Tag Archives: tu quoque

The argument police

Image result for turtles all the way down

Here’s a bracing passage from a recent article in the Baffler:

IN THE HEYDAY OF THE INTERNET MESSAGE BOARD, let’s say in the 1990s, a certain species of idiot materialized. He was male, aggressively pedantic, self-professedly logical, committed to the hard sciences, prone to starting sentences with “actually,” and almost always devoted to the notion that his disbelief in God imbued him with intellectual superiority.

There are several others like it. I have to admit that reading them stung a bit–this is after all what we do here. If you openly claim to do be self-conscious about your logicness, then any failing real or otherwise is an occasion for disdain and dismissal. It’s annoying, because everyone is their own logic police. As C.S. Peirce observed:

Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocination and does not extend to that of other men.

But one part of me thinks the criticism is for this reason completely superficial, not to mention self-contradictory. There’s something of the logic police in it: just another layer higher. When it comes to being critical, it’s turtles all the way down.

And therein lies the question. Argument analysis has its own terms of art. Tu quoque is an example. Using these terms of art in mixed company is nearly always a bad idea. I stress this over and over in my critical thinking classes. Do not use a fallacy name on anyone ever. I know, by the way, I’m guilty of this very thing many times here. In my defense, however, my presumption is that the targets know the terms and besides, I don’t do really do that anymore.

This raises, however, a somewhat tragic (to my mind) point–related to the turtles above. Is not using the name–say, tu quoque–sufficient? Should we not find ways of pointing it out either? That’s pretty much the same thing–it just takes longer (and sort of presumes the target not versed in the right terms). Besides, not using the standard names doesn’t stop people (or perhaps encourages them) from creating a duplicate set of terms. Now, for instance, we have “whataboutism” and others. It does the same exact work at twice the cost.

We can’t avoid the need of evaluating reasons (our own and that of others). We also for this reason can’t avoid the problem of evaluating the evaluating of reasons. It’s simpler, perhaps, just to remind ourselves of Peirce’s observation: everyone is perfectly logical and ignore the temptation to consider it some kind of hypocrisy or arrogance when they’re not.

Hypocrisy that isn’t

Image result for hypocrisy

Many years back, Megan McArdle wrote that people who want higher taxes can just tax themselves and donate the excess. Their failure do this reveals their hypocrisy, so they should STFU.

That’s silly.

There was another example of this over the weekend. Tomi Lahren,  a conservative internet personality, decries Obamacare to beat the band. It so turns out that the 24 year-old benefits from a central provision of the law (that children can remain on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26). To some (and to judge by internet trends many) this is some kind of rank hypocrisy:

Tomi Lahren says the Affordable Care Act is a disaster that’s in a death spiral, but that hasn’t stopped her from benefitting from it.

During an interview with comedian Chelsea Handler at Politicon, the controversial 24-year-old conservative commentator trashed Obamacare for 10 minutes before admitting to the crowd that she was, in fact, still on her parents’ health insurance plan.

“Okay, so do you have a health care plan or no?” Handler asked.

“Well, luckily I’m 24, so I am still on my parents’,” Lahren said.

The irony was not lost on the audience, which promptly started to boo, laugh and chant, “Thanks, Obama!”

A law as complex as Obamacare (it was many pages long, remember), affects pretty much everyone. This makes it nearly impossible for one to avoid benefiting (or suffering from) some of its provisions. The fact that Lahren benefits from a provision of it does not make her a hypocrite anymore than the non-volunteering tax payer of Megan McArdle’s imagination.

Indeed, as we’ve probably pointed out before, the practical impossibility of avoiding something is often a condition of laws. If this fact–the fact that you’re subject to thing you disagree with–were disqualifying, it’d be very hard to have disagreements in a democracy at all.

For more on tu quoque arguments, see this post by Scott.

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do

There is no question that President Trump has done a 180 on military intervention in the Middle East. You can see the tweet record here.

It is reasonable, I think, to call this hypocrisy or inconsistency. That’s why we have those terms. They’re shorthand for saying, “you have changed your view without signaling any reasons for having done so.” Part of what this evaluation points out, in other words, is that it’s time for reasons. After all, there’s been a change, and we normally expect there to be something to justify the change.

So this is a discussion we ought to have and “hypocrite” or “inconsistent” are terms we need to use.  But that’s just me. Here’s Josh Marshall from TPM.

Donald Trump has said all manner of contradictory things about Syria and unilateral airstrikes. He said Obama shouldn’t attack in 2013 and insisted he needed congressional authorization to do so. Now he is contradicting both points. But whether or not Trump is hypocritical is not a terribly important point at the moment. Whether he’s changed his position isn’t that important. But the rapidity and totality with which he’s done so is important. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the intervention question. But impulsive, reactive, unconsidered actions seldom generate happy results.

