In defense of the true ‘true Scotsmen’

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 true Scotsman 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.

If the WGAL report goes on to show a man in Amish dress, identified as the alleged driver, being led away in handcuffs, then I could rightly amend my earlier statement by saying, “No true Amishman would do such a thing.” This amended claim would not be a fallacy. It would simply be an accurate application of the term Amishman. To drive a car and to use it as an instrument of violence is a clear abandonment of established Amish norms. Any Amishman committing such an act would have strayed so far from Amish identity that it would no longer be proper or accurate to identify him as truly an Amishman. Despite the beard and the black hat, we could rightly say that such a man was “no true Amishman.”

Not every group has core principles of identity that are as essential and explicit as those that define the Amish community. The larger and more diverse a category is, the more likely the “No true Scotsman” fallacy is to be employed self-servingly and illegitimately. But the claim of “no true Scotsman” is not always invalid on its face — only when it is made “without reference to any specific objective rule.”

Any group of one or more humans is bound to include some hypocrites who choose to identify themselves as adherents of principles they do not attempt to follow in good faith. We need to be able to name such hypocrisy — to say that the hypocrite in question does not have a valid claim to legitimate membership in that group. That requires reference to specific and objective rules. And it requires that those rules are credibly understood to be rules for that group.

Let’s consider another example: the Quakers. The Friends are a large, diverse and fiercely non-dogmatic and inclusive group. That makes Quaker identity a deliberately flexible and amorphous matter, but core principles — specific objective rules — can still be identified. Quakers are non-hierarchical and pacifist. Those traits, those rules, are part of the definition of what it means to be a Quaker.

If we encounter someone who is authoritarian and violent, we are right to say such a person is “No Quaker.” If we then learn that this person chooses to identify himself as a Quaker and, in fact, has been attending meetings with the Society of Friends for many years, we would still be right to say that he is “No true Quaker,” because his behavior violates those specific, objective rules that define Quaker identity.

As you may have guessed, I’m thinking there of a very particular Quaker.

Imagine Elihu Coffin, a Quaker, sitting down to watch the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and seeing a report about the carpet-bombing of villages in Cambodia. Elihu is shocked and declares that “No Quaker would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to watch Walter Cronkite again and this time learns that President Richard M. Nixon ordered this bombing. This time Elihu says, “No true Quaker would do such a thing.”

Elihu isn’t wrong and he isn’t committing a fallacy. He’s applying a specific objective rule — a rule that is credibly established and understood as defining the category in question — and accurately concluding that according to that rule, Richard Nixon is no true Quaker. Elihu’s assertion is not a self-serving defense of Quakerism, but rather an indictment of Nixon that applies the very standards Nixon chose to subject himself to by identifying himself as a Quaker. That’s fair, accurate and not at all illogical.

None of this is to say that there is no such thing as the “No true Scotsman” fallacy, only to underscore that key aspect of the fallacy — the lack of “reference to any specific objective rule.”

Such a rule, again, must be one that can be credibly attributed to the category in question. We could say that in Flew’s example, Hamish McDonald does, at least implicitly, make reference to a kind of objective rule. Hamish is implying that the category “Scotsmen” should be understood as, by definition, excluding all brutal sex maniacs. That rule, alas, is not credible. It is not understood as an essential aspect of identity for the category “Scotsman,” nor has it been demonstrated, historically, to be a reliable standard for judging who does and does not truly belong to that category. (Which is, of course, not to say that the Scottish are more prone to counterexample than any other group — only that, as with every nationality, the definition of a “Scot” has nothing to say about sex maniacs.)

I belong to several very large and very diverse categories that, because they are large and diverse, make it difficult to meaningfully claim that they must be understood as necessarily entailing the sorts of inviolable core principles that groups like the Amish or the Quakers can claim as aspects of their definition. I might, like Hamish, assert such implicit rules in an attempt to defend the honor of those categories, or as part of an ongoing intramural struggle to redefine them. But if I appeal to nebulous implicit rules to do so, I’m probably still committing the “No true Scotsman” fallacy.

As much as I may want to say “No true Christian would do such a thing” or “that’s un-American” or “People from New Jersey do not act like that” my claims cannot be seen as credible if the specific objective rules I’m invoking are not understood as defining characteristics of those categories or have not been demonstrated, historically, as reliable indicators of membership in them.

