24 January 2011

Frolicking with Fallacies 4: Tu Quoque

“This candidate wants you to believe he’s hard on crime.  He wants you to believe that, if you elect him over me, your children will be safe, your property will be safe, you’ll be safe.  Throughout his campaign, he’d given you all sorts of arguments, trying to convince you that you’ll be safe with him.  Well, guess who has a criminal record?”

The crowd sucks in a collective gasp.

“That’s right -- my ‘esteemed’ competition, was convicted of marijuana possession while a senior at Wayctuvtym University!  And he wants you to believe he’ll be hard on crime?  For shame.”

The fallacy known as Tu Quoque (pronounced “too qwo-qway”) is another member of the Ad Hominem family.  He’s the relative who sends snide letters to the local newspaper every week to denounce his neighbours, and who shows up to all the family gatherings drunk out of his tree.  You love poor old Tu Quoque, we all do, but he’s embarrassing.  His name is Latin for any of the following (just take your pick): “So are you,” “So do you,” “You too,” “You’re doing it, too” or “I saw you do it yesterday, asshole”. 

Basically the way it works is this:

ALPHONSE: The claim that gun control regulations reduce crime is unsupported by any evidence, therefore we should reject it.

BERTHA: But you believe that gun control regulations reduce crime!  You said so yesterday!

Or here’s another example from that wittiest and most stimulating of environs, the nursery:

L’IL BERTHA: You shouldn’t lie, Alphonse!  Lyin’s bad! 

L’IL ALPHONSE: You lied to mommy yesterday, so there!  Pllllbbbbtttt!

The Tu Quoque can’t refute anything.  It has no rational power on its own.  Why?  Well, the reasons for its failure differ slightly, depending on which form we’re dealing with, for this fallacy, like many of its brethren, takes several forms – the Glass Houses Fallacy, the Two Wrongs Fallacy, the Common Practice Fallacy, the One-Upping Fallacy, and the Opportunistic Fallacy.  I’ll deal with them one at a time, because with all these varieties we risk stepping into a bewildering morass of argumentative goo. 

The Glass Houses Fallacy

I call the “Moral Tu Quoque” the Glass Houses Fallacy, because of its relation to the old saying, “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” – which itself is probably rooted in Jesus’ loaded order, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.  We often commit the Glass Houses Fallacy in all sincerity, believing that those who commit a wrong have no right to criticize others for doing so.  So it seems quite natural for us to believe that, by pointing out someone else’s misdeeds, we have disabled their moral argument.  We haven’t. 

This version isn’t always used so innocently.  Sometimes we use it as a tactic, shifting the focus from our own misdeeds to the prior misdeeds of others to save face, thus sparing ourselves both shame and humiliation. 

The structure of the Glass Houses Fallacy is simple: “How could you say or do X, when you do Y?”  Let’s say you have two people – Alphonse and Bertha again -- at a pro-death penalty rally, carrying placards made with magic markers, shouting slogans at passers-by, the usual.  A local reporter stops by and asks them why they’re at the rally.  Bertha says it’s because killing is wrong, the worst thing one can do, absolutely evil, therefore those who kill should be killed.  The reporter says, “How can you say killing is wrong when you’re here to convince the governor to reinstate the death penalty?  Don’t you know that’s killing?”

What’s that reporter implying?  If he’s implying that Bertha’s statement, “Killing is wrong” is false, because she supports a type of killing, then he’s committing the fallacy.  His argument is something like this:

P1 – If killing is wrong, then Bertha would not support any kind of killing.

P2 – Bertha supports capital punishment, which is a type of killing.

C – Therefore, killing is not wrong.

That’s a pretty crappy argument, because there’s no necessary connection between the “wrongness” of killing and Bertha’s support.  Much as we might respect dear Bertha, her opinions don’t set any sort of standard that the rest of us have to take seriously.  Nor does her support of capital punishment provide any rational justification to support or reject the claim that “Killing is wrong”.

Now, if I say that killing is wrong, then support the death penalty or war or abortion, or any other sort of killing, that doesn’t mean that the proposition “Killing is wrong” has now become false.  Perhaps I’m just a hypocrite.  Or maybe I was speaking loosely when I said, “Killing is wrong,” and I actually meant something more qualified – such as, “Killings that I disapprove of are wrong”.  It doesn’t matter.  The point is that even if I’m a total hypocrite, it doesn’t follow that the proposition I’m asserting is false.  As with the Ad Hominem fallacy proper, we need to remember that a statement, idea, or belief isn’t guilty by association with a hypocrite.  The mere fact that someone doesn’t follow his own arguments or live up to her own standards doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with those arguments or standards.  Hypocrisy is a moral failure, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate a false conclusion or ridiculous standard. 

