Saturday, August 1, 2020


I really dislike the charge of whataboutism, partially because there's already a fallacy addressing the issue with a glorious Latin name: tu quoque ("you too"). The idea is that you justify an action by saying other people do it too -- perhaps even the person accusing you -- and it's a fallacy because pointing to other people who have committed the same action doesn't say anything about whether said action was appropriate or not. So what if someone else did it too? So what if the person accusing you has done it too? Couldn't the action still be inappropriate? Granted it's insanely frustrating when someone who swears like a sailor gives you grief for calling someone a poophead, but that doesn't mean it was OK to call them a poophead.

The problem is how whataboutism is being used today in political discourse. One side says J is doing something bad. The other side says H did the same thing. Pretty straightforwardly fallacious, no? Well . . . no. In most cases, the second side is not defending the action or behavior -- they're not even really addressing it's rightness or wrongness. What they're doing is accusing the first side of hypocrisy: "Your guy, H, did the same thing and you didn't object to it. Therefore, you are selectively applying your moral outrage." And that's a completely valid point to make. It might be true, it might not; perhaps the two cases are not similar enough to make the case. Or maybe the first side did object to it, or never heard about their guy doing the same thing. The point is that tu quoque/whataboutism only becomes a fallacy when you use the "your guy did it too" objection to say that the action is acceptable. But if you're just countering with "If you were really offended by this, you would have been just as offended when your guy did it -- but you weren't," you're not addressing the rightness or wrongness of the action but the moral consistency of the accuser. So yes, the tu quoque approach can be fallacious, but it can also be perfectly justified. There are plenty of valid tu quoque arguments.

At this point another fallacy raises its ugly head: ad hominem ("to the person"). Here, one argues that a person's claim is false because the person is bad in some way, like they're untrustworthy or they have ulterior motives, etc. But of course untrustworthy people with ulterior motives can say true things; we're still not addressing the alleged truth of the claim. So using the tu quoque/whataboutism fallacy to accuse someone of hypocrisy is supposedly an ad hominem: it's arguing against the person instead of the claim.

But once again, this doesn't work, for pretty much the same reason. The second side isn't arguing against the person in order to say that the action in question was justified or appropriate. They're still just arguing that their interlocutors are hypocrites, and that can be a valid point. They're not addressing whether the action was unjustified, they're saying, "Whether it's unjustified or not, YOU don't believe it's unjustified because your guy did the same thing and you had no problem with it."

I'd like to stop here, but someone could still say that the second group is committing a fallacy of irrelevance, like ignoratio elenchi ("ignoring refutation"), which basically means they're ignoring the argument. Instead of addressing the actual subject -- whether the action was justified -- they're changing it to whether the person arguing that it wasn't justified is being hypocritical. But why would the first person to speak get to decide what the debate's about? Refusing to accept the conditions of an assertion is not the same thing as committing the ignoratio elenchi fallacy. It's perfectly appropriate (or it can be perfectly appropriate) to accuse one's interlocutor of hypocrisy. It's not really changing the subject -- both sides are still addressing the appropriateness of an action -- but one side changes the focus of the subject to whether the other person believes the action is inappropriate or not.  How could rational conversation even be possible if we weren't free to change the focus like this?

Here's the bottom line: we already have names for informal fallacies, they're usually Latin and sound really cool, so don't go around making up other names for them that sound stupid.

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