I’m sure that if we were to go back through the archives of this blog we could find many examples of my committing this fallacy in just this way for just this purpose. During the appalling national debate over the use of torture, for example, I wanted to argue that such practices were both un-Christian and un-American, but in doing so I tended to blur the line between a normative claim and a descriptive one. I want to redefine those categories in such a way that torture would become an obvious and explicit abandonment of identity with those categories. But to assert that the redefinition I’m advocating is part of the actual definition of those categories now is simply not credible. Christians in the Spanish Inquisition invented many of the most heinous methods of torture. For most of the first century of America’s history as a nation (and for centuries before that) torture was not just legally permitted, but in many cases legally mandated. It simply is not credible for me to claim that “No true Christian” or “No true American” would commit torture, as much as I would like that to be true. The rule is specific and objective, but it cannot be defended as a demonstrable aspect of the identity of either of those categories.

I continue to believe, and will continue to argue, that Christians and Americans ought not to practice torture. And I will continue to base those arguments on principles that are, or should be, core, defining traits for both of those categories. (I’m speaking there of separate and distinct principles for those two respective categories, although there is some overlap.) But until those categories better reflect the implications of those principles, I will try to do better about refraining from the “No true Scotsman” fallacy and treating my normative arguments as descriptive claims. I invite you to hold me to that.



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  • Well, perhaps no true Friends General Conference Quaker would act that way, but Nixon wasn’t a FGC Quaker, he was an Evangelical Friend from the East Whittier Friends Meeting of the Southwest Yearly Meeting – and there are plenty of examples of EFI Friends who aren’t entirely sold on the peace testimony of Fox, nor the unprogrammed format of worship as seen in the FGC, or even the majority of Friends United Meeting (FUM) meetings…

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post. It’s important to recognize that groups, even big amorphous ones, do have key defining traits that let you distinguish between a group member and someone who merely claims to be part of the group.

  • But group membership isn’t derived from a list of rules set out by the group’s founding documents or anything like that.  Human relationships, human group identification, and human social bonding are all far more multi faceted than that.  And human beings rarely act consistently at all times with the norms of their group.

    The only reasonable interpretation of these kinds of statements (“no TRUE scotsman would do that!”) is something like, “Having observed that this person has behaved in this way, I no longer wish to associate myself with him.”

    Its not a statement about HIM that you’re making.  Its a statement about YOURSELF.

  • No true blogger would try to defend the no true scotsman fallacy!  

  • The Lodger
  • Also, once you exclude people from being True X, you shouldn’t get to count them as X when you’re trying to demonstrate how mighty and successful Group X is.

  • mexicanrag

    And to go from lurking to more active participation… Alongside Bridgier Wood’s point, the largest Friends “Church” in the world (Yorba Linda Friends) is a decidedly non-pacifist and very hierarchical body. For the better part of the 20th c. and up to now, there has been an aggressive move to eliminate from the body that is now the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (of which Yorba Linda is a part) the most distinct historical features of Friends.

    Specific objective rule, indeed.

    Though I don’t know what that adds other than a personal sigh.

  • The Friends are a large, diverse and fiercely non-dogmatic and inclusive group.

    It’s been years since I had a history class that covered the Quakers, so this term for them made me think less of them than of 20th Century Boys.

  • Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald

    No True Scotsman would call it the Glasgow Morning Herald, it is simply “The Herald” or if you are from Edinburgh (where they read “The Scotsman”) the Glasgow Herald,with a slight sneer in your voice as you pronounce the word Glasgow.
    “A True Scotsman”

  • Anonymous

    If I had a nickel for every time a Christian apologist told me, “No true Christian would commit such atrocities against the Jews because true Christians absolutely love the Jewish people”…

    In the end, I’m left with reciting the prayer of the non-Christian:

    “O Jesus – save me from Your followers!”

  • ako

    It seems like the word “good” would be more accurate than the word “true” in this case?   American citizens who support torture are still citizens and true Americans in the “Factually speaking, they meet the criteria for qualifying as American” way.  They are also bad Americans, in as much as they’re attempting to trade liberty for a bit of temporary safety and undermining the best principles of the country.  So it’s possible to say “No good American would support torture”, but not “No true American would support torture”. 

