Tag Archives: tu quoque arguments

Weaponized metalanguages


On Philosophy 15 (briefly discussed here yesterday), Rob and Scott discussed the dialectical move from object language to meta-language (and then from meta-language to meta-meta-language, and so forth). They call this “weaponized metalanguage.” It’s a nice metaphor, despite its violence, because it captures the idea that the metalanguage of argument gets turned into a tool of argument itself. On a somewhat strained analogy, it’s a bit like using the rules of a game as part of the game (using the referee as a blocker in football, maybe).

Scott and Rob are correct in their observation that a sizable part of political debate nowadays is almost entirely second-order–the subject is not the best policy option but rather what constitutes reasonable talk about what the best policy option is. For some people, the election of Donald Trump is a fundamentally second order affair–“I voted for Trump because I’m tired of hearing people tell me what to think….”)

The trouble with this strategy, however, is that there always seems to be a flanking maneuver available; there’s always one-level up. What constitutes reasonable basis for rules about talk about what the best policy option is.

When that fails–as in the example above (here’s an article on point)–there’s always the tu quoque.  My informal guess is that the “leveling up” is done mainly to allege the other person has violated some sort of norm. Naturally, accusers can’t be abusers, so the tu quoque is always an exit strategy.

Fair share of security

Fig. 1. Presidential Security

My hypothesis is this: given any opponent O to your view p, your first reaction is to claim that O is inconsistent with regard to p.  So, take Obama, whose first initial happens to be O.  He’s against arming school teachers and janitors.  The National Rifle Association naturally finds this absurd, and, of course, hypocritical.  In a recent commerical, which you can see at this link, they argue:

“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the narrator of the group’s 35-second video asks. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s
just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

Is the President a hypocrite because his family has armed security?

Obviously not.  First, the President’s security is provided by the (hated) government; each of the gun-carrying individuals surrounding the President and his children (etc.) is of the very well-regulated militia type: trained and retrained, background tested, sworn to uphold the constitution, serve and protect, and so forth.  Second, the President (and members of Congress, etc.) exist in a gun-free zone, except for the police.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have my 2nd amendment rights at the Capitol building, among the NRA’s biggest legislative boosters.  Does that not make them hypocrites?  Not really.

Final Exam

It's final exam day here in my world–Critical Thinking is the course.  A friend on Face Book posted this article about being a Republican who believed climate change to be a real thing.  Actually, the article is about understanding what the claim about climate change entails, in particular the difference between climate and weather.  This difference being somehow more difficult to grasp than Fermat's Last Theorem. 

Some grafs:

Climate science shows that over a long period of time, the statistics have changed. Things that used to happen a lot, like consistent winter snow cover, are happening less reliably. Things that happened every now and then, like droughts and wildfires, are happening more reliably. And things that almost never happened — such as the 15,000 new U.S. temperature records in March — sometimes now do occur. And they can’t be explained with purely meteorological reasoning.

The changes we’re seeing, far more than I can list here, seem like an accumulation of coincidences. Pieced together, reveal the full puzzle: There’s more heat and moisture in the atmosphere, and our emissions are largely responsible for keeping it there.

The millennium’s first decade was the warmest on record and included nine of the 10 hottest years. Greenhouse gas levels are at their highest in 800,000 years. Less heat is escaping the top of the atmosphere in the wavelengths of greenhouse gases. For the first time, scientists have recorded both hemispheres are warming – and the global temperature spike can’t be linked to an astronomical trigger, such as solar variability. Great Lakes peak ice has seen a 71 percent drop since 1973. Winters are shorter. Lakes melt earlier. Plants are moving north.

Worldwide, 95% of land-based glaciers are losing mass. September Arctic sea ice has lost 10 percent of its area every decade. Sea levels are rising. Oceans are 30 percent more acidic. Flooding and extreme storms are spiking in frequency and intensity. Last winter was the 4th warmest on record, despite the cooling influence of a La Nina phase in the Pacific.

Extremes are becoming more extreme. And none of it has anything to do with Al Gore.

Very sciency stuff here.  Anyway, the fun begins with the commenters.  A couple of samples.

