Ever hear of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy? There’s a delightful exposition of it, with great relevance for the church, on the Slacktivist blog. It is by Fred Clark, and it makes me want to read more of Mr. Clark’s stuff. Here’s how it begins:
The “No True Scotsman” fallacy is a common way of exempting a group from any culpability for the bad actions of members of that group. More generally, the useful Wikipedia article linked to there describes it as:
An ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim, rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule.
The key point there is that final phrase: “without reference to any specific objective rule.” I want to clarify that even further, and say that such specific objective rules need to be credibly accepted as excluding the counterexample. But I also want to reinforce this aspect of the definition to ensure that we’re not seeing the “No true Scotsman” fallacy where it does not exist.
It’s helpful here to look at philosopher Antony Flew’s classic example of this fallacy, from which it derives its name. That example is structured, actually, as a joke:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No trueScotsman would do such a thing.”
The humor of the joke, and what makes it a fallacy, is that Hamish is employing a shifting standard, refining his original category of “Scotsman” to the new category of “true Scotsman” in a self-serving attempt to salvage his original claim.
But the joke is only funny and the fallacy is only fallacious because Hamish’s expediently flexible categories are ill-defined, “without reference to any specific objective rule.” When the category is more clearly defined — when it involves those specific objective rules — the joke ceases to be funny and the amended claim ceases to be a fallacy.
“Amishman,” for example, denotes a clearer category that comes with a well-established set of explicit and well-defined objective rules. As a category, “Amishman” doesn’t allow for the flexibility Hamish exploits in the category “Scotsman.”
If I were to tune into WGAL-8, NBC Lancaster, and see a shocking report of a road rage incident in which a motorist in a Lexus SUV deliberately ran down a pedestrian, I might say, “No Amishman would do such a thing.” That universal, categorical claim is based on the rules that define “Amishman.” The Amish do not drive cars. The Amish are pacifists. Those rules, strictly obeyed by the Amish community, are integral aspects of Amish identity. They are what make the Amish Amish.They make up an essential part of what “Amish” means.
There’s more–Mr. Clark goes on to Quakers and Richard M. Nixon. I encourage you to read the rest here.
- Amish Anarchists? (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- Tonight on AC360: Amish beard-cutting attacks (ac360.blogs.cnn.com)
- Now We All Are Richard Nixon History Buffs As Ex-President’s Grand Jury Testimony Released (dekerivers.wordpress.com)
- Tape sheds light on surreal Nixon-protesters meeting (cnn.com)
It reminds me of Lewis’s thoughts on “true/real Christians.” “No real Christian would do that!” is answered with, “He’s a Christian, just a bad one.”