We all know what it means to 'make a virtue out of a necessity'. The only bananas on offer at the supermarket are 'fair trade', so we buy them and then pretend to ourselves and others that we have done something virtuous. Or a company is obliged by its employment contracts to pay double the statutory severance terms, but it parades the fact of having done so as generosity on its part.

But I am thinking of a slightly different situation. Let us consider the case of low-energy light bulbs. It is my contention that they do not give off as much light as the old equivalent high-energy ones. But we are using them as a contribution to saving the planet from global warming. But what I find particularly annoying is people who will insist that the bulbs give the same light value.

One sees this attitude all the time. Because something has virtue, yet incorporates drawbacks, some people will insist that the drawbacks do not exist.

Does this amount to the corollary i.e. does it 'make a necessity out of a virtue'? Or how else do we describe such thinking?

  • Blind faith perhaps?
    – Mynamite
    Apr 3, 2014 at 19:35
  • confirmation bias? Apr 3, 2014 at 19:58
  • You do have a strange perspective. Since your example company must have drawn up its employment contracts in the first place, obviously they are being "generous" if those contracts stipulate "better than the legal minimum". Equally obviously, companies selling low-energy bulbs as "equivalent to X watts" will tend to make that comparison with less efficient incandescent bulbs. If your new 10 watt CFL doesn't give as much light as your old 50 watt bulb, buy a 15 watt CFL - you'll have more light and still save money and the environment. Apr 3, 2014 at 20:47
  • @FumbleFingers The 'generous' company gave better contracts as part of a collective bargaining agreement. Now they are parading it as a virtue. That was my point. As for bulbs, the fact that they overstate the equivalence is precisely my point. An old-fashioned bulb in our downstairs loo just blew last night. The low-energy one I replaced it with is so dim I can't see to pee.
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 21:22
  • 2
    @Cyberherbalist Perhaps LEDs sense I am a dyspraxic individual, and know they can make a fool of me. Many of the ones I've installed have not lasted especially long. But buying a bulb used to be like grabbing a box of breakfast cereal. Now, there are mountains of different sizes, shapes, wattages, bayonets or screw, fitting sizes.You need to study half an aisle of bewildering options. I realise a lot of this has nothing to do with LED, just that there is so much choice available. And I tend to be a person who sees choice as a blight. I mourn the days when a tin of beans was a tin of beans.
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 23:56

5 Answers 5


It sounds like what you are describing is a form of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time.

When holding contradictory beliefs, such as 'new bulbs are better' and 'bright bulbs are better than dim ones', pointing out the contradiction often leads to an overreaction or denial of the facts on the table.

  • +1 for the most apposite answer so far. But is this the corollary to 'making a virtue out of a necessity', or are the two ideas quite unconnected?
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 20:03
  • well, 'virtue out of necessity' might be a way of reacting to a C.D. - claiming that X is virtuous to provide a means of resolving the contradiction, I suppose. But there are other ways - like rejecting the fact that the bulbs are dimmer, or saying that you are a nutjob, or dozens of other ways.
    – Oldcat
    Apr 3, 2014 at 20:07
  • @Oldcat all this is helpful. But I think at this point, until I can think of something better, I'm going to call it 'creating a false paradox out of a virtue'.
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 20:10
  • The matter of the dim bulbs came up at Buckingham Palace when the Queen, at a meeting of the Privy Council, was signing her assent to some piece of legislation. Present was Ed Milliband (now leader of the Labour Opposition) then Secretary of State for the Environment, who had been responsible for enforcing the use of low-energy bulbs. Apparently HM, her eyesight failing her, shot him a look of daggers and muttered something about the bloody lightbulbs. (Well, perhaps not bloody)
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 20:17

Why isn't it simply overselling?

Exaggerate the merits of: computer-aided software engineering has been oversold

  • It is more specific than overselling. Moreover this habit is not just that of sales people. It is practised by far and wide by people who support good causes. I have no objection to the good causes, but to their blindness as to the downsides. To my mind it is an equivalent crime to making a virtue out of a necessity, but seemingly the other way round.
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 19:55
  • @WS2 The term overselling is used idiomatically to refer to anyone who exaggerates the qualities of something when seeking to induce others favorable reaction.
    – bib
    Apr 3, 2014 at 21:52

I think the term specious might work.

seeming to be true but in fact wrong

But for your specific case I would just call it a sham.

something that people pretend is good, serious, or honest but is really not

  • But they are doing it, in their mind, and perhaps in actuality, for a rightful purpose.
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 20:19

Whatever the merits or demerits of the lightbulb question, it has nothing in common with making a virtue of necessity except the very general notion of misrepresentation.

Making a virtue of necessity means misrepresenting an act to which one was compelled as impelled by a virtuous motive, and I suggest that only misrepresentations in the same domain, the ethical, can be thought of as “corollary” or antonymic or parallel. For instance:

  • Making a necessity of a misdeed would mean misrepresenting an ignoble act as compelled: “The Devil made me do it!”, or the legend of Cromwell murmuring “Alas, cruel necessity” over the bier of Charles I.

  • Making a misdeed of a virtue would mean misrepresenting a noble act as ignobly motivated, like the philanthropist who insists that he only gives millions to charity because it saves him millions more in taxes.

  • And Making a necessity of a virtue would be misrepresenting a noble act as compelled, like the philanthropist who growls that he only gives thousands to the art museum because his wife makes him do it.

  • I'm not sure that final item is the most obvious way of looking at it. To me, making a necessity of a virtue implies forcing people to do those things which are considered "virtuous". Effectively, legislative moralising. Apr 4, 2014 at 0:01

Well, if 'making a necessity into a virtue' is the opposite of 'making a virtue out of a necessity', then perhaps.

It think that it might be (vaguely) related to the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

With a nod to @ElliottFrisch for leading me to it.

Edited to Add...

Consider the example: "The only bananas on offer at the supermarket are 'fair trade', so we buy them and then pretend to ourselves and others that we have done something virtuous."

That is most certainly Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy -- the hit which is circled in this case is the apparently virtuous choice of "fair trade" bananas, when our shot was clearly not voluntary.

As to your refinement of the principle, in which the assertion is made that the drawback does not in fact exist, it seems to me to be a corollary of the TSF.

In my humble opinion, at least.

  • Having read the link you gave, I am not clear on how the TSF relates to the case I have described. Moreover I am puzzled by the assertion: 'Of the thousands of studies of cancer-clusters investigated by scientists in the USA, "not one has convincingly identified an underlying environmental cause" (Gawande)'. For a fact, in Britain they have identified leukaemia clusters close to the AWRE (nuclear war-heads manufacturing) facility at Aldermaston, England; and close to the nuclear power station at Windscale, Cumbria. With respect, this sounds like a theory put out by a 'dirty industry'.
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 19:40
  • I like the TSF a lot, but I don't see how this relates to that particular fallacy. Apr 3, 2014 at 20:00
  • @WS2, where did I assert anything about cancer-clusters? Color me puzzled. Apr 3, 2014 at 23:13
  • @Cyberherbalist It is contained in the link which you quoted, I felt approvingly.
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 23:29
  • @WS2 that clears it up. I didn't read the entire article, just enough to help me connect TSF with your question. I guess I don't feel qualified to judge the case you bring up, but you may have a point. Apr 3, 2014 at 23:54

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