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.

5 thoughts on “The shoe is on the other foot”

  1. John,

    Leonard Pitt's argument is a classic syllogism:
    P1 We don't honor evil men and women with commemorative license plates
    P2 Nathan Bedford Forest was an evil man
    C: Nathan Bedford Forest should not be honored with a commemorative license plate
    P1 was unstated, Pitts provides evidence for P2 by pointing out that we do not grant commemorative license plates to similarly odious historic figures.
    P1 is left unstated because of this:
    Forest wasn't simply a slave owner or a confederate general, his behavior was grossly immoral by the standards of his time; that is why P1 is unstated.  P2 is strongly implied but also left unstated.

  2. Great analysis, Ben is also right on the money here except that Pitts argument uses bin laden et al as examples of P1, not P2. I might also reconstruct the argument as P1 being the warrant in the Toulmin sense and the examples are backing for the warrant. Maybe something like this?
    Claim: Barbour should denounce supporters of the WBF license plates.
    Grounds: WBF was an odious character.
    Warrant: Supporters of odious characters should be generally denounced.
    Backing: supporters of Bin laden, hitler, and other examples of odious characters are often, and correctly, denounced by government officials.
    Just the informal version of Ben's syllogistic approach I suppose.
    I look forward to seeing your paper at OSSA!

  3. I'm not convinced that Pitts' response is a tu quoque argument.
    Tu quoque brings up the charge of hypocrisy for a purpose: to discredit some piece of reasoning made by the alleged hypocrite. If this isn't the purpose of the charge, then it is simply a charge of hypocrisy, which isn't fallacious. It is not that some tu quoque arguments are not fallacious (= "not all tu quoque arguments are fallacious"); rather, some charges of hypocrisy are not tu quoque arguments. Tu quoque arguments are fallacious because they (like red herrings) deflect attention away from addressing the alleged hypocrite's reasoning toward a consideration of the alleged hypocrite's hypocrisy (all the while claiming that the reasoning has been addressed).
    So, what piece of reasoning is Barbour engaged in that Pitts is discrediting by charging him with possible-world hypocrisy? Perhaps Barbour's argument could be put this way: (P1) I don't go around denouncing people; (C) I will/should not denounce NBF by rejecting the request to honor NBF with a vanity license plate.
    John, I think you are right that Pitts' response highlights, rather than obscures, the relevant moral issue, but I think his argument is analogical rather than tu quoque. It is not tu quoque because Pitts directly addresses Barbour's reasoning for not rejecting the proposal rather than attack Barbour while ignoring the reasoning. Pitts does this by bringing up relevantly similar circumstances in which Barbour would (likely) have a different response. The last paragraph in your post brings this out nicely. Pitts is relying on the principle that one ought to treat similar cases similarly, which is a fairly standard description of the principle behind (moral or prescriptive) analogical arguments.
    Now, I may be thinking of the fallaciousness of tu quoque arguments too narrowly by requiring that it ignore the hypocrite's reasoning while highlighting the hypocrisy. If we didn't keep this requirement, then (perhaps) any charge of hypocrisy (that attends an argument) could be construed as a tu quoque argument, which I am not willing to grant. At least for taxonomic purposes, I think it is important that if we are going to call an argument by a fallacy name, then it ought to display fallacious reasoning. And if it doesn't display fallacious reasoning, then there is no fallacy to name.

  4. Hi Bryan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. 

    Regarding the first part, I think we have a terminological disagreement.  I think the tu quoque argument scheme has fallacious and non-fallacious instances.  You don't.  But we both agree that there are non fallacious accusations of hypocrisy.  I'd cite people who agree with me (in a kind of non fallacious appeal to authority…)

    I'd agree with the rest of your analysis in substance.  I think.  I think Pitts (on Fish's formulation) has gone after Barbour's hypothetical hypocrisy.  I think this is a tu quoque, or at last an accusation of hypothetical or subjunctive hypocrisy.  I think he's right, because he's hit the relevant comparisons.  Were this different, he argues, Barbour would be signing a different tune.  I think he would.

    We might reconstruct that same reasoning in number ways–syllogistically, even, as Ben suggests.  But the form of the move here is ad hominem.  He's going after Barbour's hypothetical hypocrisy. 

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