I often think of this when I hear people railing against Christian ethics because so many Catholic priests have been convicted of child molestation (last I heard, the priesthood may have a higher rate of child molestation than any other profession in North America).  The assumption seems to be that there must be something wrong with Christian ethics because so many of its most prominent proponents, the people who are supposed to lead the flock and provide a moral example, have committed such a horrendous crime.  But the assumption is illogical.  It’s fallacious.  There are many good reasons to reject Christian ethics, but the fact that some prominent Christians violate their own code doesn’t mean the code is false, misguided, ridiculous, or anything else.  Even if every Christian in the world failed, daily, to live up to their standards, the validity or rationality or acceptability of the code would remain untouched. 

In the circles I grew up in, which weren’t Catholic, those who eventually came to rail against Christian ethics often cited “PKs” – “Preacher’s kids” – as a convincing counterargument to the moral exhortations of the preachers.  PKs were invariably narcissistic cruel brats who inspired contempt in the rest of us.  If the preachers were right about ethics, and about how children should be raised, then it was assumed their kids must be perfect angels.  Which obviously wasn’t true.  So that was taken as a decisive counterargument against Christian ethics and parenting by some people.  But it’s a fallacy.  Those ethical standards aren’t guilty by association with bratty kids or poor parents.

The Two Wrongs Fallacy

Now we come to the Two Wrongs Fallacy – this is when you conclude that, for instance, because someone else killed, you can kill too, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  Usually this version is innocent, not tactical.  That is, we don’t use it to try to persuade people illegitimately or manipulatively, we just aren’t thinking through our assumptions very carefully.  Even if 5,000,000 people have committed a wrong, that doesn’t, on its own, make it right.  At the very least, there’s a premise missing from the argument, and once that assumption is brought to light, the foolishness of the whole argument tends to become obvious.  It’s usually something along the lines of, “If you can do it, it’s only fair that I can do it too”.  That has a superficial sort of appeal until it’s turned against you.

The Two Wrongs Fallacy has been used, and is still used, to justify all sorts of things – from war and capital punishment and assault and torture to cheating on your taxes and spreading vicious gossip.  There may be good justifications for at least some of those things, but you’ll need to look elsewhere, because the Two Wrongs Fallacy doesn’t cut it.  In the meantime, this fallacy lends many questionable behaviours and beliefs an undeserved (in some cases) air of legitimacy.  And it’s self-perpetuating because it’s so common.  It feeds into and off of our most destructive instincts.  I think it’s okay to kill a member of your family because you killed a member of mine, but then you think it’s okay to kill a member of my family because, hey, I should have realized that first one was an accident and now I had the nerve to kill someone you love dearly, but now you’ve killed another of my children so it’s okay to kill another of yours and . . . ad infinitum.  It’s fallacious reasoning.  That’s something we can deal with rationally.  And there are other means to address the underlying emotions, which have far more to do with generating this sort of thinking than does reason.

The Common Practice Fallacy

The next version of Tu Quoque is closely related to the third – in fact, they’re often indistinguishable.  Hey, just because we’re dealing with logic doesn’t mean that boundaries aren’t fuzzy!  I’m talking about the Common Practice Fallacy.  Everyone will recognize this one – it’s “Everybody does it!”  Hell, we’ve probably all used this one at least once in our lives, and probably dozens and dozens of times more.  Yet, when we stop to think about it, most of us realize that it doesn’t matter how many people are doing something (say, pirating movies) or believing something (say, that the U.S. government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks) because that doesn’t make it true or right or much of anything else.  But we won’t discuss this one any more today because we’re going to deal with it in more detail when we take up the Democratic Fallacy.  They’re more or less the same thing.  See?  Fuzzy boundaries!

The One-Upping Fallacy

Ready for more?  The One-Upping Fallacy has been practically omnipresent in my life, to the point where I just tune it out now.  I went through a period in which, I swear, I encountered this fallacy at least once per day.  Here’s a common example:


BERTHA: What happened, yo?

ALPHONSE: A venomous snake just bit my foot!  It burns!  It burns!

BERTHA: Oh, that’s nothing.  I had my arm chewed on by a cougar a few years ago and it hurt way more than a stupid old snake bite.  Don’t be a baby.

The form is simple: X isn’t so bad/undesirable/regrettable/horrific because Y is worse.  You know what?  Snake bites and cougar bites are both painful, even if one is more painful than the other (which is a difficult thing to determine, anyway).  Even if cougar bites are more painful than snake bites, it doesn’t make snake bites a party anyone wants to attend.

