Professor Anderson is having a conversation with his wife, Dr. Marion. He tells her he wants to organise a dinner for a couple of recent graduates, John and Mary. His wife asks him why he wants to do so. He argues that he wants to celebrate their graduation and maybe give them some advice on their future careers that might be of help for their navigating the current job market. Dr. Marion thinks that Profr. Anderson helping recent graduates with professional advice is a great idea and also agrees with him that celebrating the graduation of one’s students is also a good enough reason for organising a dinner. However, she is dissatisfied with Profr. Anderson’s justification. “Ok, but what about Ezekiel? He also just recently graduated and could use some advice as well, right?”
Very little has been written about this sort of argumentative exchanges in the specialised literature on argumentation theorem but according to ti, Dr. Marion’s reply commits some kind of tu quoque fallacy (also known as “appeals to hypocresy” or “whateverism”). This means that Dr. Marion criticises Profr. Anderson for not being consistent with the premises of his own argument. If he actually believed in celebrating and supporting recent graduates, he should be doing that with John, Mary and Ezekiel. However, he is not, so he is being inconsistent. There is (some) debate currently regarding whether this sort of reply is a fallacy of relevance, of relative privation or an ad-hominem. Those who classify tu quoes as fallacies of relevance focus on the fact that the actual conclusion of Profr. Anderson was just that they should have John and Mary for dinner; since the conclusion says nothing about Ezekiel, information about this third recent graduate is completely irrelevant. In other words, since it is consistent with having John and Mary for dinner that they should have Ezekiel as well, Dr. Marion’s reply is irrelevant to Profr. Anderson’s argument.
One might very well be very dissatisfied with conceiving of Dr. Marion’s reply as fallacious, and more recent analysis of tu quoques (like Govier 1984) explain this by identifying the function of Dr. Marion’s reply as criticising Profr. Anderson for not being consistent with the premises of his own argument. If he actually believed in celebrating and supporting recent graduates, he should be doing that with John, Mary and Ezekiel. However, he is not, so he is being inconsistent (pragmatically inconsistent, since the inconsistency holds between a statement and an action). Under this interpretation, Marion’s argument is an ad-hominem where, even if the conclusion is true, one should not accept it from the current interlocutor. Paraphrasing Govier, the point here would seem to be not that Profr. Anderson is shown by his actions to have said something false when he said it would be good to have John and Mary for dinner, but rather that the inconsistency between his advocacy of the general principle of having recent graduates for dinner and his not including Ezekiel makes it hard to accept from him either the general principle or the plan of having John and Mary for dinner.” One advantage of this diagnosis ove the fallacy or relevance one is that it explains both why some might find Dr. Marion’s reply dissatisfying (because it does not bear on the truth of the conclusion, as those who cast it as a fallacy of relevance correctly point out) while others find it appropriate (because it correctly points out a rhetoric flaw in Profr. Anderson’s argument). It has also been argued in public debate (for example, in Molly 2015 and Moore-Smith 2012), but I have not been able to find anything in the specialised literature, that this sort of replies commit a fallacy of relative deprivation. This is so because it tries to make a good available proposal look worse by comparing it to a different better situation. The point is that even if it were a better idea to have John, Mary and Ezekiel for dinner, having John and Mary for dinner is still a good idea. This diagnosis is specially convincing if there are obvious practical differences between the original proposal and the new proposal, that is in our example, if there are obvious practical differences between having just John and Mary for dinner and having Ezekiel. In order to better understand why this might seem to be a fallacy of privation, consider Profr. Anderson replying to Dr. Marion’s remarks “We surely cannot have every graduate for dinner!” If you find Profr. Anderson’s reply as appropriate, casting Dr. Marion’s reply as a fallacy of relative deprivation helps explain why (even though one might argue that Profr. Anderson’s hypothetical reply also commits a slippery slope fallacy, since – on the face of it – Dr. Marion did not argue that they should have all recent graduates for dinner, but only Ezekiel).
