Category Archives: Ad hominem tu quoque


Many readers of this site know that the fallacious variety of ad hominem argument admits of many different types–the abusive, the circumstantial, the tu quoque, and much much more.  Some friends of The Non Sequitur, Scott Aikin and Bob Talisse, have written an illuminating and entertaining piece on the tu quoque variety for the magazine Scientific American Mind.  Read it here.

For those who don't remember, one is guilty of the the ad hominem tu quoque variety of fallacy when one charges one's opponent with hyprocrisy when such hypocrisy is irrelevant to the strength, cogency, validity or whatever of the opponent's argument.  Al Gore's riding in a private jet does not make Al Gore's claims about global warming false. Sure, it's rhetorically effective to talk about Al Gore's private jet riding, it's even fun, but so are a lot of sophistries.  That's why they're called "sophistries."  But, like all informal fallacies, it's a kind of cheating–and cheating is a kind of stealing in that one claims to have demonstrated what one clearly has not–and, as the mindless dogma of liberal academia has it, stealing is wrong.  In this case, one claims to have shown something about climate change by showing something about Al Gore.  To say anything worthwhile about climate change, however, you have to do the necessary work–pointing out Al Gore's electricity usage does not count.  

In addition to discussing the general questions of relevance central to the definition of the ad hominem tu quoque argument, Aikin and Talisse also point out that sometimes the hyprocisy may underscore rather than contradict the hypocrite's point. So, for instance, if a smoker recommends someone quit or not start for health reasons, we might look at that apparent hypocrisy more creatively.  Their not being able to quit underscores one of the dangers of smoking.

In addition to that insightful point, what is most interesting about the article are the clueless and unhinged responses in the comment section.  Some people simply cannot read the four letter string G-O-R-E without losing it.  

We can’t have nice things

Scott McClellan, former White House Press Secretary, has written a book which by all accounts is quite critical of his former boss's handling of the Iraq war, among other things.  Does McClellan have interesting things to say?  Most certainly.  He worked there, after all.  Is he right?  Maybe.  But you can bet on one thing, we're not going to get a lot of enlightened discussion of this from those who run our nation's public discourse.  Here, for instance, is Fox News' Gretchen Carlson:

CARLSON: Scott McClellan better not have any skeletons in his closet. I hope he didn’t do anything that he doesn’t want the world to know about because we all have, and all of his secrets are going to be coming out.

We've already heard a litany of "he's-only-saying-that-because-of-x-y-or-z" remarks.  This one is different in its completely irrelevant reference to things "we all have" in our past.  As my parents used to say, this is why we can't have nice things.

**Courtesy of Think Progress. 

Ad hominems

Unfortunately, many Introduction to Philosophy students leave with several misconceptions about the nature of fallacious reasoning.  They draw the conclusion that fallacies are a kind of negative guide to reasoning.  For instance, never attack the person, as such attacks break the ad hominem rule.  Another misconception is that calling something a fallacy is sufficient for dismissing someone's position.  That's an ad hominem, therefore, etc.  Unfortunately, some–even some professor types–seem to think this characterizes the entire field of inquiry into fallacious reasoning: when fallacies are discussed, they see a kind of juvenile name calling in place of honest and fair analysis.

Sometimes, however, that's the case.  This, for instance, would seem like a reasonable accusation of an ad hominem:

All of which brings us to the distinctly Greenwald parts of the book–Greenwald takes an unseemly relish in engaging in irrelevant personal attacks. Personally attacking Ronald Reagan at least makes sense on some level. But personally attacking private citizens with different ideologies has a certain senselessness attached to it.

But no.  The relevance of "personal attacks" depends on the conclusion drawn–not on the object of the attack.  Personally attacking Ronald Reagan makes sense only when the "attack" draws a conclusion relevant to the attack.  Reagan's personality is no more relevant in the grand scheme of things than that of any private citizen.  While we expect a politician to be subject to such attacks, those attacks aren't more justified on logical grounds.