Here's one disconnected from fact:

But because of the politics of the Obama Administration, all funding for Hydrogen research was cut to the bone in 2009. If you want to look for politics interfering with technological solutions to CO2 pollution — don't look at the Republicans…we tried!  

Here's one that thinks a work of fiction is a rebuttal (in the commenter's defense, George Will thought the same thing):

Did you read Michael Crichton's STATE OF FEAR? It really helps you understand that GLOBAL WARMING, renamed "climate change" is a 100% sham.

Here's your classic straw man:

Oh, no!!

Drowning polar bears???

Polar ice caps falling into the sea???

Despair, despair!!!

Hey, kids!! It's Kool-Aid time!!!

And now the tu quoque featuring Al Gore:

Well, at least Gore sets a good eexample by not flying private jets.

What? What do you mean he flies private jets? Isn't that a mega-polluter?

Well, at least he doesn't own a McMansion.

What? He owns one of those too?

I try to do what I can to reduce CO2, but Gore is single-handedly burning the planet up.

And this is just the top few of them. 



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?

He should just shut up

Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, is the latest in a line of Repubicans to offer the following fallacious argument on tax increases.  Speaking of Warren Buffett, tax-increase supporter, he argues:

MORGAN: You know where I’m going at with that. Warren Buffett keeps screaming to be taxed more.

CHRISTIE: Yeah, well he should just write a check and shut up. Really. And just contribute. The fact of the matter is that I’m tired of hearing about it. If he wants to give the government more money, he’s got the ability to write a check. Go ahead and write it.

The natural implication is that Buffett's argument is crap, as he isn't just going to write a check to the Treasury.  So Buffett is a hypocrite.

This implication is just garbage, however.  Buffett's argument is that everyone of income bracket x ought to pay a higher tax rate.  His failure voluntarily to do so is not relevant to the claim that everyone ought to.

I'm afraid to look, but I bet this one is making the rounds through the guts of the internet like so much cryptosporidium.

Tax quoque

Time to pay your federal taxes, so it's time for people to complain about how much we're taxed, or, alternatively, how little some people are taxed relative to their income, etc.  Now comes Gregg Easterbrook, whose work I do not know (and now I know why, if this is a measure of his intellect).  It is well known now that Barack Obama is for reductions in revenue expenditures–i.e., he's for increasing taxes (a phrase for which he was justly lampooned by Jon Stewart).  But, Easterbrook spies a problem:

President Barack Obama wants to increase taxes on the wealthy, and surely is correct that this must be part of any serious plan to control the national debt. Consider the case of a wealthy couple who made $1.7 million in 2010, yet paid only 26.2 percent in federal income taxes — though the top rate supposedly is 35 percent, and the president says that figure should rise to 39.6 percent. The well-off couple in question is Barack and Michelle Obama, whose tax returns, just released, show they paid substantially less than the president says others should pay.

If Obama is in earnest about wanting increased taxes on the wealthy, then he should send the United States Treasury $182,998. That’s the difference between his Form 1040 Line 60 (“This is your total tax”) and what he would have owed at the higher rate (plus limits on itemized deductions) he himself advocates.

So why doesn’t he tax himself more? The Form 1040, after all, only stipulates the minimum tax an American must pay. More is always welcome. Obama should write a check to the United States Treasury for $182,998.

Wealthy people who say the rich should pay higher taxes — Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have joined Obama in declaring this — are free to tax themselves. If you believe the top rate should rise to 39.6 percent (Obama) or 50 percent (Buffett), then calculate the difference and send a check for that amount to the Treasury. Of course no one individual doing this, even a billionaire, would have much impact on the deficit. But if rich people who say they believe in higher taxes were willing to practice what they preach, this would prove their sincerity, making legislation on the point more likely.

This argument is so dumb that Megan McArdle made it (can't remember where I read the refutation).  Normally, accusations of hypocrisy need to posit some actual or hypothetical (counterfactual) hypocrisy.

On Easterbrook's view, Obama is a hypocrite for not unilaterally taxing himself.  He's rich, he advocates higher taxes for the rich, ergo, ipso fatso.  But of course he's not a hypocrite, because he's advocating a tax policy he'll obey if given the chance.