Another way to put this is that while I agree it’s silly for the now to focus on calling Trump a hypocrite, the man’s mercurial and inconstant nature makes his manner of coming to the decision as important as the decision itself. That tells us whether he’ll have the same worldview tomorrow, whether this is part of any larger plan. There are arguments for intervention and restraint. But given what we know of Trump, it is highly uncertain that this is part of either approach. It may simply be blowing some stuff up.

Which is another way of saying his hypocrisy raises questions. This is why we have  meta-linguistic terminology. And the important thing about the metalanguage  is that it makes our analytical work easier. We don’t need to build new theories every time we encounter a problem.

The real hypocrites

It’s Saint Patrick’s day. Where I come from, Michigan, it means corned beef and cabbage.  Thank goodness those days are over. Should you suffer a dearth of Irish today, you can watch this video. It will sustain you for a year.

Twitter brings us today’s topic–tu quoque. You can’t get enough of this stuff.

That’s Erick Erickson, a true Christian. Consider the second tweet. It could be one of two thoughts.

First, the (in this case non-Christian) people who allege hypocrisy are not qualified to determine whether Christians are hypocrites are not. They’re not Christians, so they don’t know anything about what Christian dogma entails.

This is clearly false. They could be ex-Christians. Or they could just know what Christian morality requires. You can get this from books nowadays, or even the internet.

A second is that people who are not Christians are so sin-filled that they are morally unqualified to criticize anyone. This also seems wrong, because I can be a sin-filled monster but still recognize inconsistencies.

I suppose in the end there is a confusion about the status of outsiders who criticize you. In one sense, their input isn’t directed at improving your overall view (which they think is generally false). This fact, however, does not disqualify them from having any view about your claims.

Since it’s St.Patrick’s day, let’s close with a tweet-quoque by an Irishman:

 

Million-dollar man

Students of Critical Thinking 101 know (or ought to know) that not all instances of the tu quoque are fallacious.  After all, someone’s hypocrisy on an issue is relevant insofar as it reveals that her proposal is insincere or too difficult or impractical to implement.

Talking Points Memo provides an example of both of these conditions:

More than a decade ago, Arkansas Rep. Josh Miller (R) was in a catastrophic car accident that broke his neck and left him paralyzed. Medicare and Medicaid paid the $1 million bill for his hospitalization and rehabilitation.

But this week, as the Arkansas legislature has debated continuing its privatized Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, Miller has remained steadfast in his opposition.

The Arkansas Times highlighted the contrast in a Thursday report. The alternative newspaper reported that Miller receives ongoing coverage through the government programs, including Medicaid-covered personal care assistance.

The Times asked Miller, 33, about this apparent contradiction: Shouldn’t someone who has experienced the benefits of health insurance, including insurance paid for by the government, understand the importance of expanding those benefits to others?

The difference, he said, is that some of the 100,000 people who have gained coverage through Arkansas’s Medicaid expansion don’t work hard enough or just want access to the program so they can purchase and abuse prescription drugs.

“My problem is two things,” Miller said. “One, we are giving it to able-bodied folks who can work … and two, how do we pay for it?”

The accident that paralyzed Miller occurred about 11 years ago, the Times reported. He was driving with a friend, alcohol was involved, but Miller said he couldn’t remember who was driving. When he arrived at the hospital with his life-changing injuries, he was uninsured.

In case you don’t know, Medicaid expansion consists in extending the benefits of Medicaid (federal health coverage for the poor) to those working poor people (138 percent of the federal poverty line) who would otherwise be too poor to afford insurance, but too, er, rich to qualify for Medicaid.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (at the link), this would account for half of the uninsured people in America.

According to Miller, these people–mostly people who work low-paying or minimum wage jobs–ought not to have health insurance (and thus health care) while he, uninsured twenty-something drunk driver, ought to.  Indeed, the latter’s needs are to be protected against incursion by the needs of the former.  If only some of them were drunk drivers, then maybe he’d be more sympathetic.

A foolish consistency*

Here is an extreme libertarian type (wrongly identified, I think, as a Tea Party type by Gawker, etc.), Greg Collett, father of 10, from Utah, going all Ayn Rand on social programs he makes use of.  Which is to say: “I’m against Medicaid, but I use it for financial reasons” (or something, because he doesn’t really say why).  He writes:

The vast majority of the comments directed towards me try to paint me as a hypocrite for being a limited government advocate and having my kids on Medicaid. My political beliefs are certainly not popular, and in this case, there are many people in the liberty movement who want to take me to task. Again, we are dealing with a situation where people have been socialized into believing a lie.