This is especially the case when the question concerns hypocrisy.  Al Gore is not a hypocrite for driving a car, unless he says "don't drive a car."  He says, "Climate science says x, y, and z."  Whether he drives a car is separate question.  His driving a car has nothing to do with that particular argument.  Now, when someone calls someone else a moral degenerate who should not be trusted, you're going to reasonably wonder about the purity of the accuser–to do so doesn't make you any less of a degenerate, all things considered, but it the credibility of the accuser is certainly relevant–insofar as his accusation rests on his credibility.  Continuing from above,

Even if every reader of Great American Hypocrites walked away from the several pages that attack Norman Podhoretz (to take just one of the many conservative thinkers that Greenwald assails) convinced that Podhoretz is just about the most awful person to ever walk the face of the Earth, Podhoretz's ideas would remain unscathed. Podhoretz has never argued that a reader should agree with his ideas because he is such a wonderful guy. Instead, the ideas have a life of their own.

Greenwald's own success makes his personal attacks particularly ironic. There was nothing in Glenn Greenwald's background that suggested he should have been one of the kings of the progressive blogosphere. And Russ Feingold didn't read passages from Greenwald's first book from the Senate floor because Greenwald is such a fine human being. Greenwald gained prominence because of the power of his ideas and his writing. Whatever prominence he retains will also result exclusively from the quality of his work. It's a mystery why he doesn't realize that it operates the same way at all spots on the ideological spectrum.

Great American Hypocrites will likely be a big hit. Whatever the equivalent of red meat is for the angry left, this book is it. As a confessed Greenwald admirer, I found it largely disappointing. Like the rest of us, Greenwald has both strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Too much of Great American Hypocrites indulges his fondness for pointless ad hominem attacks, the weakest aspect of his work.

Many of Greenwald's fans will probably take delight in his description of Rush Limbaugh as a "draft-avoiding, illegal-pill-addicted and multiple-divorced (man) burdened with one of the most decadent and degraded lives of any public figure anywhere." Whether they take note of the irony that a mere two pages later Greenwald decries our "attack-based personality-obsessed politics" is an open question.

If Greenwald himself sees the irony, he doesn't betray any such awareness in "Great American Hypocrites."

It seems facile to accuse someone of hypocrisy for accusing someone else of hypocrisy.  That succinct and true description of Rush Limbaugh, in other words, is not a fallacious ad hominem unless Greenwald uses that as evidence to dismiss views unrelated to Limbaugh's character–or the moral character of those whose positions he advocates in the course of making those attacks.  But that, I take it, is not Greenwald's point in writing a book about hypocrites.

It always depends, in the end, on the conclusion you're drawing.  If you want to malign John Kerry's manhood (as Limbaugh did) by way of supporting Bush as the alternative, then Bush's comparative manhood is a relevant question.  That, I take it, is Greenwald's point.  But I'll leave that to him.


In yet another variation of his standard line, today George Will argues that when it comes to charity, liberal people and places lag behind conservatives and so "liberals" are little more than disingenuous bleeding hearts.  This combines Will’s love of the ad hominem tu quoque–the irrelevant charge of hypocrisy–with his love of the straw man–the purposeful distortion of his opponent’s view in order to knock it down (look here for a description of these particular logical errors).  His argument goes like this:

  • Liberals, judging by their bumper stickers in Austin, Texas are self-described bleeding hearts (they are motivated by pity and pity alone).
  • Self-described conservatives are more charitable than self-described liberals.
  • By their own self-description, liberals ought to be more charitable (on account of their bleeding hearts), so liberals are either:
  • (a) hypocrites for being all hat and no cattle (this is Texas we’re talking about); or (b) dumb to wait around for government to do the work that can be done by charity right now.

