Reductio by analogy

Johah Goldberg wrote a book about public and political discourse.  That makes him an expert about how people argue about policy.  His recent criticism of Joe Biden’s rhetorical flourish “if it saves one life,” reason to heavily regulate fire arms is an occasion for him to act the logic hound:

Maybe it’s because I wrote a whole book on the way phrases like “if it saves only one life, it’s worth it” distort our politics, but whenever I hear such things the hairs on the back of my neck go up.

Ok, so what’s Goldberg’s critical point?  That the ‘saves one life’ line of reasoning doesn’t work for lots of other things we could regulate:

The federal government could ban cars, fatty foods, ladders, plastic buckets, window blinds, or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative that the government do any of that? It’s a tragedy when people die in car accidents (roughly 35,000 fatalities per year), or when kids drown in plastic buckets (it happens an estimated 10 to 40 times a year), or when people die falling off ladders (about 300 per year). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?

Oy.  Well, for sure, he’s responding to stark version of the ‘saves one life’ principle, but the application of the principle in the gun laws case is about regulating a product that’s designed to kill.  For sure, if we can prevent the wrong kinds of deaths, that’s the objective.  So the analogy may be appropriate for a straw liberal, but that’s not Biden’s argument.  And note, on top of all that, we do use a version of the ‘one life’ principle with all those other products, only that we don’t prohibit their purchase.  We regulate salt in foods, we institute speed limits and require safety measures in car production, and have pretty clear warnings about buckets and ladders on them (the presumptions being that people don’t purchase them so as to drown toddlers or jump off of).

The irony of it all is that Goldberg says that phrases like Biden’s cheapens our political discourse.  Sometimes, it’s not the phrase that cheapens, but the way it’s taken.


About Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.
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7 Responses to Reductio by analogy

  1. Ben says:


    “And note, on top of all that, we do use a version of the ‘one life’ principle with all those other products, only that we don’t prohibit their purchase.”

    What is being proposed amounts to a defacto ban on ownership, (regulating “assault weapons” as machine guns), which makes Goldberg’s argument sound. Demanding confiscation of assault weapons because it will “save one life,” is like demanding that we fill in all privately owned swimming pools with concrete.

  2. Scott Aikin says:

    Hi Ben. Thanks for doubling down on the reductio by false analogy, buddy! Nice job not getting the point.

  3. Ben says:

    Why is it relevant that guns are designed to kill? That’s a complete red herring….

  4. Scott Aikin says:

    Now you’re not even being serious, Ben. It’s a product designed to kill, and it looks like it’s being systematically abused. If you can’t see the relevance of that for restriction, sorry, dude. Fill in your pool.

  5. Ben says:

    ” It’s a product designed to kill, and it looks like it’s being systematically abused.”

    99.999% of people who buy assault weapons do not intend to murder other people. So regardless of what they were initially designed for that isn’t why most people are buying them, so it isn’t relevant.

  6. Scott Aikin says:

    There’s a difference between what a product’s designed to do and why people buy them. Guns are designed to so something really destructive is what’s relevant, and not having them available to people who abuse them is the point. If the vast majority of people used Sherman Tanks as planters, we’d still have a reason to restrict them…

  7. Ben says:

    Ignoring the question of self defense, a lot of people (like this man ) collect and shoot guns as a hobby. I think Goldberg’s point is that we need a stronger justification then just one life, before we outlaw their favorite activity.

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