    If there’s a “Violate these rules and you’re out of the group” rule, it seems like the word true would be used more legitimately.  That, of course, brings up questions of where the rules come from, how they’re established, who gets input and decision-making rights, and requires a lot more intellectual work than simply declaring someone not a true Christian or true American or whatever based on personal discomfort.  But it seems like a potentially legitimate use.

  • Fred goes full retard

    There’s so much wrong with this, you probably won’t have all your mistakes pointed out.  In the definition, “objective” refers to the rules which are properties of Scotsman, which, like Quaker, refers [i]only to people[/i].  It specifically doesn’t refer to acts, because the point of the argument is to avoid association with acts (“No Quaker has ever commmitted violence.”).  If Richard Nixon was expelled, or separated, from the Quakers for bombing Cambodia, then at the moment he did it, he was still a Quaker.  If he wasn’t, then he was expelled for something he did earlier, and so on.  If he was expelled merely for being a bastard, then the definition of Quaker is so vague as to be meaningless, and should never be mentioned again.

    “That rule, alas, is not credible. It is not understood as an essential
    aspect of identity for the category “Scotsman,” nor has it been
    demonstrated, historically, to be a reliable standard for judging who
    does and does not truly belong to that category.”

    Categories don’t have “reliable standards for judging”, they have a single definition.

  • Apocalypse Review

    Arbitrarily claiming that “no X would do Y” can be a way of trying to avoid shared responsibility.

    How about all the Roman Catholic priests who’ve probably tried saying “No Catholic would do something like that”? Doesn’t exactly meet with much except skepticism these days. (>_<)

    I wish I could make this point more sound – I think the best way to explain the analogy is that to a great extent it depends on whether the institution involved is trying to hide the wrongdoing, or is willing to acknowledge it and do something about it.

  • Anonymous

    I get what you’re saying here, but I don’t think it implies defense of “No True Scotsman.”   It’s more like a classification argument (ie, “he was never a Scotsman in the first place.”) and reveals some of the flaws inherent in deductive reasoning.

    No Quakers are violent asshats.
    Quakers attend Friends meeting.
    Richard Nixon was a violent asshat.
    Richard Nixon attended Friends meetings.
    Therefore the membership of Richard Nixon in set “Quaker” is …. what exactly?

    The problem here is sort of akin to finding the number greater than 3 and less than 2.  The structure of boolean deductive logic cannot be adequate to the task.  Unless we give those attributes weight – in which case we don’t have a simple true / false deterministic model anymore, but a Bayesian probability – it is impossible to determine “logically” whether or not Richard Nixon counts as a Quaker.  The weight of the various determining characteristics of Quakers is not determined – and so the issue of whether Richard Nixon is or is not Quaker cannot be deterministically decided.

    A more interesting issue revealed by this whole thing is that a great many human groups have as one of their primary identifying characteristic a “claim to membership” — thus I claim to be Christian even though most Christian churches would find my theology rather foreign.  Where does my subjective claim to membership weigh among the classificatory scheme of religious affiliation?  It implies that most human groups are largely tautological.  That is, the set includes members which both have and do not have a certain property.

    In fact, group classification like this is not a “logic” problem or “classification” problem at all.  It’s a power problem.  There’s this big social structure in the sky (“habitus” if you like French philosophy and feel like looking up Pierre Bourdieu – beware the post-structuralist rabbit hole.) that basically classifies us all according the amount of expendable “capital” we have.  Through the expenditure of this capital we are both limited to and expanding on the social structures through which we move.  (That would be “structuration.”)  (This is akin to defining what is “art?”)

    In the not so distant past the middle managers and professional / skilled classes that make up a big chunk of the American middle class were considered part of the “capital” class, and were pitted in opposition to the “labor” class.  Today, we consider both of those classes in opposition to a financial “rentier” class that didn’t really exist a few hundred years ago.  Our membership in certain groups of people is not a simple boolean relationship defined by our actions or inactions, but rather a sort of grand group consensus of the existing social power structures.

    Whether or not you are a “true scotsmans” depends more on whether or not society thinks you are a True Scotsman than any essentialist or positivist search for the attributes which will identify you as a such.

