Why is No True Scotsman a fallacy?

As I understand it it goes like this:

“Every true Scotsman takes salt in his porridge”
“Big Hamish always takes his with sugar”
“Big Hamish is no true Scotsman”
What’s wrong with that? You have given a definition of a term. You have stated what qualities a man must have to meet that definition. And then you state that Big Hamish lacks one of those qualities. Therefore, by the stated definition, he’s not a true Scotsman.

Where’s the fallacy?
How about the following exchange:

“no moral man would commit rape”
“Jack is a convicted rapist”
“Jack is not moral”
Is that a fallacy too?

You’re misstating the example. It’s:

“Every Scotsman takes salt in his porridge”
“Big Hamish always takes his with sugar”
“Big Hamish is no true Scotsman”

In other words, you’re taking an already defined group (in this case, Scotsmen, and making a hypothesis about the group that isn’t part of the group’s definition. Then, when you find an example that contradicts your hypothesis, instead of throwing out your hypothesis, you throw out the example.

NTS involves assigning an attribute to a group based on a preconception that may or may not be true, then exluding an individual from that group based on their non-conformity to your preconception.

Whereas in your second example, the individual’s membership of the group is defined by the action of the individual. Because Jack raped someone, he belongs to the group labelled “rapists”. (And indeed, in your example, I can’t see that your conculsion is a fallacy either, even though it’s a different construction.)

It’s only a fallacy when every counterexample is dismissed ad hoc.

Isn’t the fallacy also stated as

“Every Scotsman takes salt in his porridge”
“Big Hamish always takes his with sugar”
“Every true Scotsman takes salt in his porridge”

so that gives two ways to trigger the No True Scotsman - by assuming that the taking of salt is part of the accepted definition of Scotsman, or to sneakily amend the original definition in the face of a counterexmple.

It’s a fallacy when the primary premise (“No true Scotsman eats sugar on his porridge”) is so phrased as to exclude persons who might otherwise be deemed a part of that group.

“No true American would vote for a Democrat.”
“But Eddie votes Democratic.”
“See what I mean? If he were a real American, he’d always vote Republican.”

Eddie’s patriotism and judgment have been impugned. Eddie may very well be both legally an American citizen and a loyal, patriotic one as well, but the terms have been so structured as to insult him.

(A Republican-partisan stance was used as example here; it’s not intended to be itself a slur on Republicans, and the reverse could well hold true: “No freedom-loving American could agree with Ann Coulter,” for example.)

Personally, I think there’s nothing in the statement “Big Hamish always takes his with sugar” that precludes him putting salt on it, too. And nothing in “Every Scotsman takes salt in his porridge” precludes adding raisins, sugar or anything else, so long as there’s salt. So Big Hamish may put sugar and salt on his oats, making him a true Scot.


My mom used to cut up bacon into little bits and put that in the porridge.

Am I a true Scotsman?

I wonder if it would be any good with Bacon Salt?

Maybe nice steel-cut oats with cheese and bacon salt…



YOU RANG?! :wink:

I’ll take on part of this. And I’m quite comfortable, as I am a non-rapist.

In general, you are taking an Aristotelian approach. Let me say briefly, that Aristotelian logic has been criticized as both lacking the power to “induce” new “truths” and also having a GI/GO factor. “Garbage in, garbage out.”

But let’s focus on the above example.

I would be the first to agree that rape is never justified, and so it would appear that if we are certain that Jack has committed at least one rape, Jack cannot be a moral man.

Or at least, he was not a moral man at the time. What if he was moral until a short time before the rape? (Let’s assume in my analysis that it was a unique action for Jack.) We might well wonder if it would be fair to describe his whole life as not being moral based on the one rape, especially if his prior conduct was not only crime-free, but exemplary.

And, in such an extreme example, I would certainly want to know if there was any evidence that Jack suffered some kind of brain injury, such as a stroke, and his obscenely violent behavior afterward was the result of the resulting change in personality.

This would be an event that Jack certainly didn’t choose, nor would anyone want to. In such an event I could go along with those who generally say that a perpetrator is the first victim of the crime, without wincing or being disgusted.

(This example, BTW, is inspired by an alternate ending to the film “Bubble” in which a woman who truly believes herself innocent of murder finally recalls, in a lock-up, that she alone was standing over the murder victim’s body. And of course she is horrified, despondent and scared to death. But in the alternate ending it is later found that her brain is demonstrably not-quite-right, and she is acquitted.

Just in case anyone was wondering if I was being autobiographical here! :eek: Or talking about another Jack I knew.)

The above isn’t the main point, though. The “no true Scotsman” fallacy specifically refers to the use by some Christians to dismiss any possibility that one can be a Christian, and also a murderer, tyrant or corrupt. etc.

Applying the fallacy-criticism would get into a discussion of born-again versus nominal, and whether, given the distinction, it is common enough or anomalous for the former to act obscenely evil.

This would get into a full-scale religious discussion, which I would certainly not be comfortable with, especially in GQ. :smiley:

# # ADDENDUM: # #

(But, BTW, this most common(?) example starts with “No Christian” rather than “No true…” , as others have already alluded to. I was going to be the first to reply; I’ve got to learn to type faster! :slight_smile: )

True Blue Jack

Jack - Plenty of innocent people are convicted. You may still be a moral man.


You are not the arbiter of the English language. You do not get to define words using your own criteria, then use that self imposed criteria to decree that others are wrong in their definition of the word.

Scotsman is popularly defined as a native or inhabitant of Scotland. The salt in porridge thing is merely your own observation about Scottish porridge habits. How does that observation suddenly re-define a word?

Not to mention that debates based on the definition of a word are singularly useless. Words are just labels, take the badge off of a BMW and slap it on a Kia, you haven’t changed anything but the label.

I believe he meant it more in the sense of a logic exercise than a true defintion of a scotsman.

Actually, these questions would be easily answered if they used the name I learned for the fallacy: Victory by Definition.

No true Scotsman would put salt in his porridge.
Hamish puts salt in his porridge.
Hamish isn’t a true Scotsman.

Thus the actual definition of “true Scotsman” in this example is “someone from Scotland who puts salt in his porridge.” The definition can then be changed as more counterexamples come up.

Note that this is true – but only if the definition of “true Scotsman” is “someone from Scotland who puts salt in his porridge,” so its basically a case of circular reasoning.

Alternatively, Jack may be a moral man but have a prior statutory rape conviction following consensual sex with a young woman one day before her “legal” birthday, even though she looked (and claimed to be) older, was attending college, and had a convincing fake ID.

Related thread.


Um, thanks-- I think…

True Blue Jack

What amazes me is that no one in this thread has stated the fallacy correctly. It’s –

No Scotsman puts *sugar *in his porridge.
Hamish puts sugar in his porridge.
Well, then, he’s no true Scotsman.

The problem isn’t in the definition, it’s in the changing of the definition as the argument proceeds. If I ask a person to define a Scotsman, and he doesn’t include the porridge thing, but then later claims that Hamish isn’t a True Scotsman based on how he has his breakfast, then that person is commiting the fallacy. If, on the other hand, a person starts out by defining a term as he’s using it, and continues to use it in that manner, then he’s not committing any fallacy (though he might be impairing his communication ability, if he’s using a different definition than most).

Scotsman is an example, but the process is the same, regardless of the group the argument is based around. A sweeping statement is made about a group, when a counter example is provided, that statement is then claimed to be a defining characteristic of the group, rather than an observation about the group.

I think RealityChuck’s name for it really puts it into perspective. You don’t win the argument by logic or reasoning, you win it by defining the terms such that it is impossible to lose.