Notes From Babel

Posts Tagged ‘nirvana fallacy

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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