This question is framed in a technical example but can apply to any area.

I am looking for a word to describe a certain type of argument that a colleague is making to justify a software change which I disagree with. In short, she is concerned about a malicious user making a copy of a dataset and therefore argues that we should explicitly forbid any access whatsoever without permission. I am providing the counterargument that many legitimate users need to access this data and we will be encumbering a large portion of our customers while those with malicious intent could still access this data through another means which is impossible to restrict.

In short, I want a word to describe the punishment of a large number innocents in a flawed attempt to prevent the negative actions of a small population that will still be able to carry out their intentions if they choose to. I'm thinking this would be some kind of situational straw man where we are focusing on a false issue that is easy to rally behind while not addressing the actual needs, but it doesn't sit quite right with me.

  • One could use "Kristallnacht", but then you would be invoking the N-word.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 16:45
  • Just FYI - Classifying types of arguments, including fallacious ones, is considered on topic at philosophy.stackexchange.com, in the case that you want to pose this as a question of informal logic. I should warn you, however, that it's not entirely clear to me, based on what you described, that your argument is stronger than hers. Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 21:36

2 Answers 2


I seriously doubt English has a specific adjective identifying a type of argument that dismisses a proposed course of action on the grounds that it will have significant unwanted side effects.

But there is an idiomatic usage identifying the [inappropriate] proposed course of action. It's a...

blunt instrument1 - an imprecise or heavy-handed way of doing something

Superficially one might suppose the allusion is simply to the fact that a blunt knife, for example, won't cut very well. But in practice it's almost always used in contexts where the problem with using a blunt instrument is that it will (adversely) affect nearby situations because it can't be precisely controlled (circumcision using a lawnmower might result in castration, for example).

In more formal contexts you're likely to see the proposed action dismissed as a disproportionate response. But that one is often used even if only the actual target of the action is affected (imho it would be a disproportionate response to call for my castration just because my example above made you feel a little queasy! :)

1 Source: oxforddictionaries

  • 'Using a hammer to crack a nut,' would get across the same kind of message. I feel this would be more specific to the situation the OP is describing? (Although granted, mine is possibly less pithy.)
    – Jascol
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 16:40
  • @Jascol: It's usually a sledgehammer to crack a nut (smaller hammers are often quite appropriate for cracking nuts). But I don't think that one normally has strong implications of accidentally affecting things you didn't want to. Arguably reducing the nut to an inedible mess of pulverised kernel mixed with broken shell is an "unwanted side-effect", but I usually understand that one as calling attention to the excessive amount of effort / resources used, whereas a blunt instrument is often thus labelled even if it's trivially easy to use. Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:06
  • This has the right sense of overzealous authority that I would like to convey. I think it's probably the most appropriate phrase for my situation, thank you.
    – Brian R
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 18:01

Consider collective punishment.

Definition: Collective punishment is the punishment of a group for the actions of an individual.

Example: Whole class or collective punishment is despised by students, who inevitably whine, “It’s not faaaaair!” Why should the students who were doing the right thing be punished because other students were not?

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