Let me set the record straight. Yes, I participate in government programs of which I adamantly oppose. Many of them, actually. Am I a hypocrite for participating in programs that I oppose? If it was that simple, and if participation demonstrated support, then of course. But, my reason for participation in government programs often is not directly related to that issue in and of itself, and it certainly does not demonstrate support. For instance, I participate in government programs in order to stay out of the courts, or jail, so that I can take care of my family; other things I do to avoid fines or for other financial reasons; and some are simply because it is the only practical choice. With each situation, I have to evaluate the consequences of participating or not participating.

Collett is a kind of anti-government purist (all government taking is theft, essentially).  He doesn’t personally carry health insurance, but he uses government programs (Medicaid but not public schools–you really have to read the manifesto) to cover his children.  Children are expensive, sickness is expensive and can be financially devastating.  His choice of Medicaid to cover his children  (as well as his choice of becoming a foster parent to eight children) demonstrates that perhaps his insistence that government leave this role is not actually feasible.  It’s nice, in other words, to have ideals, but seriously, they have to be practical.

And this is a critical point about non-fallacious tu quoques.  They do not demonstrate that your beliefs are false.  They demonstrate that your beliefs may be too hard to put into practice if not even you, ardent exponent of milking your own cows, cannot do it.

*Here’s the rest of the Emerson passage (from “Self Reliance”):

 A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored  by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a  great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself  with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words,  and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though  it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be  sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be  misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and  Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every  pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be  misunderstood.

Tu quo… um, what?

Here’s the setup for a meta-tu quoqueStage 1: A makes crazy claim.  Stage 2: B criticizes A for crazy claim.  Stage 3: A defends A’s claim by noting B’s criticism is based on a double-standard. Stage 4: B notes that A, in charging a double-standard, employs a double standard. I’ve noted elsewhere here at the NS that some forms of double-standard arguments are relevant and argumentatively appropriate.  (And John, Colin, and I also published a paper on it a year ago.)

OK, so here’s application.  Stage 1:  Brian Kilmeade of Fox News said he wouldn’t support the Syrian opposition groups, because they say “Allahu Akbar” when they score military successes.  Stage 2: John McCain criticizes Kilmeade for Islamophobia.  (Here’s the Huffpo review of the exchange.)  Stage 3: George Neumayr at AmSpec defends Kilmeade noting that McCain’s criticism deploys a double standard:

When Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said on Tuesday that he didn’t want to back Syrian rebels who scream “Allahu Akbar!” after bombing buildings, McCain, revealing the Islamophilia behind America’s Arab-Spring foreign policy, replied that those chants don’t bother him. “They are moderates,” he said, dismissing the chants as no more “offensive” than a Christian who says “thank God.” Too bad Kilmeade didn’t ask McCain to give examples of Christians yelling “thank God” after slitting someone’s throat.

The first trouble is that Kilmeade is taking the speech act performed after a horrible deed to be identify the perpetrator as representative of the group that speech act indicates.  So because a Muslim terrorist says “Allahu Akbar” after a terrorist incident, those who say “Allahu Akbar” are dangerous radicals.  McCain’s reply is by way of counter-examples – Christians say “Thank God” all the time… that’s what the phrase is analogous to.  Neumayr’s case is that McCain’s double standard is not to take extreme behavior as representative.

Here’s stage 4: Religious man murders his friend after his friend tells him he’s an atheist.  We don’t take that as representative, do we?

Civility for jerks

Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by a  tu quoque!

fillmore

If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.  In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?

A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.  That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.

An argument that will not die

There seem to be two very crappy albeit popular arguments against increasing marginal tax on people making over a certain very high dollar figure (let's call it "the Buffett rule").  I am not aware of any good arguments against the idea, but if you are, feel free to direct me to them in comments.

One argument involves denying that the Buffett rule will solve the debt problem.  Another argument consists in pointing out that no one has voluntarily given extra money to the US Treasury.  The first argument is something of a weak or hollow man, depending on how it's deployed.  It's a weak man if someone makes this claim among many others; it's a hollow man if no one, as I suspect is the case, has actually made this specific argument.

The second of the two arguments, a textbook tu quoque, got another shot at life yesterday from the ever clueless Chris Wallace:

[I]f I may, David, the question I have for you is: if the president feels so strongly about tax fairness, is he going to he contribute money to the Treasury and they have a special department just for this, to help with the deficit?

What would make the President a hypocrite in this circumstance is if he advocated for higher taxes on earners such as himself and then refused to pay.  Not, as Wallace seems to suggest, that he isn't currently just donating money to the Treasury. 

I don't know how this stuff gets into people's brains.  But Wallace gets paid a lot of money, and he went to Harvard.  Doesn't Harvard owe us some kind of apology?