If you follow debates over political and philosophical issues, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen people accuse opponents of committing the “No True Scotsman Fallacy” or even been accused of it yourself. In a recent post at the Radical Classical Liberals Blog, philosopher Aeon Skoble offers a good explanation of why such accusations are often wrong:
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.
For reasons Skoble explains, while it is indeed fallacious f to claim that “no true Scotsman drinks vodka,” it is often accurate to say that “no true libertarian believes X” or “no true Christian believes Y.”
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.
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 belief in the most absolutist possible version of the “Non-Aggression Principle” or that you’re not a true Christian unless you embrace every aspect of 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 gray areas where it’s unclear whether a particular belief is compatible with Christianity or libertarianism doesn’t vitiate the existence of easy cases. For example, it should be pretty obvious that a person who doesn’t believe in God and denies that Jesus Christ had any greater insight into morality than the average person cannot be a Christian—no matter how much she tries to appropriate the label. Similarly, a person who believes in socialism, fascism, or ethno-nationalism cannot be a libertarian, even if he goes around calling himself one.
The “no true Scotsman fallacy” isn’t always fallacious even when it comes to matters Scottish. While all sorts of beliefs are compatible with being a true Scotsman (defined as being a person of Scottish ancestry), there are some beliefs incompatible with being a Scottish nationalist. For example, it is probably safe to say “no true Scottish nationalist” believes that Scotland should be stripped of all autonomy and its governance completely controlled by the British parliament in London.
At the same time, Scottish nationalists might disagree among themselves about exactly what degree of autonomy or independence is optimal for Scotland. It may be difficult to figure out exactly what is the smallest degree of support for Scottish autonomy compatible with still being a Scottish nationalist. But that doesn’t mean that anyone can be a Scottish nationalist simply by calling himself one, regardless of what he or she actually believes. At the very least, a true Scottish nationalist might relish having “just one chance” to tell the English that “they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”