  • Anonymous

    PS – Once you fall down this whole structuralist rabbit hole prepare for a shock at the utterly pervasive influence of Marx.  And then get ready to chuckle knowingly while Republicans rave against “Marxism” from a Marxist perspective.

  • Anonymous

    It isn’t strictly correct that no Amish drive automobiles.  “Amish” is the name of a diverse collection of local groups, with different rules to follow.  Google on “black bumper Amish”.  I am also given to understand that the Amish have a version of excommunication, and they certainly have a formal way to join the community.  So it seems to me that your argument doesn’t hold up:  membership in the community is an objective fact, apart from behavior patterns.  Should a member in good standing of an Amish community that permits the driving of automobiles so lose himself to some stress as to succumb to running a pedestrian down in a fit of road rage, I don’t see how we can claim he isn’t actually Amish.  He might be expelled from the community, but that does not change that he was a true Amishman at the time of the incident.

  • Lori

    So let me make sure I understand this. You thought is was appropriate to use the word “retard” in the fake posting name you used to avoid owning your statements. You then spewed out a lot of gibberish and wrapped up with an untrue statement. And Fred is the own who is being ridiculous?

    It figures aunursa “liked” this comment.  

  • Anonymous

    If Richard Nixon was expelled, or separated, from the Quakers for bombing Cambodia, then at the moment he did it, he was still a Quaker.

    No, he wasn’t, you just couldn’t deduce it at the time. Not to mention that group membership at the fringes is not usually boolean, so saying “He stopped being a Quaker when he did X” is probably not a fully accurate description unless X is a formal renunciation or a life-changing seismic event or something.

    Categories don’t have “reliable standards for judging”, they have a single definition.

    So what is the single definition of “Christian”? Or “feminist”? Lots of categories have hazy boundaries, especially the kind that are big and important enough that someone would say “No true Scotsman” about them.

  • To point out that even the examples Fred tries to give doesn’t really affect his main point, though it does raise the further problem that even examples chosen for their noncontroversial nature don’t really fit. I’m not really sure what point I’m trying to make – that these categories are nebulous and difficult to define, even the ones that seem/are believed to be reasonably exclusivist. 

    I would like to say that no TRUE member of our little community would have the unpleasant mix of chickenshit and rudeness as our friendly troll “Fred goes full retard”. That’s a normative statement, not a descriptive one. 

    I’m not even sure what they’re saying. They seem to be very angry about a rather humble post, for reasons that I don’t even begin to fathom.

  • Anonymous

    Categories don’t have “reliable standards for judging”, they have a
    single definition.

    Either way, you’re an asshole.

  • Lori

    No Quakers are violent asshats.
    Quakers attend Friends meeting.
    Richard Nixon was a violent asshat.
    Richard Nixon attended Friends meetings.
    Therefore the membership of Richard Nixon in set “Quaker” is …. what exactly? 

    You’ve got a problem in Step 2. “Quakers attend Friends meeting” is not an exclusive statement. IOW, it’s not true that only Quakers attend Friends meeting. I’ve known non-Quakers who attended Friends meeting as part of their spiritual explorations. There was bouncer at the door checking membership and refusing entry to non-Quakers. By the same token walking in the door isn’t enough to make you a Quaker. 

    So, attending Friends meeting is a necessary (for some values of “attends”), but not sufficient condition for being a Quaker. The fact that Nixon had attended Friends meeting doesn’t really create much of an issue with this argument.

  • I am reminded about the implicit no-true-American in Sarah Palin’s “real America” spiel about small towns in rural areas, as though places that did not share her values were not truly American.  It makes me wonder what her categorical definition of “American” was.  

  • Matri

    It makes me wonder what her categorical definition of “American” was.

    Same definition the Republicans use: Anyone who agrees with them and disagrees with everything else.

  • Anonymous

    Having too wooly a head tonight to think through the logic of it all, I’ll just put in my little bit about Nixon. As I’ve heard, Nixon had not attended Quaker meeting for some time, before becoming president, and was largely spiritually advised by Billy Graham. He did at least attend meeting while at Duke law school; I’m not sure when he stopped. The situation in California meetings now is not really relevant to Nixon, as I heard there was serious discussion in his home meeting at the time of disownment or something like that. But in the end they decided not to carry out an action like that.

  • Anonymous

    So replace it with “Quakers attend Friends meetings as part of their religious observations.”

