Individual Responsibility or Guilt by Association?

An Euler diagram illustrating the association fallacy. Although A is within B and is also within C, not all of B is within C.

An Euler diagram illustrating the association fallacy. Although A is within B and is also within C, not all of B is within C.

An association fallacy is an inductive informal fallacy of the type hasty generalization or red herring which asserts that qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another, merely by an irrelevant association. The two types are sometimes referred to as guilt by association and honor by association. Association fallacies are a special case of red herring, and can be based on an appeal to emotion.

The association fallacy is an informal version of the fallacious argument known as affirming the consequent. It consists of promoting an opinion or philosophy by recounting the values a specific person or a group that held that opinion or philosophy. The Richard Hammond quote above may have been made in jest, to appeal to the stupidity of such associations, but it is an extremely common, and often easy fallacy to make. It is, to an extent, a version of a non sequitur.

This fallacy can be done in either a positive or negative (derogatory) way. In both cases, it is equally fallacious. This is best demonstrated by common examples.

In notation of first-order logic, this type of fallacy can be expressed as (x  S : φ(x)) → (x ∈ S : φ(x)), meaning “if there exists any x in the set S so that a property φ is true for x, then for all x in S the property φ must be true.”

Premise A is a B
Premise A is also a C
Conclusion Therefore, all Bs are Cs

The fallacy in the argument can be illustrated through the use of an Euler diagram: “A” satisfies the requirement that it is part of both sets “B” and “C”, but if one represents this as an Euler diagram, it can clearly be seen that it is possible that a part of set “B” is not part of set “C”, refuting the conclusion that “all Bs are Cs”.

Guilt by association

For more details on legal and ethical aspects, see collective guilt.
Further information: ad hominem


Some syllogistic examples of guilt by association:

  • John is a con artist. John has black hair. Therefore, all people with black hair are con artists.
  • Jane is good at mathematics. Jane is dyslexic. Therefore, all dyslexic people are good at mathematics.
  • Simon, Karl, Jared, and Brett are all friends of Josh, and they are all petty criminals. Jill is a friend of Josh; therefore, Jill is a petty criminal.
  • All dogs have four legs; my cat has four legs. Therefore, my cat is a dog. (This argument is made by the wordplay-prone Sir Humphrey Appleby in the BBC sitcom Yes, Prime Minister).

A real-world example of guilt by association is that, in response to mass shooting incidents in the U.S. and public speculation that the perpetrators had Asperger’s Syndrome, many people throughout society wrongfully stigmatized and stereotyped people with the disorder as being potentially violent and having the potential to become shooters. Especially after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the media (after the early reporting) and autism-advocacy organizations proffered expert opinions debunking this myth and attempting to better educate the public about autism to dissuade the stigmatization. The myth of erroneously linking Asperger’s Syndrome to violence also counts as an example of the logical fallacy of questionable cause and scapegoating.

Guilt by association as an ad hominem fallacy

Guilt by association can sometimes also be a type of ad hominem fallacy, if the argument attacks a person because of the similarity between the views of someone making an argument and other proponents of the argument.[1]

This form of the argument is as follows:

  • Source S makes claim C.
  • Group G, which is currently viewed negatively by the recipient, also makes claim C.
  • Therefore, source S is viewed by the recipient of the claim as associated to the group G and inherits how negatively viewed it is.

An example of this fallacy would be “My opponent for office just received an endorsement from the Puppy Haters Association. Is that the sort of person you would want to vote for?”



Positive uses

Positive association is called honor by association.


  1. Martin Luther King was a Baptist.
  2. King was a good person.
  3. Therefore, Baptists are good.

In this case, the fallacy implies that the good things that people associate with Martin Luther King came from his being a Baptist. While this may, in part, be true, it is fallacious to state that all Baptists will be good, or that someone becoming a Baptist will become good. In politics, the association fallacy is often subtly combined a priorireasoning in a manner that is clearly nonsensical when spelled out:

  1. The Republican Party is opposed to raising the minimum wage.
  2. Abraham Lincoln was a member of the Republican Party.
  3. Abraham Lincoln was a good man.
  4. Therefore, we should not raise the minimum wage.

Although it might well be true that Abraham Lincoln was a good man, this does not reflect on the Republican Party’s political ideas today, and it also misses the historical context. More importantly, such arguments take as a premise that the Republican Party ought to oppose the minimum wage and then seek to rationalize it, rather than concluding the minimum wage ought not to be raised based on empirical evidence.

Negative uses

Negative association is called guilt by association.

  1. Stalin was an atheist.
  2. Stalin had millions of people killed.
  3. Therefore, atheism is evil.

Another classic example is the thought process used by some in the anti-nuclear movement.

  1. Nuclear weapons, which can destroy civilization, utilize energy from fission.
  2. Nuclear power utilizes energy from fission.
  3. Therefore, nuclear power is bad.

Negating the positive use above

  1. Fred Phelps was a Baptist.
  2. Fred Phelps was intolerant.
  3. Therefore, Baptists are intolerant.

With most negative uses of association fallacies, it relies on fear. In the former case, many of the acts that Stalin made are inherently fearful, but it is doubtful whether he ordered them on account of his atheism[1] or in the name of communism. Even if this doubt wasn’t present, to attribute the negative aspects of Stalin to these beliefs is fallacious as the beliefs themselves say nothing about mass murder. This is similar to how, in a post 9/11 world especially, moderate Muslims have been subject to unfortunate associations due to the acts of fundamentalists and Jihadists. In the latter case, the fear of nuclear weapons inspired by Cold War propaganda is used to suggest that nuclear power should be similarly feared, because it uses the same physical process, even though the process of fission itself is morally neutral.

An example of Conspiracy Theorists demonizing (no pun intended) a debunker[2]:

  1. Stanton LaVey is a LaVey Satanist
  2. Joe Ronan is friends with Stanton LaVey.
  3. Therefore Joe Ronan is a Satanist and a Shill.


The construction “x-baiting,” where x is an undesirable ideology or group of people, is often used when a speaker attempts to make an association (real or imagined) between a person or group and x. Examples include:

See also


  1. As Stalin was viewed something akin to a god on earth himself, “atheism” may not exactly be the right term…

Categories: Europe and Australia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.