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The "Tu Quoque" Fallacy


As with the most recent post in this series, the understandability of the Tu Quoque fallacy is undermined by the fact that it is Latin in origin. The phrase literally means "you too," and this literal translation illustrates well the concept of the fallacy.


For this fallacy, a reminder is in order concerning informal fallacies. I've distinguished between formal and informal fallacies in this series, but the idea is worth repeating because informal fallacies, which are fallacies connected with inductive reasoning, affect the strength or weakness of inductive arguments, not the validity or invalidity of those arguments. This semantic distinction is important because the premises in inductive arguments do not guarantee the truth of their conclusions. Premises in inductive arguments provide either strong or weak support for their conclusions. If the support is weak, it may be due to one of the fallacies we've covered so far.


To illustrate the Tu Quoque fallacy, consider a hypothetical situation. Suppose that you are a watching a debate on YouTube between a conservative political commentator and a liberal political commentator, and suppose that the liberal political commentator is arguing that capitalism is an oppressive economic system. Here is how the discussion goes:


Liberal: Capitalism is an oppressive economic system whose structure is built on the oppression of the poor working class in a way that benefits only those at the top.

Conservative: Don't you own stock in Apple? Aren't you a millionaire with a thriving podcast company?

Liberal: Er...yes.

Conservative: Evidently, capitalism isn't all that evil. You've benefitted from it.


A video like this would likely go viral and include some title like, "Conservative DESTROYS Stupid Leftist." Indeed, the conservative's point is compelling rhetorically; by showing that the liberal is a hypocrite, he has effectively undermined the liberal's ethos, or credibility. But his argument is actually fallacious. What it effectively shows is that the liberal is acting hypocritically; he doesn't live consistently with his own political convictions. But his hypocrisy is strictly irrelevant to the truth of his claim that capitalism is an oppressive economic system. In fact, in this example, the liberal indicated reasons for his claim, namely, that the capitalistic system is built on the oppression of the poor in a way that benefits only those at the top. Instead of interacting with the claim and the reasons provided by the liberal, the conservative instead points out that he is a hypocrite.


Previously, we've gone through the Ad Hominem fallacy and the Red Herring fallacy. You might be thinking, "this fallacy sounds a lot like one of those fallacies." Indeed, by calling someone a hypocrite, the Tu Quoque fallacy shifts the focus away from the argument and toward the person. Furthermore, by shifting the audience's attention away from reasons provided by the liberal for his claim, this conservative's appeal to the liberal's hypocrisy is a distraction. Again, this similarity reflects the informality of these fallacies, but Tu Quoque is the most accurate label because it points to the hypocrisy of one's interlocutor. Another potential way to describe it, though I'm not necessarily committed to this claim, is that the Tu Quoque fallacy is a particular instance of an Ad Hominem fallacy.


The Tu Quoque fallacy can be confused with other kinds of arguments that are not fallacious. I'll consider two examples to illustrate this. For the first example, consider a conversation between Milly and Jane:


Milly: I am a good person!

Jane: I wouldn't be so sure. You claim that we should be selfless and help others, but you didn't give money to Sally a year ago to help her when she was in financial trouble, even though she is supposedly your friend. You had the means to help her but didn't. Your actions aren't consistent with your moral beliefs.


In this example, the claim, made by Milly, is "I am a good person." Jane undermines this claim by showing that Milly is a hypocrite. Milly claims that being selfless and helping others is good, but she didn't act that way when the opportunity arose. Assuming that being a hypocrite is inconsistent with being a good person, Milly's being a hypocrite is directly relevant to whether she is a good person. Because of this, the argument that Jane made is not an example of a Tu Quoque fallacy. Notice that the nature of the claim being made determines whether that person's hypocrisy is relevant to the truth of the claim. In this case it is, so the argument isn't fallacious.


For the second example, let's look at a hypothetical conversation between Jones and Mark:


Jones: What's wrong with being and atheist and just believing that morality isn't objective? Maybe it's based on something else, like society or cultures.

Mark: Let's consider that possibility. Let's say that you're right, that God doesn't exist and that morality isn't objectively real or true. Would you be okay with me using a racial slur against your friend, who is in a racial minority?

Jones: Of course not. That would be racist!

Mark: Exactly! But if morality isn't objective, who's to say that racism is wrong? Are we to trust a society like the United States in the 1800's, when slavery was legal, on this issue? To them, there was nothing wrong with racism.

Jones: No... But I want to be able to say that we've come a long way since then.

Mark: Right. You want to be able to criticize what people have done in the past and what people do today. But this desire in you is inconsistent with your claim that morality is subjective. So, the way you live your life is inconsistent with your claim that morality is subjective. In fact, no one lives this way.


This discussion connects nicely with the Moral Argument for God's existence, and Mark's approach is a great example of apologetics at work in a conversation. (In fact, I've had almost this exact conversation multiple times.) Notice that Mark, at the end of the conversation, claims that the way Jones lives is inconsistent with his commitment to moral subjectivism.


Is Mark calling Jones a hypocrite in implying that, because of his hypocrisy, moral subjectivism is false? Not at all. Rather, Mark is arguing that moral subjectivism is false because it is inconsistent with the way we intuitively view moral statements and moral disagreement. Typically, when we say, "It is wrong for you to do x," we mean that it is wrong for you to do x, whether or not you agree that it is wrong for you to do x. Jones has revealed through his response to Mark's questions that he is, in fact, a moral objectivist, even if he verbally affirms moral subjectivism. By extending the argument to say that "no one lives this way," Mark makes a larger claim that moral subjectivism is unlivable, that no one can live as if it were true. (This argument is, in fact, an argument for moral objectivism on the basis of intuition.) In this case, again, whether Jones does or even can live consistently with his moral subjectivism is directly relevant to the truth of his claim.


Throughout this series, I have argued that we, as Christians, need to be good thinkers. Given that we have the Holy Spirit, who through sanctification is correcting the damage that sin has wrought upon our feeling and thinking capacities, we should strive to honor Him as we reason. Part of this is being virtuous as we disagree. One problem with the Tu Quoque fallacy is that it can easily be used to delegitimize the other person's perspective without worrying about constructing an argument against his or her position. In other words, it's an easy way out. But critical thinking is hard work, and we shouldn't pass up the hard work of thinking well, which enriches our minds and helps us to love the Lord with our minds, for an easy fallacy that will disparage our opponent. In instances in which we're talking to unbelievers, taking the easy way out will likely drive them away, ruining any chance of making an impact through that conversation. We need to give people good reasons for believing that Christianity is true and for devoting themselves to Christ. Committing fallacies like the Tu Quoque fallacy will get us nowhere.


That's it for this post! These posts are intended to very short and easy to read. I want them to a helpful resource for reference and an introductory resource for people who haven't been exposed to these concepts. I hope that the content will be edifying to you. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!

Sources


For the sake of full disclosure, this is the main resource that I will be using for this series. This is an excellent textbook and worth checking into if you want more information on the subject:

Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Twelfth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

I've also begun using this great resource for Christians on critical thinking:


Dickinson, Travis. Logic and the Way of Jesus: Thinking Critically and Christianly. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2022.

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