As a practical matter, a bunch of rich people donating to the Treasury will likely delay tax increases on the wealthy–see, for instance, the free rider problem.


Link via Mother Jones via Atrios.

And, BTW, happy Charles Krauthammer Day!

Collectivism wins again!

Some may remember George Will's meditations on the train (via Krugman's blog–I know, pay wall):

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

We discussed this here.  Well, today a bit of an update.  There appears to be another reason to take the train.  It's gets you from point A to point B.  Here's Krugman yesterday:

So I think that it is my civic duty to report that yesterday, as I got off Amtrak 161 from Trenton to Washington — having spent 2 1/2 hours being made more amenable to collectivism, not to mention finishing another chapter for 3rd edition — I saw George Will leaving the business class car. (I usually prefer the coach quiet car.)

This is not the first time I've heard of George Will taking the train.  I wonder if he spent a comfortable two and a half hours meditating on his practical inconsistency.  

The shoe is on the other foot

Colin, Scott and I are working on a paper for the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation conference on the problem of subjunctive inconsistency, or, as we term it, subjunctive tu quoque arguments.  The idea was originally Colin's (see here).  In a very basic sense, the argument scheme goes like this:

you hold belief x or perform action y, but under different circumstances, you would reject belief x or condemn action y.

This is basically an accusation of hypocrisy, even though in this case the hypocrisy is completely hypothetical.  No one is claiming that the accused is actually a hypocrite; merely that the accused would be a hypocrite were the situation different.  This might seem odd at first blush (whoever heard of a subjunctive hypocrite?), but it's fairly common, so much so that we have phrases for this kind of judgment: "don't judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes" or "in my place you'd do exactly the same thing."

I ran across an example of the mishandling of this sort of argument in Stanley Fish's blog column.  He writes:

In a recent column in The Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts criticized Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for failing to denounce the proposal to honor Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest by issuing a vanity license plate bearing his name. When pressed by the NAACP, Barbour said, “I don’t go around denouncing people.”

“Presumably,” Pitts retorted with obvious sarcasm, Barbour “would be equally non-judgmental if his state were to consider similar honors to Osama bin Laden, convicted spy Robert Hanssen or Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.”

Pitts' charge is exactly an ad hominem tu quoque subjunctive variety.  But this puzzles Fish:

Just what is Pitts demanding here? He is demanding that Barbour earn his right to be non-judgmental with respect to Forrest by being willing to extend the same generosity to bin Laden, Hanssen, Harris, Klebold and literally thousands of others. You can withhold judgment in this instance, he is saying, only if you would also withhold judgment in all arguably equivalent instances. What Pitts is urging (implicitly) is not the condemnation of Ku Klux Klan founders, but the principle that condemnation or the withdrawal from condemnation must be evenhanded. You get the right to say something critical of what someone of the opposite party said or did only if you would be similarly critical when members of your own party said or did something similar. And you get the right to refrain from criticizing some only if you will also refrain from criticizing others.

This is a familiar move in political argument (it is related to the tu quoque, or “so’s your old man” move). We saw it in spades a while ago when Democrats lamented the incivility of public discourse and blamed right-wingers for proclaiming over and over that President Obama was a foreign Islamic usurper working to undermine American values. The right replied by rehearsing the litany of things said by democrats about George Bush — he was a tool of corporate interests, a warmonger and an enemy of civil liberties. So what gives you the high moral ground, those on the right asked, when you were equally vile in your accusations?

I think Fish's description of the logic is right on the mark.  Pitts' charge is a tu quoque.  The problem, however, is that not all tu quoque arguments are fallacious.  This one, I think, is one of those cases.  Fish doesn't get this.  Skipping several paragraphs (where Fish wrongly alleges that subjunctive tu quoque arguments are instances of the liberal tendency to favor process over content):

Leonard Pitts thinks that the Klan and its views are beyond the pale – “a man who betrayed this country, founded a terrorist group and committed mass murder is a man unworthy of honor” — but he also thinks – this is his mistake — that it is an argument against the honoring of the Klan’s founder that Haley Barbour would probably not give Osama bin laden the same benefit of the doubt he seems willing to give to Forrest. (Of course, Barbour is just playing the familiar game of political equivocation.) To which I say, what does Osama bin Laden have to do with it? Bringing him and the other symbols of wrongdoing in just takes the pressure off the core moral question — was and is the Klan evil — and turns it into a question of formal equivalencies. (Are you also willing to be fair to . . . ; the list is endless.)