    That’s not really the point.  In fact, you sort of just reinforced my point.  Simply going to meetings isn’t enough to get you into the “group”, sort of like bombing Cambodia isn’t enough to get you kicked out.

  • It’s still fully consistent with “At least one non-Quaker attended Friends meetings,” the result of statements 1, 3, and 4. Your question was this:

    Therefore the membership of Richard Nixon in set “Quaker” is …. what exactly?

    The answer is “false.” It follows from 1 (Quaker->~VA) and 3 (Nixon->VA) by applying a hypothetical syllogism to 1’s contrapositive and 3. And neither other statement contradicts it, so there’s no indeterminacy. (Predicate logic would probably be better than propositional logic, but the point’s the same.)

  • It figures aunursa “liked” this comment.

    I know I will go straight to Hell for saying this but every time I see that username now the aphorism “Only the good die young” flashes through my head.

  • Anonymous

    There’s also the difference to be considered between pretending someone is not part of your group for purposes of not being tarred by them, and saying from within  your group that you reject their behavior.

    Let’s say, hypothetically, that a member of some religious denomination–the Church of the True Scotsman, say, is discovered to have been beating his wife, or molesting children, or has shot an abortion provider.

    There’s a difference between saying, “Well, he did wrong, but it’s wrong and unfair, and bigoted of you to keep calling him a True Scotsman in the news! No TRUE True Scotsman would do this! The Scotsman taught peace! Islam teaches war! We’re still better than them!” …

    …And saying in your own community, “I don’t consider anyone who could do that to be a Scotsman. He understands nothing the Scotsman taught us.”

  • Lori

    There’s also a difference between saying it within your community, which is little more than gossiping, and taking steps to insist that the person publicly change his ways or be separated from that community. 

    If the community in question is actually in a position to effectively shun the person then I figure the group is too large an amorphous to count for No True Scotsman purposes. 

    Using No True American as an example, if the person can’t be tried for treason or have his citizenship taken away for it then you can’t pull a legitimate No True American. You can say that you don’t think a True American should do it, but you can’t say that no True American would or has. 

  • Murfyn

     . . . Nobody expects the . . . oh, forget it.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    That’s really not on, Brandi. Can we not have some basic minimum level of decency?

  • Anonymous

    True, although I would also say that, with that too-large-to-shun category, we’re then getting into where this conversation usually picks up, which is the comparison of Us and Them. 

    “Scotsmen are better than Belgians. Belgians are violent. Scotsmen are peaceful.”

    “That’s bullshit. Most Belgians aren’t violent. And what about this Scotsman, and that Scotsman, and the other Scotsman?”

    “They weren’t TRUE Scotsmen.”

    “OK, by that token, violent Belgians aren’t true Belgians either.”

    “Being a Belgian REQUIRES that you be violent. Violent Scotsmen are personal failures who don’t understand the teachings of the Scotsman. Violent Belgians are model Belgians, practicing the violence the Belgian taught.”

    (Can you tell that I usually have this argument about either Christianity or Judaism, and Islam?)

    In this case, you’re arguing about the inherent nature of the group.

  • Lori

     In this case, you’re arguing about the inherent nature of the group.  

    Well, I would say that the essence of the No True Scotsman fallacy is that any group that is too big or too ill-defined for effective shunning has no inherent nature as a group. 

  • ako

    That is really not okay. 

  • Anonymous

    Nicely done. Point ceded. Richard Nixon is not a True Quaker. ;)

    But whether or not Richard Nixon is actually a True Quaker or just a Quaker Pretender isn’t really the point though.  If I were more careful in the construction of the syllogism I would be able to prove the inclusion in a given human social group to at least some people, and categorically exclude for other, any given person.

    Human society and all the various subgroups thereof are not monothetic sets.  We can’t even agree on what the criteria for belonging to most of them ARE.

    There are “Christians” who think Fred is not a “Christian” because he doesn’t believe in hell (enough or at all.)  Fred is implicitly suspecting the “Christianity” of Christians whose primary purpose seem to be enriching themselves and screwing the poor.

    Which of these things is more important?  “Christian” is a socially constructed category – not some category of things which has essential properties that can be externally determined.

