As a professional rhetorician and teacher of rhetoric—the art of persuasion—for over 35 years, I have seen a lot of bad arguments. And not all of them have come from my college students. Not by a long shot.
But in all that time, the worst argument I have ever heard, by far, is this one: “If it only saves one life….”
It’s a line big-government types love to trot out whenever they want good-hearted, well-meaning people to accept some sketchy, illogical, oppressive measure because, you know, it just might save one person’s life. An example is socialized medicine, which would make health care worse for far more people than it helped.
Unfortunately, even many conservatives fall for this line, because they’re generally good-hearted, well-meaning people. Yet in almost every case, it is a bad argument, even a ridiculous argument, for several reasons.
First, it is completely irrational, based solely on emotion. It says nothing about the actual merits of the policy or proposition being put forward. It merely attempts to tug at people’s heartstrings — no one wants to see anybody die, right? — while making those who would oppose the idea on moral or logical grounds appear cruel.
Basically, it’s a form of ad hominem attack, a way to make your opponent look bad without actually addressing what they’re saying—probably because you can’t argue the point logically.
Along with that, the “if it only saves one life” argument is also self-righteous and condescending. It’s not only a way of making your opponent look (and hopefully feel) bad, it’s a way of making yourself look better — as if you, and only you, really care about people. Anyone who disagrees with your (cockamamie) idea obviously just wants people to die.
But mostly it’s a bad argument because it’s disingenuous, at the very least, if not downright hypocritical. For example, those who want to ban “assault rifles” because doing so “might save one life” wouldn’t dream of banning alcohol, even though alcohol kills far more people than AR-15s. So do knives. So do falls, for that matter.
Here’s an idea: Let’s just ban ladders. No? Why not? After all, if it just saves one life, it’s worth it, right? What are you, heartless?
How about securing our borders to prevent violent criminals and people carrying deadly diseases from entering this country unimpeded? How about staunching the flow of narcotics — including heroin, 80 percent of which comes across our southern border and which kills 15,000 Americans each year?
No, the “if it only saves one life” crowd remains firmly opposed to any such measures. That’s because they’re not really interested in saving lives. What they really want is to deprive us of our liberties — liberties they don’t believe we ought to have — under the guise of being caring and humane.
Keep that in mind whenever you hear politicians, in response to a crisis, propose draconian measures in order to “save lives.” For every life “saved,” it’s likely many more will be lost or ruined.