Notes From Babel

Daniel Shapiro on “The Nirvana Fallacy”

with 2 comments

Daniel Shapiro writes:

Consider the following only slightly exaggerated version of an argument that occurs in a lot of political philosophy

1. Institution X is unjust or bad.
2. Therefore, X should be abolished or reformed.

What’s wrong with this? Well, two things, actually, which I describe below.

First, identifying some feature(s) of X as bad or unjust doesn’t give any reason, or at least no particularly strong reason, to believe that an alternative institution will be better or less unjust. A joke illustrates the problem. A Roman Emperor asked to hear the best singers in his kingdom. The finalists were narrowed down to two. The emperor heard the first one, was unimpressed, and promptly announced that the award goes to the other finalist, because the next singer must be better than the first one. Of course, that’s wrong: the second one could be no better or worse. The emperor needs to hear both singers to make a proper judgment.

There’s something about this argument that doesn’t sit well, and I think it’s the implied assumption that we need Institution X.  If there’s no real need for X, then if it’s unjust or bad, this ends the inquiry:  Get rid of X.  We ought never take for granted that we need more government machinery.


Written by Tim Kowal

March 27, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Political Theory

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2 Responses

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  1. It doesn’t seem like you’re addressing the substance of the claim: that when abolishing an institution you are comparing two alternatives. If that’s true, then determining that an institution (governmental or otherwise) is unneeded is insufficient justification for abolition. Instead you have to actively compare the state of affairs that currently exists to the state of affairs that would exist if you abolished it (including the cost of the abolition process and a healthy dose of uncertainty about the state of affairs that would spring up after the abolition). If this sounds a little like Burkean conservatism, that’s not accidental.

    As a trivial example, some people are born with additional fingers or toes, which are unnecessary (at least in theory). But removal of such digits may leave the person worse off, both because of the pain of removal, the possibility of damage or infection through the process. Moreover the hand as a whole may not work as well have grown in the way it did based on the presence of the extra finger.

    There are numerous examples more substantive and relevant than the extra finger one, but they tend to involve so many additional complications that they might muddy the water. The point I’m driving at is simple. Just because something is theoretically “unnecessary” doesn’t mean that you will automatically be better off when it is removed. Sometimes we will be and sometimes we won’t and we have to weigh those questions with evidence and humility, as opposed to deciding them in the abstract.

    Put otherwise, we don’t design the world in which we live from scratch, but rather we adapt it from existing material. As such, it’s more effective to reflect on the consequences of a proposed change than it is to imagine an ideal world and then seek to abolish the parts of the current world which don’t match to our vision.

    Silas K

    March 31, 2015 at 1:33 am

    • [Last comment got eaten — trying again]

      Silas — thanks for reminding me of this post. Yes, when I wrote this, I was might have tended to overreach on the Thomas Sowell sentiment in this quote: “No matter how disastrously some policy has turned out, anyone who criticizes it can expect to hear: ‘But what would you replace it with?’ When you put out a fire, what do you replace it with?” In the case of welfare programs, I think this holds true: The alternative is not to replace dependency of one form with another, it is to abolish the dependency.

      But in generally, to be conservative means to be a Burkean — I will not let you tear down the wall until you can tell me why it’s there.

      I’m blogging at now. Would love to have you.

      Tim Kowal

      March 31, 2015 at 5:35 pm

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