When is a whataboutism not fallacious?

In a previous post, I have addressed a very interesting sub-case of tu quouque arguments –  unfortunately known as "whateverisms" – using the following example:
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?”The general  form of these argumentative exchanges is as follow: First it is argued that since being P is a sufficient condition for being Q and the Rs are Ps, then they must also be Q. Then, this argument is criticised by not including the Ss, different from the Rs, that are also P, and therefore must also be Q. 

In that post I argued against traditional accounts that frame a reply like Dr. Marion’s as fallacious (and also against the rhetorical diagnosis according to which Dr. Marion is criticising Prof. Anderson for being inconsistent and a hypocrite. Ouch!) But in accounting for a kind of arguments determining whether they are fallacious or no is just half of the work. Once we have recognised that Dr. Marion’s reply is not fallacious, the ball is in Prof. Anderson’s camp, but there are appropriate and inappropriate ways for him to respond to Dr. Marion. Remember that what Dr. Marion has done is challenge Prof. Anderson in explaining what he did not take Ezekiel in account in his original argument, i.e.. why the different treatment of John and Mary on one hand and Ezekiel on the other. Thus, Prof. Anderson can either concede and withdraw his original argument and/or conclusion or raise to the challenge and try to justify his excluding Ezekiel from his first argument and/or conclusion.