This argument sounds vaguely familiar.  Megan McCardle, a "liberatarian" blogger for the Atlantic Monthly, has made similar charges (discussed here and here on Crooked Timber).  She argues that if liberals want the government to tax so much, then why don’t they just give extra money voluntarily.  They don’t.  So there.  It also sounds like any similar charge of hypocrisy–if you cared so much about it, then why don’t you do something (for it, to stop it, etc.)? 

But that’s not really the point.  By any measure, liberalism is a broad political view about the just structure of government and the just distribution of goods.  Liberals will differ about the meaning of either of those things (They’ll differ to the same extent that conservatives will differ about the proper role of government).

More importantly, liberals will also differ about the reasons for their "liberalism."  Indeed, some liberals–some–might qualify as the "bleeding heart type" who fit Will’s perpetual caricature.  They whine about injustice, but they really don’t care.  Pointing out their hypocrisy might be entertaining, but it’s basically worthless.  They don’t represent all that is the liberal position.  Nor does their hypocrisy demonstrate anything about their broader political view. 

One can be liberal for reasons that have nothing to do with bleeding hearts, pity, or care.  And the strength (if it has any) of the liberal position has nothing do with the feelings and action of individual liberals–any more, at least, than the weakness of conservatism is demonstrated by the appallingly bad arguments of a pundit for the Washington Post.

Die Goldberg-Variationen

Some may remember Jonah Goldberg's thesis that liberals are the real fascists because (a) they share some ideas with the fascists and (b) they think government ought to make people do stuff for the common good–such as have health insurance, not pollute, not abuse their children, among other things.  The former point of course is just a variation on the fallacy of the undistributed middle–some liberals are vegetarians, some nazis were vegetarians, and, as the Medieval philosophers would say, ergo etc.  The latter however asserts that any application of government's coercive power constitutes fascism.  Not really.  It depends on how that coercive power is asserted–as a matter of fact, one might argue that the differing means of coercion are what distinguish one type of government–or one type of constitution, as the Philosopher might say–from each other.  So it's not what you do, it's how you do what you do that makes you a fascist.  

Goldberg's silly thesis–decried justly by many as an intellectual abomination–had always struck me as eerily reminiscent George Will's basic shtick.  For those familiar with Will's work, he has a couple of basic arguments against liberals.  You'll notice, by the way, the much of his work consists in arguing against liberals–perhaps on the mistaken assumption that such an argument would establish anything about his conservative view.  That, dear readers, would be as silly as me saying George Will's crippling illogic establishes the cogency of my liberal politics.  It doesn't, obviously.  But sometimes I need to repeat that.

Back to his basic arguments.  The more prominent of these is the ad hominem–preferably the tu quoque.  This fallacy, as you know, consists in accusing someone of hypocrisy when such a charge is irrelevant to the particular point that person is making.  True to form, this is how Will opens is piece today:

Judging from complaints by her minions, Hillary Clinton considers it unfair that Barack Obama has been wafted close to the pinnacle of politics by an updraft from the continent-wide swoon of millions of Democrats and much of the media brought on by his Delphic utterances such as "we are the change." But disquisitions on fairness are unpersuasive coming from someone from Illinois or Arkansas whose marriage enabled her to treat New York as her home and the Senate as an entry-level electoral office (only 12 of today's senators have been elected to no other office) and a steppingstone to the presidency.

Even if Clinton considers it "unfair" (which isn't the argument–oh the distortion!–another basic Will tactic), her situation has nothing to do with whether or not Obama deserves his current success.  What he deserves–in treatment by the press and the voters, is, after all, the more likely interpretation of her complaint.  She may or may not have a point on that.  Considering how the press treats her (Cackle anyone? Accusations of murder?), she's probably right.

We see another variation on this a little bit later.  Since the Democrat's moronic adherence to a principle of pure formal equality is unsustainable, they are forced by reality into hypocrisy:

So superdelegates — party dignitaries, most of them elected officials — would have to be. What ethic should guide their decisions? Should each of them vote as did their state or congressional district? Or for the candidate who won the most votes nationally? Or should they think like Edmund Burke?