    As further illustration of this point I provide you with “Freedom Fighters” vs “Guerilla Insurgents”

  • Anonymous

    You might. And I may go straight to Hell for saying this, but I really hope that someday, when you are in a similar situation, someone says precisely the same sort of thing to you. Because you seriously need to know what that feels like.

  • lemur

    Nor should you get to count them as part of group X when you embark on a handwringing crusade over said group’s supposedly astronomical growth.  Non-autistic autism “advocates” love to include people diagnosed with HFA or Asperger syndrome in their counts of “victims” of the so-called “autism epidemic,” but as soon as we tell them they’re hurting us with their shenanigans, we’re suddenly not “really” autistic. 

  • lemur

    How do we define “Christian?”  Every group seems to have their own preferred criteria that must be met before they will recognize someone as a “true Christian.”  About the best I can come up with is “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  I’ve nonetheless met Christians who don’t think Catholics are real Christians (but will still include them in the tally of global Christianity), and Christians who say Christians with other political beliefs aren’t real Christians, and Christians who say Christians who do horrible things in Christ’s name aren’t real Christians, and now I’ve reached the level of word repetition where the word “christian” is starting to look funny and meaningless.  Still, apart from Romans 10:9, what other objective, definitive criteria can we use?

  • Libby

    What about the criteria of salvation from Romans 10:9?  

  • Anonymous

    Guess I don’t count.

  • I was trapped in a line with someone who explained that you could tell the “true Christian religion” by whether or not it had members who were willing to go to war. The Baptists weren’t, he said, because Carter was a Baptist and he “convinced the Baptists to fight each other”. Likewise Kennedy, who did the same with Catholics, a couple of other presidents, and finally Nixon. 

    Alas, it was at that point that I reached the front of the line and escaped, so I never did get to hear how Nixon got the Quakers to fight each other.

  • As a Quaker, I am less inclined to say that Richard Nixon was no true Quaker than to say that he was the Worst Quaker Ever.

  • Anonymous

    Wait, so this person couldn’t tell the difference between disagreeing vociferously and engaging in armed combat?

    Also, you’ll forgive me for being just a little bit selfishly sorry about your rapid escape. I was hoping to hear how Millard Fillmore got the Unitarians to fight each other. 

  • Bificommander

    I don’t know enough of the Quakers to judge if they have stricter, better defined standards of membership just Christians. But the No True Scotsman argument, false or not, is roled out a lot to quickly exclude any ‘Christians’ committing crimes or behaving badly. Former Conservative has one in his post from today:
    Those Rapture Ready posters invoking it aren’t wrong. There are Bible passages that claim you can’t be a follower of Christ/God if you act like a jerk (*cough*Brandi*cough*), so by Fred’s logic they have a claim to the No True Scotsman defense. The fact that there RR folks do act like jerks towards anyone who doesn’t agree with their theology doesn’t register with them sadly.

    But then it is often used as a claim to moral superiority. Christians are so good and kind. He isn’t? Then he isn’t a Christian, so Christians are still good and kind. By what logic do “Quakers” have a better claim on their name than “Christians” do? Fred after all remarked repeatedly that the current day Baptists say and do things that he feels are the complete anithesis of what the Baptists are about. So then what? Are they true Baptists or not?

    For atheists it’s simple at least. We don’t have a church, or doctrine, just a definition in the dictonary.  We can say Hitler wasnt a True Atheist, since he attended church, but Stalin looks like he was. Sadly, the likes of Rapture Ready posters will generally leap at such an opportunity to demonize atheists while claiming that after they struck all the murderers that called themselves Christian from their roster there were never any Christian murderers.

  • lofgren

    This is a bad description of the No True Scotsman fallacy. Specifically, this post misunderstands what makes No True Scotsman a fallacy.

    The No True Scotsman fallacy attempts to redefine the terms of discussion so that an assertion becomes a tautology.

    In the example of Hamish MacDonald, Hamish at first appears to be using a definition of Scotsman that most of us would agree to without too much fuss, for example “A male born in Scotland.” He then makes an assertion, that no man born in Scotland would be a sex maniac. This is a testable, falsifiable prediction.

    However, it is later revealed that Hamish’s definition of Scotsman is actually something like “A male born in Scotland who is not a sex maniac.” This makes Hamish’s original assertion a tautology and therefore useless.