  1. Concession
    First of all, one can concede that the excluding was damaging enough to withdraw our previous augment and conclusion, for example:
    1. If there are no practical problems with including Ezekiel, Prof. Anderson could have replied something like “You are right, I should have included Ezekiel, let’s have him for dinner as well.”
    2. If there are practical problems with including Ezekiel, Prof. Anderson could have withdrawn the original proposal and replied something like “You are right, we have no reason to do this only for John and Mary, but we cannot have all recent graduates for dinner, so we should find another way to celebrate and help them all.”
    3. Or re-assess the priorities between the included and excluded cases, for example: “You are right, we have no reason to do this only for John and Mary, but we cannot have all recent graduates for dinner, so maybe we should only have Mary and Ezekiel, for I think they could use better the advice.
    4. Finally, one could also turn the burden of proposing a solution to one’s interlocutor thus: You are right, I should have included Ezekiel, what do you propose?”
  2. Try to meet the challenge
    One can also recognise that one’s original argument was not completely explicit and submit an extra premise that would properly ground the conclusion
    1. You are right, but Prof. Sánchez is organising something similar for Ezekiel, so it is not necessary to have him over as well.
    2. One could also re-frame the problem as a case of conflicting values: so that one’s original conclusion was right under the value embodied in the original argument but wrong under the value of fairness. Thus, one can try to defend one’s original conclusion by arguing for the importance of the value embodied in one’s original argument over that of fairness. For example, prof. Anderson could have replied something like “Yes, it would be unfair to exclude Ezekiel, but the value of celebrating and helping John and Mary far outweighs the bad in excluding Ezekiel.” I am not saying that it would be a correct response, but it would be appropriate, i.e.,  it would recognise the challenge raised by Dr. Marion’s response.
      This kind of reply is specially appropriate if the original reply was or was close to be a case of relative deprivation fallacy, for what one is doing here is arguing that even if it would be better to include Ezekiel, it would still be good enough to just include John and Mary.
  1. Insisting on the validity of the original argument.
    As I hope to have shown, there is no fallacy of relevance in Marion’s response, meaning that she has not questioned the validity of Prof. Anderson’s original argument. Thus, it would completely miss the point of her challenge to reply something like “But John and Mary could very well use this advice”, “I still think that celebrating the graduation of students is a good idea”, or “I just wanted to celebrate their recent graduation and give them some advice and I do not see anything wrong with that”.
  2. Dismissing the criticism by insisting on the validity of the original argument.
    For similar reasons, it would not be good to insist that the validity of the original argument makes the criticism irrelevant, for example saying “I was just trying to celebrate and help some students! I should not be vilified for that!”
  3. Explaining why one failed to include Ezekiel in a way that is not justifying. For example, appealing to the cognitive nature of one’s bias against Ezekiel. For example, Prof. Anderson could have replied “Well, I was just thinking about John and Mary because I just saw them this morning at the bus stop” or “The bias for thinking only of those more similar to one is natural, you know? There have been tons of studies supporting this.”
What would make a replies like Dr. Marion’s fallacious?
As I already mentioned, Dr. Marion’s reply is most likely not fallacious, but that does not mean that some replies of the same form are. When are replies like these fallacious?
1. First of all, if the excluded case is not sufficiently similar or not in the relevant aspects. For example, if Ezekiel was not actually a recent graduate and thus not in the same situation as John and Mary.
2. Second, if the exclusion is irrelevant. This could happen if the difference between the included and excluded cases was a difference without a distinction. Genuine cases of relative deprivation fallacy are just cases of replies of this sort, where the contrast between the cases included in the original argument and the cases mentioned in the reply form a pseudo-dilemma. Responses like these are also fallacious because addressing the exclusion distracts from the original claim.
Consider the following absurd exchange:
Alberto, holding a couple of carton boxes of milk in his hands at the supermarket: “We ran out of milk at home, so we should get these.”
Miguel Ángel, picking up a different a couple of carton boxes of milk of the same kind as the ones in Alberto’s hand: “Yeah, but what about these two? They also contain milk.”
It is clear here that even though Miguel Ángel’s reply is of the same form as Dr. Marion’s, his reply is blatantly irrelevant. The difference between the cartons of milk in Alberto’s hand and those in Miguel Ángel’s lacks a distinction.
Unfortunately, most cases are not that obvious. Consider the following example, based on Joel Richardson criticism of Ron Paul’s foreign polices at World Net Daily:
Jayla: Radical groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have radicalised because they have drunk deeply from the trough of an expansionist, racist and murderous ideology; thus, we should try to stop the spreading of these hateful ideas.
Demarco: You fail to mention the American actions abroad that have brought about the natural response of resistance that has contributed also to the development of these radical groups.
Those who consider Demarco’s response fallacious ague that it presents a pseudo-dilemma between the cause mentioned in Jayla’s argument and the one mentioned by him. In other words, since addressing the role of ideology in the radicalisation of these groups does not preclude from recognising the role at least some American policies played in the same radicalisation process, Demarco’s point is irrelevant to Jayla’s argument.
I am not totally convinced that Demarco’s response is simply fallacious; mostly, because relevance is  highly contextual, so his reply can be fallacious in some contexts or not in others. For example, if the context of Jayla and Demarco’s exchange was in debate regarding the causes of radicalisation or what to do to stop it, then his response seems to me relevant and not fallacious at all, but if the context was a debate on what role should ideology play in European foreign policy, for example, I am inclined to think that Demarco’s response was indeed fallacious.
Finally, why are these replies commonly so controversial?
I hope to have shown that since relevance is difficult to judge, and whether or not a reply like this is fallacious or not depends on issues of relevance, that makes it hard to determine whether a reply like this is fallacious or not. But I do no think that is all of the story as to why replies like these are so controversial. I think a contributing factor is that these replies commonly suffer from the violation of a basic rhetorical rule of argumentation: “Start with the positive.” If my account of this sort of argumentative manoeuvres is right, when not fallacious, they do not challenge the original argument as stated, and in most cases, they also agree with their premises; what they question is the honesty or the completeness of the stated argument. Thus, whenever this move is appropriate in an argumentative context there is something both argues agree with and something they disagree, and it is a general good idea to present the challenge making this duality explicit and starting with the positive. Thus, for example, Dr. Marion could have framed her criticism in a more constructive way by saying something like “Yes, having John and Mary for diner would be great, they deserve the celebration and could use the advice, but I think we should not forget about Ezekiel. He also just recently graduated and could use some advice as well, right?” Demarco could also have made his point better by saying something like “You are right Jayla, the recent spread of expansionist, racist and murderous ideology in the regios has probably contributed to the radicalisation of these group, as have the American actions abroad that have brought about the natural response of resistance.”


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