Fallacy Friday: Tu Quoque (But you did it too!)

Last week I looked at the Straw Man Fallacy, today I want to explore the tu quoque fallacy. In latin tu quoque (too kwo-kwee) means “you too”;  in fact, the phrase “you did it too” is a good, succinct account of this fallacy. A tu quoque occurs when one rebuts a particular criticism of one’s own position by showing one’s opponent’s position is subject to the same criticism; this is done instead of showing that one’s own position is not susceptible to the criticism.

A good example is the following segment of a CNN Interview with Osama Bin Laden,

Q: Now, the United States government says that you are still funding military training camps here in Afghanistan for militant, Islamic fighters and that you’re a sponsor of international terrorism. … Are these accusations true? …

Osama Bin LadenOsama Bin Laden: … At the time that they condemn any Muslim who calls for his right, they receive the highest top official of the Irish Republican Army at the White House as a political leader, while woe, all woe is the Muslims if they cry out for their rights. Wherever we look, we find the US as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world. The US does not consider it a terrorist act to throw atomic bombs at nations thousands of miles away, when it would not be possible for those bombs to hit military troops only. These bombs were rather thrown at entire nations, including women, children and elderly people and up to this day the traces of those bombs remain in Japan. The US does not consider it terrorism when hundreds of thousands of our sons and brothers in Iraq died for lack of food or medicine. So, there is no base for what the US says and this saying does not affect us.[1]

Here Bin Laden was asked to respond to the claim that he has been sponsoring terrorism and training Islamic militants. Bin Laden argued that there is no basis for this claim because the United States supports terrorism and has itself engaged in activities which can justifiably be labelled ‘terrorist’. Bin Laden’s comments about the United States may or may not be true but either way it would not answer the questions as to whether Bin Laden has been sponsoring terrorism. It is possible, after all, that both Bin Laden and the United States sponsor and engage in terrorism.

The Difference Between a Tu Quoque and Internal Criticism
It is important to distinguish this argument from another similar argument, which I will call internal criticism. Internal criticism occurs when one argues against an opponent’s position by noting that one proposition the opponent holds conflicts with another proposition he holds.

An example is Alvin Plantinga’s famous argument in God and other Minds. In this book Plantinga looks at the question of whether belief in the existence of God is irrational because it cannot be proven to be true with a non-circular argument. In the first half of the book Plantinga examines various purported proofs for Gods existence and argues they all fail. He concludes that no proof for God’s existence has been offered. In the last three chapters, he asks a different question: can belief in the existence of other minds – other  rational people with thoughts and sensations – be proven with a non-circular argument? Plantinga examines the purported proofs of the existence of other minds and argues they all also fail for similar reasons. He concludes that one cannot reject belief in God on the basis of lack of proof, unless one also rejects the existence of other people.

On the face of it Plantinga’s position might appear to be a tu quoque; instead of showing that belief in God can be proven he ignores this question and argues that belief in other minds cannot. It is not a tu quoque. What Plantinga is doing is offering an internal criticism of the sceptic’s position. The sceptic maintains that belief in the existence of something is unjustified unless it can be proven to exist. However the sceptic also believes that other people exist. The point is that these two beliefs are inconsistent and one cannot rationally hold both. It follows, then, that one of them must be abandoned.

This is different from a tu quoque. In a tu quoque I reject an objection to my belief by noting yours has the same flaw. This involves accepting the property in question is a flaw and trying to avoid the issue by noting that you did it too. In internal criticism I call into question whether you can rationally put forward one of your beliefs given that it contradicts another of your beliefs. I may hold the beliefs in question or I may not but the point is that you do hold them and doing so is inconsistent. The difference is subtle but important.

Two Wrongs don’t make a Right
A tu quoque is, in many ways, the logical version of the mistake of thinking “two wrongs make a right”. One thinks of the sullen 10 year old caught doing something naughty who complains “but my sister did it too” or the child who swears says “but mum, I have heard you swear sometimes”. These things may well be the case, perhaps the sister did also commit the offence, perhaps the mother has used language they should not have but the fact the sister and mother are wrong to do x does not mean the child is right to do x.

Of course, if the mother had, when she swore, stated she believed swearing was okay then the child’s objection might be able to be construed as a  form of internal criticism. He could be saying “Mum you’re punishing me for doing x but you said x is okay; isn’t this inconsistent of you? If swearing is okay I have done nothing wrong and if I have done something wrong then swearing is not ok; so which is it?” In this case the child would have a point; the mother is being inconsistent. If the mother is to have a just reason to chastise the child she needs to give up her belief that swearing is wrong. Otherwise her objection to the child’s behaviour is irrational.

So in summation, you cannot rationally show that your position is defensible by noting that other positions share indefensible flaws with your own.

[1] I got this example from Fallacy Files.

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