Why the "No True Scotsman Fallacy" isn't Always a Fallacy

Philosopher Aeon Skoble provides a helpful explanation.


Scottish flag.


If you follow debates about political or philosophical issues, you have probably run across people accusing their opponents of committing the "No True Scotsman Fallacy" or even been accused of it yourself. In a helpful post at the Radical Classical Liberals blog, Philosopher Aeon Skoble has a good explanation of why such accusations are often wrong. The supposed fallacy isn't always actually a fallacy:

Say you encounter someone, Sam, saying "I dislike [movement/theory/group G], because they say [bad thing B]." Say you're a member/proponent of G, and you not only agree that B is bad, but you're pretty sure that's not representative of G, and indeed inconsistent with G, so you tell Sam that, and Sam replies that some other person Bob says B, and that Bob is a G. Under what conditions can we properly affirm that Bob is in fact not a G? In logic class we encounter the "no true Scotsman" fallacy:
"No Scotsman would drink vodka"
"McGregor [a Scotsman] drinks vodka."
"Well, no true Scotsman would drink vodka."
The illicit rhetorical move accomplished by this fallacy is to immunize a generalization against a refutation by counterexample by smuggling in an ad hoc modification to the definition.

But is every scenario like the one I've described an example of "no true Scotsman" fallacy? Say Bob claims to be a Christian, but frequently lies and betrays and kills. When asked, he reports that he does not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or even in God at all. So if Sam said "I dislike Christians, that Bob guy is just awful," and you replied "look, Bob just is not a Christian, so you're mistaken to dislike Christianity because you don't like Bob," would you be committing "no true Scotsman" fallacy? I think the answer is no. You are correct; Bob, despite calling himself Christian, is not one, and Sam is wrong both to take Bob as representative of Christianity and to dislike Christians on that basis.

This comes up in political contexts, of course. Sam claims to dislike libertarianism because he read something by Bob, who also claims to be libertarian, to the effect that it's great that the police harass racial minorities and imprison them for minor offenses, or that immigration from Mexico is a bad thing because they're mostly criminals anyway. This is a fictional example, but I've engaged on social media with people who claim that libertarianism is bad because that one guy is a racist, or that one other guy opposes immigration. I generally respond by enumerating the ways in which racism (or closed-borders or protectionism or what have you) just aren't part of libertarianism. Am I committing "no true Scotsman" fallacy? I don't think so. I think, as in the case of Bob the non-Christian, that there has to be a way to respond to caricature and distortion that is not also committing the fallacy. As with the religion case, Bob may simply be inaccurate in his self-description of his politics.

I would add that being a Scotsman is an ethnic identity, so potentially compatible with a wide range of beliefs and behaviors. By contrast, libertarianism, Christianity and other ideologies and religions are belief systems. If no belief was incompatible with being a true libertarian or a true Christian, libertarianism and Christianity would be essentially meaningless.

There can, of course, be cases where a person genuinely believes in libertarian or Christian principles, but fails to live up to them. For example, a Christian might violate one or more of the Ten Commandments, even if she genuinely believes she has a moral duty to follow them. In that event, the person might be a "true Christian" in terms of their beliefs, but not in terms of their conduct.

Obviously, there is room for a lot of debate about which beliefs are incompatible with libertarianism or Christianity (ditto for Judaism, socialism, conservatism, etc.). Some argue that you can't be a true libertarian unless you support the most absolutist possible version of the "Non-Aggression Principle" or that you're not a true Christian unless you embrace the theology of the Catholic Church or all the views of Pat Robertson. But the fact that the boundaries of libertarianism and Christianity are contestable doesn't mean there are no boundaries at all.

The existence of borderline grey areas doesn't vitiate the fact that there are easy cases, as well. For example, it should be obvious  you can't be a true Christian if you're an atheist and you believe that Jesus Christ doesn't offer any valuable insight into morality. Theism and at least some substantial commitment to Christ's message are core elements of Christianity. Similarly, you can't be a true libertarian if you support socialism, fascism, Jim Crow segregation, or ethno-nationalism. All of these ideologies are inimical to core libertarian commitments to universal equal rights to economic and personal liberty, regardless of ancestry or background.

