One of Stoicism's core teachings is that the best way to be happy is wanting things that one already has and valuing them. Negative visualisation is one of the tools for that: imagining how things could be worse, partially to appreciate them more, partially to plan for the case they do become worse. When used like that, Stoicism leads one to the revelation that they could be happy here and now, without relying on anything outside of their control.

Hence, the "not as bad as" argument could also be used as a way of negative visualisation.

But a large amounts of Stoics whose writings have reached us were rich and famous. Seneca was a playwright and a statesman. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. I have long tried to reconcile the fact that Stoicism seems to stop us from wanting anything with the fact that a large part of Stoics were of high statures.

Given that for Stoic writings to reach us, they had to have been famous in some way already, it's possible that they started using this philosophy as a way to keep the positions that they had achieved and stay where they were. However, it also could be argued that their beliefs empowered them to do what they felt was right without seeking external validation. That the recognition of their work in terms of money, fame or prestige happened as a side effect, something they didn't care about.

One of my favourite pieces of writing I reread quite often is David Heinemeier Hansson's "The Day I Became A Millionaire". Here's what I think is the best quote from it:

Barring any grand calamity, I could afford to fall off the puffy pink cloud of cash, and I’d land where I started. Back in that small 450 sq feet apartment in Copenhagen. My interests and curiosity intact. My passions as fit as ever. I traveled across a broad swath of the first world spectrum of wealth, and both ends were not only livable, but enjoyable. That was a revelation.

Note how DHH caveats this with "first world spectrum of wealth": he also credits the privileges we have, in his case, the Danish social security system, with his success.

I view Stoicism and ability to appreciate what I already have as a springboard to continuous (and continued) improvement of things within my control. It's the ability to take risks knowing that wherever you land, your life will still be pretty good. So in that respect, the "not as bad as" argument turns into "won't ever be as bad as", changing apathy into an empowering limited-downside proposition.


While appreciating privileges that we have is a good tactic for personal happiness, I also believe that the best way to respect those privileges is to use them and do things that one wouldn't have been able to without it. Otherwise, we're essentially squandering them.

And it's not like one's success helps just that person. Joanne Rowling wrote the first few chapters of Harry Potter whilst on benefits, another first world privilege. A couple of decades later, these series of books have sold in excess of 500 million of copies worldwide and spanned a film franchise that has grossed a few billion dollars. Notwithstanding the joy that the Harry Potter series has brought to the people all across the world, the tax revenue from that might well make the UK's welfare system one of the best-performing VC funds in the world.

Sure, all of humanity's problems might stem from a person's inability to sit quietly in a room alone, but so does all the progress.