What is the name for X is too hard / hopeless to practically implement,. Therefore abandon X


I come across that kind of argument sometimes, and I would like to know if it has a registered "type of argument" or maybe "fallacy" name in the philosophical literature. The argument runs something like: "there are already more guns than people in the US, therefore it is a lost cause, there is no point trying to improve the situation with guns in the US". Please, let's not argue about guns in the US, but about that type of argument. The idea is that something is more or less hopeless, so there is no point trying to expand any effort on it. Is it just a "personal opinion" rather than a "type of argument"? Is it a "fallacy"?


Posted 2018-02-21T19:47:06.113

Reputation: 360

Maybe Pessimism?.. Not that it's a type of argument, but it's a view that certainly fits this kind of argument. – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-02-22T00:49:55.417

It is a suppressed premise. Something to the effect "controlling people requires a given amount of effort for each person controlled". It is false, because in a lot of situations, people control themselves individually, so there is enough effort available to control almost all of them by simply clarifying motivation. E.g., reproduction -- when the culture clarified how it advantageous to have fewer children, our 'run-away' population growth took care of itself. Western and other high-productivity populations are now all shrinking, creating demographic puzzles in place of overcrowding. – None – 2018-02-23T10:56:24.397

Perfect solution fallacy? False dilemma? False equivalence? – Veedrac – 2018-02-23T11:07:11.190

1Just because there are more guns than people it doesn't necessarily follow that gun control is a lost cause. Not exactly sure what to call that fallacy, but a variant would be "This book has 100 pages. I have only 2 eyes. Therefore, there's no point in trying to read this book" – None – 2018-02-23T16:49:20.147



[Substantially edited after discussion – see comments.]

The post contains a general argument pattern, and a particular argument which tries to instantiate that pattern. Neither is formulated very carefully, so my reconstructions may not be what OP had in mind. Starting with the argument pattern, (p) is a quote from the post and (P) my reconstruction.

(p) If “something is more or less hopeless, […] there is no point trying to expand any effort on it.”

(P) If there is no hope that X will be achieved, then trying to achieve X is pointless.

Note that (p) talks about ‘more or less’ hopeless situations. While it matters just how hopeless the situation is, let’s first focus on situations that are completely hopeless. In turn, if ‘there is no hope that X can be achieved’ is read as ‘it is impossible to achieve X’, then (P) can be unpacked as follows:

(P.1) It is impossible to achieve X.
(P.2) X will not be achieved.
(P.3) There is no point in trying to achieve X.

Barring subtle questions about temporal modal logic, (P.2) follows from (P.1). Getting (P.3) from (P.2) is more difficult formally as we don’t have a formal semantics for the operator ‘it is pointless to try _’. Still if you know you won’t do x, it does seem right to infer that it is pointless to try. In fact, if you already know you won’t/can’t do x, many hold that you can’t even intend to do x. (That's one interpretation of Kavka’s toxin puzzle, I think.) Thus, if (P) is tantamount to (P.1) – (P.3), then (P) is non-fallacious, and in that sense 'valid'.
Turning to situations that are less than completely hopeless, let’s replace (P.1) with (P.1*).

(P.1*) It is unlikely that that X will be achieved.

While (P.2) no longer follows, there’s a sense in which (P.3) is supported by (P.1*): if X is unlikely enough, then the expected value of attempting to achieve X may be a loss. E.g., unless the jackpot is very large, you’d expect that buying a lottery ticket will lead to a loss of money. That may not make the purchase entirely pointless; but everything else being equal, the rational choice is not to buy the ticket.

Let’s now turn to the particular argument, with (a) being a quote and (A.1) to (A.3) being my reconstruction.

(a) “there are already more guns than people in the US, therefore it is a lost cause, there is no point trying to improve the situation with guns in the US”

(A.1) There are more guns than people.
(A.2) Thus, there is no hope that gun safety can be achieved.
(A.3) Thus, there is no point in trying to improve gun safety.