The "No True Scotsman Fallacy" isn't even always a fallacy when applied to matters Scottish. Being a true Scotsman (defined as being a person of Scottish ancestry) is compatible with a very wide range of beliefs. But being a Scottish nationalist is not. For example, it is likely accurate to say that "no true Scottish nationalist" believes that Scotland should be stripped of all autonomy and its governance completely controlled by the British parliament in London.

That's true even though Scottish nationalists may disagree among themselves about exactly how much independence or autonomy is optimal for Scotland, and it may not be easy to figure out what is the precise dividing line between nationalists and their opponents.

Scottish nationalism may have fuzzy boundaries. But that does not mean that anyone can be a Scottish nationalist, regardless of the beliefs they hold. At the very least, the true Scottish nationalist may relish having "just one chance" to tell the English that "they make take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!"

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  1. Is there more than one way to be Scottish?

    1. There are apparently two ways to post the same article on the same site. Which of these two is the true article?

      1. What do you mean?

  2. I think the ecological fallacy is more of a problem, that is assigning the traits of a group to one individual.

  3. I’ve heard it say there is no perfect symmetry in nature, only in the mind.

  4. Because not everybody is Scotiish, obviously.

    1. How about—no true Muslim supports gay marriage and watches RuPaul and believes Allah is a woman…except the two Muslims in Congress. 😉

  5. Whom do you think that the Irish Protestants are — or where they came from?!?

    Or when you get into Appalachia, whom do you think the Scotch Irish are?!?

    So who is a true Scotsman?

    1. Sean Connery is the only true Scotsman.

      1. And Mel Gibson. Of course.

  6. It’s a fallacy because the argument is about how people are classified into different categories. Those arguments are pointless and the right answer is not to engage in them.

    That’s hard for lawyers because categories are built into the law sometimes.

    Best answer most times is ok, whatever, you can define things any way you want and talk to yourself about it.

  7. Seems a very long way round to get to an obvious point – that rational argument requires a common understanding of the meaning of the words that are important to the argument.

    “Women don’t have penises”
    “Yes they do !”
    “No they don’t !”

  8. The real answer is whether the traits are the defining traits. You can have racist libertarians as long as they believe it is not up to government to control racism. You cannot have libertarians who believe government should issue speech permits.

    But even that falls down in practical terms. Gary Johnson believes bakers selling to the public have a legal duty to sell to anyone; obvious to most libertarians that he is not libertarian. But in relative terms, he would have been a far more libertarian President than all the previous ones. I think about all you can say is that libertarians believe in less government, but how much to shed varies. I’d guess that most libertarians believe a military is possibly the most fundamental government duty, and some think border control is more fundamental, and that includes a military, or they are the same. And some don’t believe either of those is necessary. Government courts are probably accepted by more libertarians than government police, and government prosecutors less than police.

    1. Yes, a lot of applications of “No True Scotsman!” are essentially denials that the category in question actually has a meaningful definition. Or maybe based on an assumption that the only definition of any category is “claims to be one”. (That seems rather popular on the left at the moment.)

      Obviously, not everybody is a Scotsman in any meaningful sense, and to deny this is to effectively strip words of all meaning.

      For instance? Jack Balkin isn’t an originalist. He calls himself, one, sure, but to say that he’s an originalist strips the word of any utility. I think that may even be WHY he calls himself one, because he isn’t, and he wants the word rendered useless.

      The problem here is that No True Scotsman is a fallacy, and fallacies, technically speaking, are only useful in rigorous formal logic. Many of them, while technically fallacies, are actually useful heuristics. Yelling “No True Scotsman!” is meant to keep the heuristic from being used.