    Note that there are situations where, even using a perfectly reasonable definition of Scotsman, one might find themselves making logically sound statements that resemble the No True Scotsman. For example, if the unnamed Aberdeen man who disproved Hamish’s original assertion turned out to have been born in Sweden, even though he has lived most of his life in Scotland, then Hamish could reasonably say that the man is no true Scotsman without creating a fallacy. Hamish’s working definition of Scotsman is more refined than casual definitions (“a man who lives in Scotland”, “a man less than three generations removed from Scotch-born parents”). The Aberdeen man is “truly” Swedish by these standards, not Scottish.

    I would personally object to Fred’s statements above that an authoritarian cannot be a Quaker and a car driver cannot be Amish. Both of these terms describe beliefs. Just because a person buys an expensive, flashy car does not mean he no longer believes as the Amish do, only that he is not practicing the tenets of his faith. In point of fact, the Amish do drive cars. They eschew convenience, not internal combustion engines. It’s a sin by their faith to drive a car if doing so is merely convenient. If driving a car means the difference between a job getting done and a job not getting done, then they will certainly drive their cars. In addition Fred has defined every Amish person on Ramspringa as “Not-Amish.” But these kids are Amish and identify as such, and their behavior is specifically allowed by the tenets of their faith and the standards of their communities.

    If we are going to redefine every system of belief to only include those people who have never, ever strayed then there are no true Christians, no true Buddhists, and no true Americans.

    The most common invocation of this fallacy that I see is in discussions between atheists and Christians, when one or the other wants to say that Stalin or Hitler was not a true member of their tribe.

    I have no sympathy for atheists who try to pull this one (usually with some variation of “The communist party was like a religion,” which is true in some ways but doesn’t make it a “true” religion anymore than “Darwinism” is). It’s just pathetic.

    For Christians, the problem is a little more complicated. Atheists tend to either take a person at their word when they claim to be a Christian or use a broadly applicable definition such as “believes that God exists and the Jesus was his greatest prophet.” Christians use more rarefied definitions that reflect their more intimate relationship with it. Some common ones:

    “Believes that God exists and that Jesus was his only son” (excludes Mormons)
    “Believes that God exists and that Jesus was a great prophet” (includes Muslims)
    “Believes that God exists and interprets certain passages of the Bible in a fashion that conforms to fundamentalist dogma” (excludes millions if not billions of people who think they are Christian)
    “Has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and has been transformed as a result of it.”

    That last one is the stinker: it allows Christians to point to Hitler, or Gingrich, or George W. and say that by their actions we know that they were NOT transformed by Jesus and therefore were NOT “true Christians.”

    So if you find yourself in a discussion where something resembling the No True Scotsman appears, it’s prudent to have a discussion about working definitions. If we are debating whether or not an Amish person would, say, hold a man down and forcibly shave his beard with an electric razor and I say yes and you say that no true Amishman would do such a thing, then the first thing we need to do is pin down a working definition of “Amishman” that explains why this particular splinter group doesn’t count. At this point neither of us is guilty of the No True Scotsman, only of proceeding from different definitions. Once the definitions are fixed, attempts to alter the definition in order to render a contested assertion into a tautology would be an example.

  • This reminds me of the time I noted that the Catholic Church has never excommunicated Adolf Hitler, and I got back some variants on the “no true Catholic” argument that boiled down to “Well, Catholic doctrine says he excommunicated himself.”

    Oh, well, that’s convenient and quite characteristic for an institution that seems to love avoiding responsibility for any of its adherents’ actions, as witness the way they have shielded Roman Catholic priests (particularly in Canada, by paying handsome legal fees for lawyers to defend their child molesting priests and not a dime for the victims) from the consequences of their abuse of authority.

  • He seriously did seem to believe that every president had been responsible for a war or something similar, so the only “true” religion was Seventh Day Adventists because they’d never done so.

  • lemur

    That’s both the problem and purpose of lines:  they are exclusionary.  What criteria for Christianity would you recommend?  (Bonus points if they’re Biblical without peculiar LaHaye-style exegesis.)  With something so personal as spirituality, mere self-identification is the most sensitive criterion to go with, but that isn’t objective.  Since this post seems to be about “true Christians” and “true Americans” in situations brought up by how alleged members of both groups behave, it seems like objective identifying criteria are necessary.