On Nov. 3, 1774, Burke, an intellectual founder of modern conservatism, delivered a thank-you address to people who, upon hearing it, perhaps wished they had not done what he was thanking them for. They had elected him to represent them in the House of Commons. He told them he was duty-bound to represent the national interest, as he understood that. He said he owed them not obedience but his independent judgment of the public good — independent of "local prejudices" or "local purposes."

Burkean superdelegates among the Democrats? What fun.

This is entertaining first because there's an implicit charge of hypocrisy–how could Democrats act in the way a conservative luminary said he was going to act a long, long time ago?  They're hypocrites because they don't adhere to absolute direct democracy!  Of course, as any sensible person knows, such an accusation is purely moronic.  Direct one-to-one representation isn't any more a Democratic notion of representation as it is a Republican one.  

But it's doubly moronic because of the Goldberghian implication that sharing a view with someone of another political party (a) constitutes some kind of contradiction or (b) means that you share all of your political views in common.  So the Democrats may seem to share a political view with Edmund Burke–a conservative of sorts.  Does this make the Democrats conservatives?  Obviously not. 

It's triply moronic because Will frequently accuses Democrats of too much federalism of the kind Burke describes–too much thinking, in other words, about the common good (as they see it).

Will has other basic tropes–such as the straw man, usually involving selective and distorting quotation–but we'll save that discussion for another time.  Or you can just look at the archives

The Lights are On, But No One’s Home

Last week we spoke about  MSM-types resorting to specious attributions of motive to "argue" against viewpoints they find reprehensible. After all, it's a lot more creative to divine the reason someone said something than it is to discuss their reasons (note that the two are different) for saying it, right? While Maureen Dowd seems possessed of this view, we beg to differ. And yet she insists: 

Better the devil you know than the diffident debutante you don’t. Better to go with the Clintons, with all their dysfunction and chaos — the same kind that fueled the Republican hate machine — than to risk the chance that Obama would be mauled like a chew toy in the general election. Better to blow off all the inspiration and the young voters, the independents and the Republicans that Obama is attracting than to take a chance on something as ephemeral as hope. Now that’s Cheney-level paranoia.

Bill is propelled by Cheneyesque paranoia, as well. His visceral reaction to Obama — from the “fairy tale” line to the inappropriate Jesse Jackson comparison — is rooted less in his need to see his wife elected than in his need to see Obama lose, so that Bill’s legacy is protected. If Obama wins, he’ll be seen as the closest thing to J. F. K. since J. F. K. And J. F. K. is Bill’s hero

In the midst of this stunning array of ad hominem attacks, we again witness the pedantic urge of the punditocracy to explain to we, the huddled masses, yearning to be informed, why, exactly, a politician says what she said. As usual, it has nothing to with her reasons for saying it, but with some superadded, ethereal psychoanalytic gibberish. 

The Wouldsman

It's time again to play the Sesame Street game: "which one of these things is not like the other? with Nicholas Kristof.  In Yesterday's column he writes:

At a New York or Los Angeles cocktail party, few would dare make a pejorative comment about Barack Obama’s race or Hillary Clinton’s sex. Yet it would be easy to get away with deriding Mike Huckabee’s religious faith.

Oh the intolerant liberals!  This is what you would hear (not what he did hear).  It gets worse:

Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.