This kind of exchange is very common, and a lot of recent public debates have taken this form. A lot of people have reacted to the outpour of support for France after the attacks from November 13 with criticisms to the extent that no similar acts of support were given to the also recent attacks in Ankara, Beirut, Kenya, etc. A year before these sad events, an outbreak of Ebola took the lives of tens of thousands of people, mostly in West Africa. However, “when Thomas Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola at a local Dallas hospital on September 30th, it … set in motion a cascade of reports, tweets, and posts that have dwarfed previous levels of attention by orders of magnitude. According to an analysis conducted by Time, global mentions of Ebola on Twitter skyrocketed from 100 tweets per minute to more than 6000 tweets per minute after the Thomas Duncan case had become public.” (Eierman 2014) People’s reaction to Duncan’s diagnosis was also criticised for similar reasons as the current reaction to the Paris’ incidents. As Martin Eierman from The European, reported, this criticism
So whatever we might think of a case like Marion and Anderson’s, we can apply also to these and similar cases. Are critics of the outpour of solidarity with France committing a fallacy of relevance? Or are they pointing out a hypocrisy on the part of those who do, while also accepting that it is good to do so? Or are they committing a fallacy of relative deprivation since, even if it would be better to show solidarity with all and any similar victims in Beirut, Guerrero, Ankara, etc. it is still good to show solidarity with the victims in Paris?
I am not satisfied with most of what has been written about this sort of arguments. On the one hand, I am dissatisfied with the claim that it is a fallacy of relevance, not just by some intuition that these reactions are not obviously irrelevant and fallacious, but by further linguistic reasons. A few months ago, Violeta Vázquez, a friend and linguist wrote in her Facebook wall that these replies seem to suppose that the original claim had some implicit exclusionary clause so that, for example, what Prof. Anderson claimed was not just that it would be good to have John and Mary over for dinner, but to have ONLY John and Mary over for dinner. This exclusionary clause is not explicit in the argument’s conclusion, but it may still be pragmatically conveyed by its assertion. For example, one can justifiably assume that such a clause would be communicated by an assertion of “I would like to invite John and Mary to dinner” or similar statements in contexts where Ezekiel’s being a recent graduate in need of advice on how to navigate the job market would be relevant or salient in the conversation. For instance, if Dr. Marion and Prof. Anderson were just talking about it, or if Ezekiel were a close student of Prof. Anderson or Dr. Marion, or John, Mary and Ezekiel always worked together, or it was common knowledge that Ezekiel was in special need for advice, etc. Then, one would be certainly justified in taking Prof. Anderson as communicating that he would like to invite only John and Mary to dinner, and thus there would be no fallacy of relevance in Prof. Anderson’s reply.
In the case of the Paris attacks, this means that the relevance of our reactions towards the outpour of solidarity with the people in France can be grounded on the relevance and saliency of the other attacks. If they are relevant and salient enough (besides being also similar in the relevant aspects), then our criticisms are relevant. And notice that relevance and saliency are different phenomena. Something can be relevant to a conversation even if it is not salient the common ground. Fortunately, what is relevant can be made salient by bringing it up in the conversation. As a matter of fact, this is how a reply like Dr. Marion’s or the criticisms against the public and media’s reaction to the attacks in Paris and Thomas Duncan’s diagnosis can be interpreted: as making salient something (that the interlocutor takes to be) relevant. What Dr. Marion is doing is making salient something she thinks must be relevant to the issue of whether to have John and Mary for dinner; what André Carilho is doing is making salient something that he thinks is relevant when discussing the then current Ebola outbreak; what many objectors to the public and media’s reaction to the Paris’ attacks are doing is making salient other similar attacks that we think are relevant. And notice how in order for something to be relevant it need not even be part of the common ground. It might be that Prof. Anderson had actually forgotten about Ezekiel at the time of his arguing for having John and Mary for dinner, but this does not make Ezekiel less relevant – it even makes his exclusion more pressing.
