Dear Libertarians: Please Stop Committing The “No True Scotsman” Fallacy

in Philosophy by
   

We’ve all run into the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, whether or not we’ve always been aware that’s what it’s called. So to clarify right from the jump, let us lay out the purported logical argument of the fallacy to see just what it is, and where it is unsound:

The proper structure of a logically valid argument is something like the following:

Premise One: “X is good for you.”
Premise Two: “Y is a form of X.”
Conclusion: “Therefore, Y is good for you.”

(This is a very simplistic and somewhat precarious explanation of logical argumentation, but for our purposes, this does just fine. Just keep in mind that a proper philosophy course is really where you should turn for fully fleshed out explanations and structures of logic.)

Here’s where logical fallacies become tricky, though: Any argument can be made to appear logically sound as long as it takes this P1,P2,C form or some variant. But that’s only telling part of the the story, as such a structure can be valid in its layout and still be found unsound upon ultimate logical scrutiny. If any one of these three elements can be demonstrably shown as false or unverifiable, the soundness of the argument falls apart. So if P1 is true, and P2 is also true, then C is obviously true and the model makes logical sense. But if, say, only P2 were true, C would immediately become invalid and the argument wouldn’t stick. This model is designed specifically so as to weed out fallacious reasoning in this way.

So now, let’s turn to the pet peeve of the day for me: the “No True Scotsman” argument.

Here’s what it looks like within the logical argument model:

P1: “All X are Y.”
P2: “Clearly, not all X can actually be Y.”
C: “Therefore, only true X are Y.”

Is the flaw easy to spot, already? Especially when laid out in such a straightforward way, probably – but let’s take this all the way to its final logical position anyway, especially because most of the time the fallacy will not be presented as a full syllogism like it is above. It’s a bit trickier to spot in everyday conversation. The only way C can be true is if both premises can be shown as true as well, but likewise, C has to  logically follow from the two premises in the first place, or else the argument will still not have legs.

We can best determine this by applying the real world language utilized in libertarian debate circles to this model.

So, looking at P1: “All libertarians are anarchist.” Well, already, another fallacy is being committed – Begging the Question, in fact, where a conclusion is postulated as an axiom (i.e. “hidden,” in a way) within the premise of the argument. This is just as example, of course, but the argument has certainly been made before in my experience, and it isn’t hard to imagine similar premises being made by the most vocal in the movement. But this is not an objectively true premise – all libertarians can never be guaranteed to possess any particular quality other than libertarianism itself. But even “libertarianism” as a thing has competing definitions that different libertarians adopt for different reasons. What this all comes down to is that people, but libertarians especially, are very much individualists, and therefore it is not always possible to group them into a category other than their very title that can be demonstrably shown as true across the board.

P2, while a true statement on its own, directly contradicts P1, still showing the latter to be an unsound premise and therefore killing the argument.

C then tries to make a case of special pleading, in which exceptions can now be made on a case-by-case basis in order that P1 can still ring true in those instances. But again, it makes the mistake of assuming an objective standard of what a “true” (fill-in-the-category-here) is, which by its very nature in unprovable in most cases. And therefore, the blanket statement of “Only true X are Y” cannot be ubiquitously applied and is thus an illogical conclusion to come to.

Yet we see, time and time again, members of the liberty debate circle hurl this argument at anyone or anything they personally don’t like – in a way, this fallacy is a way of adding the appearance of objectivity to one’s subjective opinion of someone else, and that sets a very dangerous premise. Because that means one can retroactively disqualify members from any particular group that were one accepted with open arms, at the drop of a hat. This kind of inexplicable standard and moving of the goal posts is what always results from this fallacious thinking being applied to the conversation of who should be “welcome” in the active liberty movement – one group thinks minarchists are going to “infiltrate” and disrupt the purity of the anarcho-capitalist direction of the movement, while others find the ancaps themselves to be the most troublesome. And let us not even get started with the way both camps tend to view the left-libertatians…

And in the end, what is it all for? Do we gain anything by charging any one member of our movement with being not “one of us” when the whole point of what we’re trying to do is celebrate unlimited individuality? Or do we just shrink our numbers back down to the hipster coffee house level of efficacy? I for one have never understood the seemingly innate need for this to be the direction much of the rhetoric moves in, and an top of it being counterintuitive, it is also, as we’ve just demonstrated, logically fallacious. In other words, we shouldn’t perpetuate it. To any passerby who might otherwise be interested in joining our ranks, we run the risk of appearing very unreasonable and elitist by continuing to keep this fallacy alive.

 

Micah J. Fleck is a journalist and political writer who has spent the past several years developing his political outlook through independent research. While an enthusiast of both American history and economics, Mr. Fleck typically comes at his topics from a more anthropological perspective. His writings and interviews have been featured in various publications - including The National Review, The Libertarian Republic, The Wall Street Journal, and The College Fix - and he is currently earning a degree in anthropology at Columbia University.

  • Kennon Gilson

    Both the terms libertarian and Libertarian have longstanding and well-defined meanings as participant levels in the Libertarian International Organization.
    For that matter, the Scotland pro-Libertarians are pretty ‘purist’…