Have You Ever?

You’ve probably had at least a handful of adults tell you not to do drugs or to never drink underage. Imagine that you found out your parents did all of these things when they were your age. The next time they lecture you on the dangers of such acts, you retort, “But you did them, so your protests can’t be true.”

The Explanation

Your argument is based upon an appeal to hypocrisy. Instead of directly attacking the validity of your parents’ claim, you claim your parents’ argument is flawed by pointing out that they act inconsistently with their claims, or, more simply, that they don’t practice what they preach.

Definition of Tu Quoque

Tu quoque is a type of ad hominem argument in which one discredits a position by asserting that the proponent has acted contradictory to their stated position. Despite its surprising effectiveness as a persuasion tool, it is classically considered a logical fallacy. After all, one’s actions have little bearing on what is factually true. Rather than investigating the truth of the original argument, tu quoque statements attack the character of the speaker.

The History

Tu quoque is Latin for “you too” or “you as well.” This type of argument has many names: the “you too” fallacy, appeal to hypocrisy, personal inconsistency, etc. It was first identified and labeled in the early 1600s and functions today as both a noun and an adjective.

A variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy is popularly credited to have developed during the Cold War. Named whataboutism, it is defined as any attempt to discredit a person’s position by accusing the speaker of being hypocritical without directly disproving the argument in question. Whataboutism, also called whataboutery, derives its name from the phrase “what about,” which often is used to twist criticism back on the critic. 

Tu quoque arguments tend to either attack an inconsistency between the speaker’s position and their established characteristics and persona or actions and behavior. They shift people’s attention from the argument to the person, which makes them a kind of ad hominem.

Using It

While tu quoque arguments are largely considered logical fallacies, they can sometimes be relevant and worth using. Hypocrisy can be a signal that a speaker doesn’t truly believe what they’re arguing. In conjunction with other evidence, it can help bolster a claim.

However, that doesn’t mean hypocrisy on its own proves the falseness of a statement. The consequences of past actions can make someone change their beliefs and opinions of those actions. For example, your mother might preach the dangers of underage drinking because she experienced them firsthand. Maybe someone truly believes their stance but can’t bring themselves to change their own behavior. Your grandfather might insist you never smoke precisely because he got addicted to it. 

If you’re going to attack the speaker, be sure you have evidence that addresses the wrongness of their original claim, too. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a tu quoque argument, it’s best to attack its relevance to the conversation. Admit any lack of self-control or willpower while maintaining its lack of connection to the truth of your position.

    Learn More

    1. Agassi, Joseph. “Rationality and the tu quoque argument.” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, vol 16, issue 1-4, 1973, pp. 395-406. Doi: 10.1080/00201747308601691.
    2. Aikin, Scott F. “Tu Quoque Arguments and the Significance of Hypocrisy.” SSRN, Sept 2007. Doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1012620.
    3. Parker, Richard A. “Tu quoque Arguments: A Rhetorical Perspective.” The Journal of the American Forensic Association, vol 20, issue 3, 1984. Doi: 10.1080/00028533.1984.11951257.
    4. Van Eemeren, Frans H. & Peter Houtlosser. “More about Fallacies as Derailments of Strategic Maneuvering: The Case of Tu Quoque.” OSSA Conference Archive, 2003, 93. https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/ossaarchive/OSSA5/papersandcommentaries/93.

    Think Further

    1. Where do you encounter tu quoque arguments?
    2. Do you find tu quoque arguments to be an effective debate tactic? Why or why not?
    3. Why do you think tu quoque arguments are commonly used?

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