In defense of the true ‘true Scotsmen’

In defense of the true ‘true Scotsmen’ November 10, 2011

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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