Note that (A.2) does not follow from (A.1): while (A.2) may be some kind of ‘empirical consequence’ of (A.1), we can easily imagine a situation in which (A.1) is true but (A.2) false. (I’ll leave that to the reader.) One could try replacing (A.1) with e.g. ‘There are too many guns for us to control’, but I don’t think that will help: it’s still not clear that (A.2) follows. Worse, (A.1) begs the question, and may also contain a false disambiguation: people might agree to ‘There are too many guns’, but then ‘too many’ is (illicitly) interpreted as ‘too many to control’.
Finally, there’s the step from (A.2) to (A.3). This is supposed to be an instance of (P), but I don’t think it is: while (A.2) seems to talk about achieving complete gun safety, (A.3) concerns attempts to improve gun safety. (Btw., I’m leaving open what ‘gun safety’ actually amounts to.) In other words, rather than being an instance of (P), the step from (A.2) to (A.3) is similar to the fallacy of division, illustrated by (i) and (ii):

(i) We can’t save all the drowning castaways.
(ii) Thus, we can’t (and shouldn’t try to) save any of the drowning castaways.

We could try to replace (A.2) with (A.2*), or (A.3) with (A.3*). While either would yield an instance of (P), (A.2*) is much less convincing than (A.2), and (A.3*) leaves open that gun safety can be improved - albeit not to perfection.

(A.2*) There is no hope that gun safety can be improved.
(A.3*) There is no point in trying to achieve (complete) gun safety.

Conclusion. While the OP’s argument pattern is non-fallacious (under one reconstruction), the particular argument isn’t an instance of this pattern. It can be turned into such a pattern, but it is then either not convincing or not interesting.


Posted 2018-02-21T19:47:06.113

Reputation: 761

The argument is obviously not valid though. – Veedrac – 2018-02-23T10:58:27.340

@Veedrac It’s not obvious to me. I agree that the argument is unsuccessful, and also that the following is invalid: ‘There are more guns than people. Thus, we can’t solve the gun problem.’ Still, (i) to (iii) seems like a possible, and not too implausible, reconstruction of what the argument’s proponent is trying to get at. As the OP says: ‘The idea is that something is more or less hopeless, so there is no point trying to expand any effort on it.’ In turn, if a situation really is hopeless and literally cannot be fixed, then trying is pointless. – MarkOxford – 2018-02-23T13:59:27.107

Downvote: see my comment on the original question re why the argument is invalid. I think your summary mis-states the argument. Your point (i) contains a hidden premise ("too many" guns implies it's impossible to control guns), in part because "too many" doesn't really have a meaning. If you mean "there are too many guns to control; therefore it is impossible to control all guns [though it may be possible to control some]", that's just a tautology. – None – 2018-02-23T16:51:53.833

Thanks or the post and the ensuing discussion. – Frank – 2018-02-23T17:57:44.407

@barrycarter Here’s the point I was making: the inference from ‘It's hopeless’ to ‘It's pointless’ seems valid. Hence if someone accepts ‘It’s impossible to solve the gun problem [GP]’, they’d be justified in inferring: ‘Any attempt to solve the GP is pointless’. – Your point seems to be: that there are more guns than people, does not mean that it is impossible to solve the GP. I agree with this point, but it doesn’t affect my point. In fact, I explicitly said that (i) is very debatable, and that the following is invalid: ‘There are more guns than people. Thus, we can’t solve the GP.’ – MarkOxford – 2018-02-23T18:27:59.303

@barrycarter Perhaps the confusion stems from the parenthetical remark after (i): it’s only meant to indicate why people accept (i), but isn’t intended as part of (i). Instead, (i) is just the claim that gun control is impossible. As for the meaning of ‘too many’: again, I agree that we can (mis-)use this to render the argument trivial. (You call it a tautology, I called it question-begging.) That was supposed to be the second rendering of the argument. Under that rendering, the step from (i.a) to (i.b) is either trivial or invalid. – MarkOxford – 2018-02-23T18:29:07.080

