Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Brian McCallIt Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means
Posted at 12:38 am on January 28, 2012, by Brian McCall

In the It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means category, I’m having to add the terribly abused No True Scotsman fallacy. I’m starting to see this unfortunate abuse with ever increasing frequency.

Here is a short version of it [I know this isn’t the full version, but for the sake of brevity…]:

Person A: No Scotsman dislikes haggis.
Person B: My uncle is Scottish and he doesn’t like haggis.
Person A: No true Scotsman dislikes haggis.

Now consider this:

Person A: All fruit is edible
Person B: Plastic fruit isn’t edible.
Person A: All real fruit is edible. [or substitute true if you prefer]

What is the difference between the two?

In the first, a sweeping generalization is confronted with a counterexample. The response is to change the definition of the term. At first, a Scotsman is merely a native inhabitant of Scotland. Then when confronted with the counterexample, the term Scotsman mutates to become bound up definitionally with the practice of eating haggis, such that the very meaning of Scotsman is “one who eats haggis and is a native inhabitant of Scotland,” and only became so for the purpose of excluding that specific case.

What about the second? Why does it not suffer the same deficiency? Aren’t we changing the definition of fruit just to exclude fake fruit?

No, because edibility is intrinsic to the definition of the term fruit. (I am of course only speaking of the common literal use of the term. Not metaphorical uses like “the fruits of one’s exertions,” or scientific terms like fruiting body.) That’s why it must there be preceded by the qualifier “fake.” Eating haggis is not an intrinsic characteristic of the term “Scotsman.” When Person A says that all real fruit is edible, it is not the same as saying all fruit is red. To be fruit is to be edible.

I’ve noticed this tendency lately. Someone will make a strawman characterization of an opposing political view. Another will respond, asserting a correct or more complete definition. The first will then claim the second is committing the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Some clown with a website says, “libertarianism is always bound up in the continuation of systems of oppression such as racism, misogyny, christianism, nativism, and the like.” It is such an absurd caricature that anyone with even a modest acquaintance with its principles can see that those are not necessary and intrinsic characteristics of the philosophy. Not only that, but they are incompatible.

Someone responded by providing a list of libertarian writers who forcefully oppose those, and he is accused of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy, as if he is engaging in some ad hoc refinement of the scope of the term to include ONLY those writers.

If anything, it appears the converse is taking place. Instead of No True Scotsman, it is All True Scotsmen.

Person A: All libertarians are crazy fruitcakes who believe horrible things I find morally repugnat.
Person B: These libertarians don’t believe those things.
Person A: Well, all True libertarians do, even if they don’t know it.


Filed under: Internet, Philosophy, Politics
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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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