Tu Quoque, Mr. President

I’ve been wondering for a while about what exactly gets shown with tu quoque arguments.  Is it that the premise is false, or no longer justified?  Since it’s an ad hominem form of the argument, perhaps it is more just a case against the people speaking, perhaps that they don’t understand their own case or aren’t sincere.  Or is it that they have a double standard. I think that, depending on the setup, these are all on the table.  Though the last one, the attack on the ethos of the speaker on the other side using a double standard is the most likely and most argumentatively plausible.

Here’s why.  When we charge tu quoque, it’s often a culmination of a series of argumentative exchanges.  Sometimes over years.  What we’ve got then is a lot of evidence about the person’s argumentative and intellectual character.  The tu quoque is a kind of caught-red-handed moment you serve up to show that the person’s not an honest arbiter of critical standards.  That they play fast and loose, and always to their own advantage, with evidence, degrees of scrutiny, and what’s outrageous or not.

Amanda Terkel at Huffpost, with “Trump Administration Absolutely Outraged Someone would try to Delegitimize a President” has an interesting tu quoque with the Republicans about the recent accusations that the current President isn’t legitimate.  Take, for example, John Lewis saying, in response to the challenge that The Russians had interfered with the election:

I do not see Trump as a Legitimate President.

The result was that the Republicans responded pretty harshly (including Trump’s tweet).  But then they complained about the negativity in the media about the Presidency, and Reince Priebus (ex-RNC Chair, now Trump’s Chief of Staff) complained that

There’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen. . . .You didn’t have Republicans questioning whether or not Obama legitimately beat John McCain in 2008

But wait, Amanda Terkel points out.  Trump very famously was a birther.  And so had been on a years-long de-legitimating campaign.

So what follows?  A regular phenomenon with tu quoque arguments is that pointing out the hypocrisy is the end of the game.  No conclusions are offered, and so it goes with the Terkel piece.

Again, my thoughts have been that a conclusion about the target proposition very rarely can be supported by the tu quoque, but some cases are relevant to the issue.  Again, if the challenge is to the sincerity or the intellectual honesty of a speaker, especially with double-standards, there are conclusions we can draw.  But does the fact that it’s politics make it worse or better?

4 thoughts on “Tu Quoque, Mr. President”

  1. Here’s a thought (and maybe this duplicates what you said): In one respect, the tu quoque (either one here, since there seem to be two on the table) means to disqualify the objector as not offering a serious reason, or their real reason. The presumption is that your real reason can’t be inconsistent with your other views. If it’s TQ, then it is. (I suppose there’s there’s a claim that the other views don’t get dumped in this evaluation). The other end of this is that the TQ alleges closes the argument with the TQr, since their not serious enough to recognize a basic and obvious (allegedly) inconsistency. If they’re not able to do this, they’re not serious (or honest) and so not worth listening to further.

  2. Hi John, the thought seems to be something along the lines of building a case against the intellectual character of some conversant (or a group). It goes something like: these folks regularly use inconsistent standards for their criticism/endorsement or outrage/pleasure. And so it goes here. Notice, though, if we start seeing this case being made, we should be aware that it’s capable, in TQ fashion, of coming back on us!

  3. Yeah, I think I was unclear on what I meant. Perhaps if I could try this out: there’s an element to the TQ that’s less ad hominem (you’re a hypocrite!) and more straw man (this is not a serious argument!): it’s a way of disqualifying the reasons or a way of disqualifying reasoners. I think these might be distinct moves. But lately–for some reason–I’ve been prioritizing the representation of the reason in these things.

  4. Hi John, I think it’s right that the ultimate target is that ‘this is not a serious argument’ for TQQ’s. My reconstruction was that it is because it’s the result of an analysis of the speaker, something along a line like:
    1. S claims that p
    2. S has also claimed that not-p
    3. All 2-cases are ones that serve S’s interests, 1-cases are ones that merely are contrary. (And these are not relevant differences to whether or not p)
    4. Therefore, has been using a double-standard
    5. Claims derived from double standards are not serious
    6. Therefore, S’s claims and objections are not serious
    Does that look about right? We agree that the objective is to represent the opposition and the opposition’s overt and undercover reasoning in a certain light. I guess then what makes these appropriate or inappropriate arguments is whether line 3 is true, and whether the cases really are different (and so only an apparent double standard).

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