Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The 'If Only One...' Fallacy

There is an argument that occasionally comes up when discussing communal policy. I call the argument the "if only one..." argument. The basic thrust of the argument is as follows: If only one life/soul is saved by implementing policy X, we should do so.

One of the latest examples comes from this Yeshiva World News article concerning teens and cell phones. One commenter said (bolding mine):

r’ webber is absolutely right as is the hanhala of bais shaindel but i ask all readers and comment posters if even one neshoma is lost due to texting or internet isn’t that reason enough for the small sacrafice of voice only phones for all of us and anyone saying that they know better is to blame for all future destruction caused by this epidemic

The fallacy of this argument is that it could be applied to almost anything. For example, perhaps we should outlaw the use of cars (except emergency vehicles). After all, if even one life can be saved, shouldn't that be reason enough?

The fact of the matter is that every activity that we engage in has a specific amount of risk. Every time a person gets into a car (or walks down the street, or plays baseball, or eats, etc.) there is a small possibility that the activity will cost them their life, God forbid. Yet we, as a society, determine that we're going to accept a certain number of fatalities for engaging in this activity. About 42,000 people die per year in car accidents. Shouldn't we invoke the doctrine of v'nishmartem m'od l'nafshoseichem and ban car driving (again, except for emergency vehicles)?

I don't know the number of people who die from alcohol poisoning on Purim, but shouldn't we ban it even if only one person could be saved?

Heck, perhaps we should prevent our kids from coming into contact with any other kids. After all, if even we can save one neshoma from coming into contact with a bad influence and going off the derech, shouldn't we accept that small sacrifice?

Of course, the above questions are ludicrous. The fact of the matter is that we, as a society, have determined that having the benefits of automobiles available to all of us is worth the 42,000 lives that it costs each year. We, as a society, have determined that the value of being able to drink on Purim is worth the possibility that some people may abuse the privlige and die from too much drink. We, as a society, determine that our kids having friends is worth the risk that one of them might turn out bad, even to the point where it might cost us some neshomos down the line.

Now, it should be pointed out that my argument has nothing to do with whether teens should be allowed to have cell phones or not. There are valid arguments for both sides. But the "if only one..." fallacy is not a valid argument -- and it turns up all too often in public policy decisions.

The Wolf


tesyaa said...

If only one life can be saved by someone having a cellphone to call 911 in an emergency, then everyone should be required to carry one.

BrooklynWolf said...

Nice!!! I like that!

The Wolf

tnspr569 said...

I'm guessing that you view these websites for entertainment purposes?

DixieYid (جنوب يهودي) said...

I like your writing! Keep it up! Very good points. We lose our credibility if we support good causes with bad arguments.

-Dixie Yid

Nice Jewish Guy said...

The more I read YWN, the more I'm convinced that they're all nothing but idiots.

Mikeinmidwood said...

I hardly read it and think they are all idiots.

BrooklynWolf said...

I'm guessing that you view these websites for entertainment purposes?


Part of it is debate practice (I like to think that I'm a fairly good debater, but having practice helps) - and identifying and refuting logical fallacies is a part of that.

As I said, I think both sides of the "should kids have cell phones" debate have merits. I just wanted to call attention to this particular fallacy, which I've heard many times before.

The Wolf

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

I like your writing! Keep it up!

Thank you for the kind words!

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

"I don't know the number of people who die from alcohol poisoning on Purim, but shouldn't we ban it even if only one person could be saved?"


Ichabod Chrain

rejewvenate said...

The fallacy in the argument is causation. It may in fact be that banning SMS or cell phones won't save a single neshama - that cell phones do not cause someone to go OTD any more than forks do, but that a person who goes OTD is likely to use forks for eating treif and cell phones to engage in inappropriate relationships.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

Good point. Ironic, isn't it, that a group that lives and breathes arguing logic in the Talmud can't construct a logical thought or argument when it comes to these issues.

Chaim B. said...

OK, I'll play devil's advocate even though I agree with your larger point. The issue boils down to risk/benefit ratio. The quote you pulled asks us to weigh the "small sacrifice" of using a voice-only phone with the grave damage caused by the "loss of even one neshoma." Your examples - e.g. not driving because of the risk of accident - entail a much larger sacrifice, so the risk/benefit ratio is completely different. Do you really think the inconvenience caused by giving up web on the cell is comparable to the inconvenience that would be caused by giving up driving?

BrooklynWolf said...


I agree with you. A cost/benefit analysis *is* the proper way to make a communal policy decision.

As I said, there are merits to both sides of the argument. I wasn't arguing in favor of kids having cell phones. I was simply pointing out the fallacy of the "if only one..." argument.

The Wolf

Yaacov David Shulman said...

Don't chazal use this argument in banning shofar and lulav on Shabbos?

BrooklynWolf said...


I don't think that falls into the "if only one..." fallacy. I think that they were more concerned with many people violating Shabbos.

If they were truly concerned with the "if only one..." fallacy, they would have forbidden Torah learning on Shabbos, lest someone carry their sefer to their rebbe for explanation.

The Wolf