Stunning tu quoque: how hypocritical are the liberals for making fun of a guy–oops, for being the type of people who would make fun of a guy (1) who wants to amend the Constitution to be in line with God's standards; (2) claimed that had Jesus been against the death penalty he would have said something about it on the cross; (3) doesn't believe the theory of evolution explains the organization of diversity of life; (4) compares non-heterosexual partnerships to bestiality, and much more.  I can't believe someone would make light of those beliefs.  Oddly, the rest of the article goes on to point out that many evangelicals do not have the laughably ridiculous beliefs of, say, Mike Huckabee:

Look, I don’t agree with evangelicals on theology or on their typically conservative views on taxes, health care or Iraq. Self-righteous zealots like Pat Robertson have been a plague upon our country, and their initial smugness about AIDS (which Jerry Falwell described as “God’s judgment against promiscuity”) constituted far grosser immorality than anything that ever happened in a bathhouse. Moralizing blowhards showed more compassion for embryonic stem cells than for the poor or the sick, and as recently as the 1990s, evangelicals were mostly a constituency against foreign aid.

So let's get this straight.  Liberals are intolerant for opposing the views of intolerant people because some other less intolerant people aren't as  intolerant as those intolerant people liberals make fun of. 

One final point.  Barack Obama's race and Hilary Clinton's sex don't entail that non-females and non-blacks have done something wrong or ought to be punished for their difference.  Race, sex and faith are not members of the same category.

Woodrow Wilson did it too

This is from Jonah Goldberg one long exercise in the tu quoque (among much else):

>At a candidate forum for trial lawyers in Chicago on Sunday, Hillary Rodham Clinton proclaimed that the Bush administration is “the most radical presidency we have ever had.”

>This is, quite simply, absurd. But such boob-bait for the Bush bashers is common today in Democratic circles, just as similar right-wing rhetoric about Bill Clinton was par for the course a decade ago. The culture war, it seems, has distorted how we view politics more than we realize. Trust in government is at historic lows, but faith in one’s own “team” remains remarkably durable. (President Bush’s job-approval rating among Republicans is 80 percent, according to the polling company Rasmussen Reports.)

Then he goes on to criticize Woodrow Wilson.

Nobody is defending Woodrow Wilson. And whether Bill Clinton pardoned convicted felons has nothing to do with whether Scooter Libby deserved a pardon.

Full of gas

George Will’s faith in free markets knows no bounds. Any suggestion that gas prices are too high results in all sorts of unrestrained sophmoric vitriol–supported by research from the American Enterprise Institute of all places. As always, an argument can be made that gas is not as high as it used to be (adjusted for inflation and so forth), but that’s not really the point. Gas has more than doubled in price very suddenly. On top of that, more and more people are dependent on it being cheap (don’t get me wrong, that’s not a right). That creates a good deal of shock. But the fact that people keep driving doesn’t mean they don’t care about the price, as Will seems to think:

>Democrats, seething at the injustice of gasoline prices, have sprung to the aid of embattled motorists. So resolute are Democrats about defending the downtrodden, they are undeterred by the fact that motorists, not acting like people trodden upon, are driving more than ever. Gasoline consumption has increased 2.14 percent during the past year.

It means they don’t have a choice. The more relevant question would be whether people continue to engage in frivolous driving. Or if people who engage in unnecessary driving make cuts elsewhere. In either case, the simple fact of continued gas buying doesn’t establish anything about the mental state of the purchaser.

But here’s the real gem of whiny sophomoric libertarianism:

>Pelosi announced herself “particularly concerned” that the highest price of gasoline recently was in her San Francisco district — $3.49. So she endorses HR 1252 to protect consumers from “price gouging,” defined, not altogether helpfully, by a blizzard of adjectives and adverbs. Gouging occurs when gasoline prices are “unconscionably” excessive, or sellers raise prices “unreasonably” by taking “unfair” advantage of “unusual” market conditions, or when the price charged represents a “gross” disparity from the price of crude oil, or when the amount charged “grossly” exceeds the price at which gasoline is obtainable in the same area. The bill does not explain how a gouger can gouge when his product is obtainable more cheaply nearby. Actually, Pelosi’s constituents are being gouged by people like Pelosi — by government. While oil companies make about 13 cents on a gallon of gasoline, the federal government makes 18.4 cents (the federal tax) and California’s various governments make 40.2 cents (the nation’s third-highest gasoline tax). Pelosi’s San Francisco collects a local sales tax of 8.5 percent — higher than the state’s average for local sales taxes.