      Like “Whataboutism”, it’s a rhetorical move to stop your opponent from advancing an argument you don’t want to have to respond to.

      1. The fallacy, of course, is to simply append ‘true’ to a category without ever actually defining the category itself. You’re dodging an attack without doing the work.

        If you properly define categories, then either x is or is not a member of the class. You can discover that using the definition. There’s no need to invoke ‘trueness’ against a counter-example, you simply demonstrate it’s not an example of the class in the first place.

        1. The No True Scotsman fallacy is really a problem with the definitions of words. It’s typically encountered in arguments when terms are not defined at the outset. Since people seldom define their terms before arguing, chances of meeting with a No True Scotsman fallacy are good. A disgusting amount of arguing time is taken up by back-peddling and ex post wrangling over the meanings of words.

  9. Perhaps saying “I am a libertarian” is like saying “I am tall.” It’s a relative statement with statistically useful boundaries.

    1. Yes, it may be a word better used as an adjective rather than as a noun.

  10. Hello, I`m gona tell you my opinion. It’s a false notion on the grounds that the contention is about how individuals are grouped into various classes. Those contentions are inconsequential and the correct answer isn’t to take part in them. Anyway, after this I`ll read another article, try it on here

  11. Then you slip into the, “You’re not a (something), because I’m a (something), and we don’t agree on everything.” argument.

  12. Mr. Picky would like to point out that McGregor is not even a Scotsman in the first place, but rather just a vodka-drinking Irishman in a skirt.

  13. Really good counter argument to the somebody crying about the no true Scotsman fallacy. Thank you, I will definitely use it!

  14. The problem with the category of “libertarian” is that almost everyone shares some libertarian beliefs. They want to be free from government interference for the things their tribe likes to do.

    But since it is something of a spectrum, you should label someone a libertarian only if they seem to fall more into that category than into another one. If they have some libertarian beliefs, but have more in common with conservatives or progressives, then it’s probably better (for the purposes of clarity) to not call them libertarian. Perhaps maybe , “a libertarian leaning” X.

    In some cases, perhaps it’s more appropriate to call someone a right or left leaning libertarian than the other way around, depending on which group they tend to have more in common with.

    In the end, to me it’s really more about clarity than the freedom to self define.

  15. Is ‘If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap’ a fallacy?

  16. Most fallacies are not always fallacious. But they’re low hanging fruit for people who don’t want to engage in the argument.

    A large number of people think that they can just change the definition of words to suit their needs. It’s hard to “no true Scotsman” when someone decides that Scotsman means pineapple now.

  17. Sounds like an issue of brand-control.

    Make the social consequences of falsely claiming to be libertarians sufficient to overcome the social benefits of falsely claiming to be a libertarian, and you’ll re-assert your brand control.

    Until you do that though, it’s not really fair (or effective) to whine that non-libertarians aren’t separating the “false” libertarians from the “true” libertarians.

    It’s sort of like the difference between American Christianity and Latter-Day-Saints (LDS, formerly Mormons). LDS has great brand-control. If someone declares themselves as LDS, you can bet they’re actually LDS, and have a strong idea of what that means regarding their views and behavior.

    But in America, if someone claims to be Christian? Well, their views and action could be all over the place. After all, you will no bigger den of Christians in the US then it’s prisons and rehab facilities. Now, some factions of Christianity do a better job of brand-control then others. Like the aforementioned LDS or Catholics. But a major first step was by dropping the Christian label as their chief title, and choosing something else.

    Or to put it in other ways… it really is very hard, in America, to argue that someone isn’t “really” a Christian. Not a Catholic or LDS? You can get to the bottom of that right-quick. But “Christian”? Super fuzzy.

    And that’s brand-control. Catholics and LDS have it. Christians in America, as a whole, do not.

    And Libertarians do not either.

    So if you’re upset with how non-libertarians are drawing the boundaries, maybe you should do a better job of publicly policing them. ’cause as it stands, it’s not just “Bob” that you need to kick out.

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