On the other hand, I am dissatisfied with rhetorical approaches like Govier’s because, even though I think an important component of these criticism is a reproach on the arguer as much (or even more than on) his argument, I do not think hypocrisy is the right vice to invoke. As my friend and colleague Emiliano Boccardi summarised in a Facebook conversation with me, if these criticisms do not commit a fallacy of relevance it is because they call attention to the fact that the arguer manifests a bias of some kind. “The implicit assumption behind Dr. Marion-like objections is that having a bias in these cases is unwarranted (either rationally or morally).” Thus the objector is challenging the arguer to warrant her making a distinction between John and Mary on the one hand and Ezekiel on the other, French concertgoers on the one hand, and Kurdish protesters on the other, etc. No surprise then that several recent debates surrounding the appropriateness of showing solidarity with the people of Paris have started coming up with reasons to warrant these distinctions. Boccardi, for example, approvingly quoted Derek Parfit: "Without selfish partiality—to people you are deeply attached to, your wife and your children, your friends, to work that you love and that is particularly yours, to beauty, to place—we are nothing. We are creatures of intimacy and kinship and loyalty, not blind servants of the world.” Others have mentioned outrage fatigue, i.e., the cognitive bias of getting diminishing returns of outrage from recurring evils. The idea is that the Paris attacks were surprising in a way that the Beirut attacks, for example, were not.
But notice that the appropriateness of these replies relies on the appropriateness of the original criticism. We find replies like Boccardi’s appropriate precisely because we recognise the point of Dr. Marion-like criticisms: they challenge us to provide warrant for a exclusionary bias, one without which our original conclusion was not acceptable. And this is something we could not account for if we took the criticism to be an appeal to hypocrisy or if we took it to be a fallacy of relevance. Instead what we have is a challenge of the sufficiency of the provided grounds for the conclusion. This challenge is specially pressing in circumstances where there are salient differences between the cases excluded and the cases included in the original argument and claim. It is no accident that in Eierman’s description of Carrilho’s cartoon, he includes the information that the patient holding all of the attention “is white; the others are black.” Similar comments usually accompany criticisms to the reactions to the Paris attacks as well, stressing the fact that the other attacks occurred in poorer, non-western countries and to non-whites. (So it is also no accident that I named my third recent graduate “Ezekiel” instead of, say, “Paul”). In the absence of a satisfying explanation for the original bias in favour of the victims of the attacks in Paris over the victims in Ankara, Sharm el-Sheikh or Beirut, one cannot blame critics for assuming that it was motivated by racial and class concerns. This puts extra pressure on the arguer for meeting the challenge of warranting (or denouncing) her bias in favour of the Parisian victims.
Consider the following fictional argumentative exchange from a recent episode of the legal drama “The Good Wife”, where lawyer Diane Lockhart questions wedding-planner Ms. Dahl who is trying to argue that she has the right to refuse serving as wedding planner to a gay couple because it conflicts with their own religious views:
Lockhart: Ms. Dahl... how many times did, um, Jesus condemn homosexuality? ...
Dahl: Um, Jesus never condemned homosexuality.
Lockhart: And how many times did Jesus condemn divorce?
Dahl: Three times. Four times... if you count Matthew and Mark's account of the same incident.
Lockhart: Thank you. Uh, so you've never planned a wedding... for a couple that had previously been married?
Dahl: Um... I haven't asked. I... I guess I have.
Lockhart: Well, in fact, you have planned... two weddings in the last year alone where one or both of the couple had previously been married.
Dahl: That sounds right.
Lockhart: So your religious objection is selective, at best. Wouldn't you say?
In this fictional exchange the tu quoue argument is filled in more explicit detail than in most common occurrences in real life, so it is easier to see its actual target. It is not so much that Ms. Dahl is a hypocrite in defending that she must not assist in weddings that conflict with her religious beliefs (weddings of gay people) while actually assisting in weddings that conflict with her religious beliefs (weddings of divorced people), but that she is being dishonest about her actual motivations in rejecting service to gay couples. By reducing Ms. Dahls’s religious freedom argument, Ms. Lockhart is accusing Ms. Dahl of trying to hide her actual homophobic motivation behind a false invocation of religious rights. And she does this without even mentioning homophobia, because homosexuality is already salient.
Summarizing, arguments of this sort are indeed a kind of tu quoque, but one that presents special challenges that have not been properly addressed in the literature. Tu quoques of this sort have both logical and rhetorical dimensions. At the logical level, when successful, these arguments point to a bias in the original argument that needs to be properly warranted by the opponent. From the rhetorical perspective, they point to a possible dishonesty on the part of the arguer who might be masking his actual reasons for the conclusion, behind more socially acceptable ones. Either way, not all arguments of this sort are fallacious.