At bottom, Pitts’s case against honoring Forrest is that he was a bad man dedicated to realizing a bad cause. Just say that, and don’t mess it up (and dilute it) by playing the “gotcha” card, by challenging Barbour to display his liberal bona fides and accord equal treatment to everybody. That’s not what the moral life is about.  

Fish is wrong about the motivation for Pitts' claim.  It's not a matter of alleged liberal fairness or obsession with process over content–Fish is just confused about that. We might put it something like this:

Bedford Forrest was a racist murderer, honoring him would be like honoring Bin Laden, and I'm certain Barbour wouldn't want to honor Bin Laden. 

Pitts' subjunctive tu quoque argument highlights, rather than obscures, the relevant moral issue: Forrest was a traitor, racist, and terrorist; honoring him is like honoring Bin Laden, so for this reason, Barbour ought to honor Bin Laden.  But Barbour wouldn't honor Bin Laden, therefore, etc.  In other words, Pitts isn't avoiding making a moral argument by hiding behind process (whatever that means) or playing "gotcha," he's making a moral argument.

It’s not hypocrisy if you don’t like it

Word has it that Paul Ryan, the respondent to the SOTU address, is a major fan of hack philosopher and confuser of undergraduates Ayn Rand such that he distributes copies of her works to staffers and credits her work with his desire to go into public service.

With Ryan and Rand Paul and everything, Ayn Rand, the original, has undergone somewhat of a renaissance lately.  This is really sad, as there seriously have to be more worthy versions of libertarianism on which to base one’s opposition to Obama’s extremely socialist agenda.

With renewed interest there will naturally be renewed scrutiny (and reawkened revulsion).  Along these lines someone has discovered (or made up I’m not sure which) that Ayn Rand and her husband received Social Security benefits.  This is supposed to be some kind of hilarious contradiction.  It’s not really.  You pay in to SS and get money out.  That’s the way it works.  You’re entitled to it because it’s yours.  They even keep track of it.  Now some might get more than they pay in, and whether Rand did is open and somewhat uninteresting question, but that’s another matter.

What is hilarious, I think, is what issues forth by way of justification for participation in public benefits.  Via someone’s attempt to support Rand’s view, here’s what she had to say about public scholarships (which has to be on the minds of all of those young Randians who get them, who attend public colleges, etc.):

A different principle and different considerations are involved in the case of public (i.e., governmental) scholarships. The right to accept them rests on the right of the victims to the property (or some part of it) which was taken from them by force.

The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships, have no right to them; those who oppose them, have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.

Since there is no such thing as the right of some men to vote away the rights of others, and no such thing as the right of the government to seize the property of some men for the unearned benefit of others—the advocates and supporters of the welfare state are morally guilty of robbing their opponents, and the fact that the robbery is legalized makes it morally worse, not better. The victims do not have to add self-inflicted martyrdom to the injury done to them by others; they do not have to let the looters profit doubly, by letting them distribute the money exclusively to the parasites who clamored for it. Whenever the welfare-state laws offer them some small restitution, the victims should take it . . . .

Again, in the case of Social Security (and medicare) this makes sense (though it remains a ridiculous justification–there is no way an average elderly person could possibly pay the private cost of medical insurance or health care nowadays)–but in the case of money simply gifted to you (or provided you in the form of deeply subsidized federal loans) it doesn’t.  Being morally opposed to receiving others’ stolen money, yet taking it anyway, thinking your moral opposition to it absolves you of hypocrisy makes you a double hypocrite: you’re a hypocrite for violating your own principles and you’re a hypocrite for thinking your moral opposition to an action you engage in and profit from makes you not a hypocrite.