@MarkOxford "It’s not obvious to me." → Pest control is impossible because there are more insects than people, therefore it is a lost cause so there is no point for farmers to use insecticide. Obvious now? – Veedrac – 2018-02-23T20:10:03.273

The argument boils down to "this sounds like a hard problem, so rather than thinking of solutions I'm going to quote an irrelevant statistic and claim that it's hopeless." – Veedrac – 2018-02-23T20:13:50.323

@Veedrac It’s obvious that ‘There are more insects than people’ does not imply ‘Pest control is pointless’ – just like (as I already said) ‘There are more guns than people’ does not imply ‘We can’t solve the gun problem’. What is not obvious is that this is step is a crucial part of the argument that the OP is asking about. As already quoted, he says he is interested in the step from ‘It’s hopeless’ to ‘It’s pointless’, and not (or, not only) in the step from ‘It’s hard’ to ‘It’s hopeless’. Of course that latter step is bad. – MarkOxford – 2018-02-23T21:13:04.107

@MarkOxford That step is also nonsense though. Here's another analogy where the step to "hopelessness" is correct and only everything else is stupid: "There is too much illness to handle with current scientific means; we cannot hope to fix it with even an exorbitantly-funded public health service. Therefore there is no point trying to improve the US health service." – Veedrac – 2018-02-23T22:49:14.187

I appreciate that it is not technically impossible that there is no feasible publicly-enactable system of gun control that reduces gun crime, and it's even plausible that there isn't one where the reduction is worth the cost, but there is literally zero evidence given in the quoted argument. You cannot feasibly consider it persuasive without already having so much of the argument preformed in your mind that you already agree with the conclusion. I cannot consider a statement so vacuous to have any bearing on truthseeking. – Veedrac – 2018-02-23T22:53:48.950

@Veedrack There are premises, and there are reason for accepting (or not) these premises. I agree that lots of weapons/lots of insects/lots of ill people aren’t a good reason for accepting ‘We can’t solve the gun problem/insect problem/heath problem’. Yet that doesn’t mean we can’t consider that statement and ask what it implies. That’s what I’ve been doing. Once that statement is accepted (for whatever reason), one can validly infer that trying to solve the gun problem, is pointless. – MarkOxford – 2018-02-24T10:20:21.620

@Veedrack Still, I think I see now what you’re saying: ‘We can’t control all guns/kill all bugs/heal all the sick’ does not imply ‘We can’t control any of the guns’? I agree with that. To draw that inference would be the Fallacy of Division. I also agree the following is invalid: ‘It is hopeless/impossible to control allguns. Thus, it is pointless to try to control any of the guns.’ Put somewhat sloppily, ‘We can’t solve the gun problem’ does not imply ‘We can’t improve the gun situation’. (We’d need to say how ‘solving the problem’ differs from ‘improving the situation’. – MarkOxford – 2018-02-24T10:25:10.213

@MarkOxford I think you correctly understand my objection. – Veedrac – 2018-02-24T11:27:18.483

@MarkOxford, I would say the premises 1,2,& 3 are rewording the same idea. Synonyms cannot be separate propositions to an argument. You found three ways to express the same concept. Therefore your attempt to save the op argument can't be valid. Are you using logic for subject matter content or logical form? The mathematical logic guys say logic is about form alone and you seem o lean heavy on subject content the way you wrote you premises to save the op argument. We know it is fallacious already and I understand you are trying to make something good out of it. This will be hard to do. – Logikal – 2018-03-16T03:05:57.830


I think the fallacy you are looking for is the Perfect Solution Fallacy, where the arguer dismisses a proposed solution because it is not "perfect."

In your example, the arguer has dismissed the idea of gun control because "there are already too many guns--it is useless to try to control them."


Posted 2018-02-21T19:47:06.113

Reputation: 370