The Opportunistic Fallacy

We now come to the Opportunistic Fallacy, which takes the form: “Like you wouldn’t do the same thing if you had the chance”.  Let’s say I condemn someone for keeping a wallet full of cash that he found in a restaurant bathroom, instead of turning it in to the maitre’d.  “What a horrible thing to do,” I say.  “That could be someone’s rent money!”  You scoff and say, ‘Like you wouldn’t keep it if you were in that situation”.  Maybe I would and maybe I wouldn’t – it doesn’t affect the truth of the implied moral claim – “It is wrong to keep someone else’s money” – in any way.  Whether I’m a saint or a complete jerk doesn’t make a difference to the truth or falsity of that statement. 

This version of Tu Quoque is especially popular when people try to justify vigilante justice, such as acts of violence committed against child molesters or kitten-stompers.  When people like these are beaten, tortured, or killed, woe betide anyone who dares question the ethics of such violence.  They inevitably face the contemptuous question, “If that was your kid/kitten, wouldn’t you want to do the same thing?” delivered with self-righteous outrage.  That would be relevant – if the subject matter of ethics was How to Rationalize Things that We Want to Do Anyway”.  Which it isn’t.  Ethical arguments are about justifying the claim that something is right or wrong, not coming up with excuses for indulging our darkest impulses.

And yet . . .

When they’re used tactically, like any other fallacy of relevance, the purpose of Tu Quoque arguments is to distract, to divert attention away from something that the speaker doesn’t want to face, or doesn’t want others to rationally examine.  It’s a bit of slight of hand that can, quite easily, lead people far from the original topic, which they promptly forget.  As a diversionary tactic, though, it’s probably the easiest to spot of all the Ad Hominems.  If you’re vigilant, you’ll probably notice it nine times out of ten.

There are sound, legitimate, uses of Tu Quoque-style arguments – but we don’t call them “Tu Quoques” because they’re not fallacious.  Their legitimacy is a function  of your intent in using them, and as long as you follow them up rationally, sometimes you can get away with it.  On such use is to call attention to someone’s moral authority.  If you’re not using your target’s hypocrisy to “prove” his statement wrong, but merely to show that he’s in no position to condemn others without condemning himself, that’s legitimate.  In addition, Tu Quoque-style arguments can be legitimate when you’re using them  to question someone’s sincerity or commitment, whether she really believes what she says she believes – because, for instance, she sure doesn’t act like she believes what she’s saying!  In these cases, you’re not using the apparent hypocrisy to discredit the person’s argument, but to assess the prior trustworthiness of the arguer.  You’ll still need to deal with the argument on its own terms, anyway, no matter how untrustworthy or insincere you believe the arguer is. 

And that’s the trick.  It’s really easy to claim – and even believe – that you’re just questioning someone’s sincerity, even when the actual consequence is that you’ve prejudiced everyone else against that person’s argument, and effectively ensured that it won’t get a fair hearing.  So easy, in fact, that the honest arguer avoids Tu Quoque-style arguments whenever possible.  The potential for abuse is too great.

Let’s remember, too, that sometimes people who seem to be hypocrites are really just people who have changed their minds – perhaps for very good reasons.  In those cases, we need to know what their reasons are, because they may be relevant to us.  Perhaps, if they’re good reasons, they’ll change our minds as well.  Really, there are potentially good reasons for changing your mind about practically every issue, and a lot of learning has to do with finding and accepting those reasons.  So we want to make sure that we don’t condemn people for doing what is often perfectly rational: changing their minds in accordance with new evidence and arguments.

Finally, let’s all remember something very important: We’re all hypocrites.  Every one of us.  There isn’t a person in history, to my knowledge, who wasn’t a hypocrite to some extent.  In fact, it’s impossible for us to have 100% integrity because the human mind just isn’t set up to allow it.  It isn’t a unified machine in which every part works toward a common goal.  It’s a complex mess of conflicting desires and impulses, beliefs that seem true when we’re in a good mood but false when we’re in a bad mood, hopes and dreams and anxieties, all sorts of emotions and values.  And they don’t always work together very well.  So we find ourselves, for instance, spending tons of money to get something that we think will make us happier even though we told our children just the day before that “money can’t by happiness”.  Yet here we are, acting as though money can buy us happiness.  It isn’t as though we’re insincere.

Just human.


  1. Is it ever right to say: "take the speck out of your own eye because accusing me of X and Y"? And was Jesus committing Tu Quoque when he accused the Pharisees of 'not being without sin' yet wanting to stone an adulterous woman? Thanks

  2. Yes h was. As far as I can tell, Jesus never encountered a fallacy he wouldn't use. :)


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