The absence of an entire quotation ought to be a sign to the kids out there that a straw man is in the works. Why not just tell us what the law says in its own words–like snot-nosed internet critics do for you? Here’s an example:

>B) indicates the seller is taking unfair advantage unusual market conditions (whether real or perceived) or the circumstances of an emergency to increase prices unreasonably.

That seems far less unreasonable than the selective quotes. He doesn’t even link to the text of the bill. If he had, he could make a stronger case for his position. But having distorted the purpose and content of the bill, Will now grasps even further: but the government gouges too! Jeez. That’s not even close. If you don’t know what “gouges” means, look it up in the dictionary.

Tu quoque Yogi Berra

There must be something in the water at the venerable Hoover Institution. Just last week, we visited a piece, wherein one of their fellows leveled that most traveled of ad hominem attacks, the tu quoque at former VP Al Gore. This week, as Uncle Yogi once said, is “déjà vu all over again.” V.D. Hanson is concerned, folks—concerned that we, the people, only focus on the failings of right wing politicians, pundits, and politico-religious types. He means to remedy the situation. He says, >But moralist Republicans don't have the market cornered on hypocrisy. If giving into excess embarrasses some of them, for a number of Democrats–supposedly the party of the people–hypocrisy arises from enjoying elite privileges while alleging that America bestows favors unduly on the few. I suppose it’s fun to argue against a position no one has held or even implied. I haven’t heard anyone pretend that Mark Foley’s failings whitewash Ted Kennedy’s. Moreover, it has no bearing whatsoever, as Hanson implies it does, on the populist programs of those prominent Democrats he indicts. Hanson gives us a litany of hypocrisies perpetrated by the left and then pretends that it makes their period as the party in power somehow moot because all politicos are cut from the same cloth. Ye gods. There’s a stark distinction between the duplicity that lead to a war that has cost 3,000+ U.S. lives, along with the lives of untold thousands of Iraqis and the global warming activist who uses the quickest form of transport available to disseminate information. Hanson simply glosses this distinction, because, you know, they’re all crooks and liars, right? >For both liberals and conservatives, the days of the simple-living Harry Truman and clean-living Dwight Eisenhower are apparently long gone–and for two reasons. >First, the country has changed. Globalization, high technology and billions in borrowed money have made Americans in general materially wealthy beyond our parents' wildest imagination. >… >Second, in our world of celebrity sound bites and media saturation, talk, not reality, is what counts. Multimillionaires lecture us about fairness, while sinners rail about sin. Ah, yes—the good old days. Regardless of the fact Pound, err…Hanson, has a point here—we are a society of consumers, more importantly of irresponsible, uncouth consumers and that’s not a good thing—the point is out of place here. Unless we can now impeach all politicos as the very root of avarice and greed, all we’re left with is the conclusion that we’re all just a bunch of hypocrites, in spite of our high ideals. Great story. Really. Compelling and rich. Hanson regroups, however, to deliver another kick to this equine carcass: >The political leaders of this country are essentially too often homogeneous. Republicans may represent constituents of traditional values; Democrats may champion the underprivileged. But their similar lifestyles reflect more a political class' shared privilege than the inherent differences of their respective constituents' beliefs. National figures may talk conservative or liberal, but they both are more likely to act like libertines. Indicting all politicos as hypocritical and wrong adds nothing. In fact, it’s rather banal. Still worse is that Hanson hasn’t argued so as to support the conclusion that the analogous evils of both conservatives and liberals have some bearing on their legislative activity. Beyond his dazzling pithiness, the problems here are evident: one, Hanson assumes, incorrectly, that some causal link exists between how one lives and how one performs in the political arena. Secondly, even if that were the case, he so muddies the waters that it is unclear how the hypocritical similarities between politicos have any bearing on anything. Look who’s pithy now. -pm