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I'm trying to figure out the exact fallacy (or if it even is one) that takes the form:

If abolition of x isn't possible, we shouldn't attempt to address x.

I see this quite often from radical second amendment supporters ("criminals are going to get guns, so all gun reform is useless") and I most recently saw this from an anti-transportation reform advocate (!?) ("Drivers will disobey laws so we should not enact laws that constrain drivers.")

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 13, 2023 at 7:56
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    I think that the premise that this is a fallacy isn't always correct. Sometimes it can very well be that a half measure makes things worse than not doing anything at all.
    – Opifex
    Apr 14, 2023 at 15:08
  • @Opifex I agree that is sometimes true and I can name cases. But the simple statement without more that "If abolition of x isn't possible, we shouldn't attempt to address x" is obviously false. Abolition of heroin probably isn't possible, but there are a number of steps that could address harm reduction for instance. Apr 14, 2023 at 16:11

6 Answers 6

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The fallacy is comparison to perfection. Commonly known as the Nirvana fallacy.

It is a common rhetorical maneuver. The person performing the move compares all opponents to perfection, finds them imperfect, and concludes only their own proposal is acceptable. They are usually careful to avoid comparing their own position to anything, relying on their opponents to be honest enough not to do the same move, even when facing it.

A correct understanding of such situations is that perfection is almost never obtainable. (I don't have an example of perfection in real life, but I cannot support a claim that it is never obtainable.) Thus we must (usually) make comparisons on the basis of different options being relatively preferable. We must examine the choices on the basis of imperfect data and imperfect understanding, and choose the option that seems the best overall.

For example, the gun laws. The correct objection is to ask how the new proposed laws will make a difference that the existing laws don't. And what the data is that supports such claims, what the costs are of the new laws, etc. and etc.

In each case, the mover will change the discussion to a comparison with perfection. This can be proffered up as either a reason not to change the existing conditions or a reason to reject the current conditions. Existing laws are not perfect so must be changed, or, proposed laws are not perfect so cannot be accepted.

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    +1 Nice. Special case of false dichotomy.
    – J D
    Apr 11, 2023 at 19:16
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    @JD Indeed. Seems like the perfect special case here. TIL :-)
    – Frank
    Apr 11, 2023 at 22:08
  • Can this situation be comparated to "one bad apple spoils the whole barrel" when an entire lawsuit is archived just by a single piece of evidence taken incorrectly?
    – Magno C
    Apr 13, 2023 at 16:30
  • "When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away."
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 14, 2023 at 10:40
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It seems to me your arguments as examples are examples of either-or fallacies.

P1 Criminals are going to get guns.
(P2 If any criminal gets a gun, gun reform doesn't work.)
C Therefore, we either prevent all criminals from getting guns or we make no effort to prevent any criminal from getting a gun.

P1 Drivers will violate the law.
(P2 If any driver violates the law, traffic law doesn't work.)
C Therefore, we either prevent all drivers from violating the law or we make no effort to prevent any driver from violating the law.

In the first case, to claim that gun laws don't work because they don't work universally is silly. And the same is the case for traffic laws. Scientific studies often show that incremental restrictions and requirements show incremental improvements because life is rarely all-or-nothing. Any argument that claims if one thing is a failure then everything is a failure seems to me to smack of a false dilemma.

Other possible fallacies for consideration would be the fallacy of composition and hasty generalization. Just because one incident of enforcement may be a failure, doesn't imply that the system of enforcement is a failure. In fact, systems of enforcement in the real world are enacted with the expectation of failures to be incrementally improved upon. Likewise, to get from the claim that a single incident of failure necessarily entails nothing but failure without adequate warrant would be to reach an indefensible generalization about incidents of failure.

Which of the three, including potentially all three simultaneously, would rely on explication on what you present as an argument with one explicit premise and one conclusion which is almost the bare minimum one can present as an argument.

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9

While the extreme position of "Complete abolition being impossible is sufficient to prove any policy bad" is fallacious, I question whether the cases where you think this characterizes the argument do in fact fit. It is much more likely that people are making a claim along the lines of "This particular policy fails to completely solve the problem, and this failure makes the policy undesirable". This is not a fallacy, and there are many reasons why it could be a reasonable position:

It's no longer worth the cost. In a cost benefit analysis, a lower benefit may mean that it's no longer worthwhile.

It has a lower marginal benefit. A small decrease in efficacy can dramatically decrease benefit. For instance, if we could administer a drug and eliminate all COVID, that would be very useful. If we had a drug that eliminated 99% of COVID, but 1% of the virus has mutations that makes the virus immune to the drug, then that 1% would soon take the place of the rest, and after a few weeks we would largely be back to where we started.

Marginal benefit can even be negative. For instance, consider a revolution attempt against an oppressive dictatorship. If everyone participates, then it succeeds and the dictatorship is overthrown. But if only some people participate, then the people that participate will be killed, and everyone else will have to live under more oppressive conditions put into place to prevent another attempt. So some people participating is worse than none. Your example of gun control (besides looking rather like a strawman) fits into this category: there are some that believe that a world in which everyone has a gun is better than one in which only criminals and cops (two categories that are hardly mutually exclusive) have guns. You may disagree, but disagreeing with you is not a "fallacy".

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  • I think that in terms of cost - benefit analysis, it is hard to justify anything. Hopefully that's not the only way to decide?
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 14, 2023 at 10:47
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It isn't a fallacy. It is normal not to waste time on X, if X is impossible.

Now, perhaps you need to refine your argument, such as restricting guns to the kind made during the 2nd Amendment for example, so that X is no longer an impossibility or a logical contradiction.

Define your terms better or define the argument better, then you can (perhaps) resolve it.

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    the fallacy is about conflating "improve X" with "perfect X".
    – njzk2
    Apr 13, 2023 at 21:23
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    So people should refute the appeal to impossible perfection by looking at more detail. I think this is probably the only way problems get solved. "Man will never fly!"" No? I've got a bicycle right here...
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 14, 2023 at 10:44
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Loki's wager is perhaps close:

Loki's wager is the unreasonable insistence that a concept cannot be defined, and therefore cannot be discussed

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It’s not a fallacy at all, because it’s not an argument, it’s an opinion, and it may or may not be correct. This is not an argument either: the cure is worse than the disease.

Whether attempting to do something that is bound to fail, is worthwhile depends upon context.

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    It’s not a fallacy at all, because it’s not an argument, it’s an opinion, and it may or may not be correct. That's almost literally the definition of an informal fallacy. An argument not being an actual argument doesn't disqualify it from being a fallacy. Quite the contrary, when someone makes an argument that isn't an actual argument, chances are good that they committed a fallacy of some kind. For example, if I said your argument was invalid because you are a ninny-headed lubberwort, that would also be an opinion instead of an actual argument... and it would be an ad hominem fallacy.
    – Abion47
    Apr 13, 2023 at 15:37

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