A few weeks ago, I wrote a post headlined, “Secret Children for Me, No Gay Marriage For Thee!” because I lack the subtlety gene that most human beings are born with.* The post concerned a philandering Senator who still made a point of opposing gay marriage. I found both his philandering and his subsequent moral hypocrisy galling. You can read that post here.
Although nobody approved of Domenici’s indickscretions*, my attempt to conflate the senator’s libidinous behavior and the larger social conservative movement was met with opposition. I was accused of willfully engaging in something know as the Tu Quoque Fallacy**. The Tu Quoque Fallacy can be invoked to describe any argumentative attempt to appeal to the idea of hypocrisy; rather than debating the issue, the Tu Quote is a method wherein an ideological opponent becomes the issue. Jason Kuznicki wrote the best of the (many) replies:
Whenever anyone makes an argument, pretend simply that you’ve found the argument carved on stone tablets in the desert. You have no idea who made it, or why, or when, or how. It’s just a set of propositions. Discuss those, not the messenger.
First and foremost, I want to make my admiration for Kuznicki and his work clear. That he took the time to respond to something I had written – but especially something that he didn’t agree with – means much to me. I wanted to clarify that ahead of time, because after several weeks of genuinely introspective consideration, I have come to the following conclusion: I thoroughly disagree with the notion that the Tu Quoque Fallacy is necessarily problematic.
A Late Introduction
Before I go farther, I should acknowledge that I am already in the deep end here. The reality is that my own understanding of fallacious thinking is tenuous at best. Hell, my own understanding of thinking itself is tenuous at best. I thus recognize in advance that those who oppose the position I am going to take will almost certainly have a better understanding of the traditional approaches to appropriate argumentation. I also want to explain, as I have in other posts and in other threads, that I find actions more meaningful than words, full stop. I am troubled by the notion that we would ever assume the opposite. This biases me hugely against the Tu Quoque Fallacy. We will get to that.
An Acknowledgement of Fact
Kuznicki was correct when he advised me to think of arguments as ideas carved onto stone tablets found in the desert. He was correct because that is what appropriate reasoned argumentation demands of its participants. Here is Wikipedia’s handling of fallacies generally; here is its explanation of Tu Quoque more specifically. In both pages, it is plainly clear there are clear rules that govern conduct. And because those engaging in the Tu Quoque attack the arguer and not the argument, it is fallacious.
I do not dispute the reality of this within the rules that govern reason.
I do, however, dispute that this is necessarily problematic. I dispute this for two reasons: that arguments are products that should be treated as such and that there is no reason to necessarily give an opponent the benefit of the doubt, especially when evidence exists that suggests he might not be telling the truth.
Arguments As Products
The first of these – and again, this is deep end territory for me – has to do with the nature of arguments themselves. Wikipedia says the following about argument:
In logic and philosophy, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something, by giving reasons for accepting a particular conclusion as evident. The general structure of an argument in a natural language is that of premises (typically in the form of propositions, statements or sentences) in support of a claim: the conclusion. The structure of some arguments can also be set out in a formal language, and formally-defined “arguments” can be made independently of natural language arguments, as in math, logic and computer science.
I tend to focus like a laser on seven of those words: “…an attempt to persuade someone of something.” That is the gist of the thing. I would like to believe that we all can agree to this. But the idea of persuasion should hold steady regardless of the something being considered, whether it is an idea or a tangible, physical product.
I write that not (necessarily) because I am daft but because I cannot see a difference between an individual trying to convince me of the rightness of social conservativism and an individual trying to convince me of the rightness of buying this particular toaster. In both cases, I want to know everything I can before I make a decision; although the idea of perfect information is theoretical at best, the more the merrier.
The invocation of the Tu Quoque Fallacy demands otherwise; rather than gathering as much information as possible, we are limited only to information about the product itself, even if information about that product’s pitchman might prove incredibly valuable. Again, this was the recommendation that I received:
Whenever anyone makes an argument, pretend simply that you’ve found the argument carved on stone tablets in the desert.
Here is what that statement looks like if one key word is replaced:
Whenever anyone makes a car, pretend simply that you’ve found the car on in the desert.
There are those both capable of and willing to purchase a car based upon nothing more than its appearance. I am not one of these people. I want to know about the car’s reputation. I want to know about the manufacturer’s reputation. And, perhaps most importantly, I want to know about seller’s reputation. As nearly as I can tell, the invocation of the Tu Quoque Fallacy demands that we abandon this final concern, not because the lacks value, but because the seller’s reputation is oddly out of bounds.
Person One: You should buy this car from me as it is a great car.
Person Two: But you are a scumbag who is known to sell lemons.
Person One: You must not consider me; think only of the vehicle itself.
Is this unfair? Perhaps. But I struggle to see the difference what I wrote above and the following:
Person One: Gay marriage is bad because it disrespects traditional marriage.
Person Two: But you are a scumbag who is known to cheat on his wife.
Person One: You must not consider me; think only of gay marriage’s damage of traditional marriage.
It is difficult for me to imagine a scenario in which I would be so taken with a physical item that I would not want to also possess information about the individual selling it. I struggle to see any reason to treat a consideration of ideas differently, because even if the back and forth is purely speculative, I am doing something with a thought that I would not do with a thing. And in the political arena, an arena in which winning and losing can have significant impact in the lives of individuals? I ought to consider that idea more seriously than I would consider that thing. To then falsely staunch the flow of potentially useful information is anathema.
Giving The Benefit Of The Doubt
Without saying so explicitly, the Tu Quoque Fallacy demands that we give our ideological opponents the benefit of the doubt in that we are asked to assume that everything they claim is a true representation of their beliefs. I can vaguely understand why this might make sense in an academic setting – although, really, I do not, and this inability may explain my own, uhh, somewhat flawed*** graduate student career – but in a political setting, where the costs are much higher? Assuming an honest opponent is damned near naïve.
Earlier, I mentioned my own belief in the superiority of actions to words when it comes to understanding an individual’s beliefs. I find the alcoholic who says he wants to get sober less convincing than the alcoholic who is actually emptying his liquor bottles. Perhaps this is unfair; perhaps this is reasonable. That is a discussion for another day. But knowing that I believe this helps me to understand why I do not necessarily object to the Tu Quoque Fallacy as it is frequently employed.
Let us briefly return to Domenici. Domenic was a staunch opponent of gay marriage, arguing repeatedly for Constitutional amendments to ban the practice nationally, the harshest of the positions that social conservatives are capable of taking (short of, I suppose, ending the national prohibition on stoning in the public square); in that formulation, even states that recognize gays as human beings would be prevented from implementing their own structures of legal marriage. When asked, about the issue, Domenici often said things like this:
“I am a strong believer in the benefits of traditional marriage. While I understand that individuals are involved in various types of relationships, I believe we must give special recognition to marriage for one man and one woman, as it was defined in the Defense of Marriage Act a decade ago…”
Subsequently, it was revealed that Domenici’s strong belief in the benefits of traditional marriage was not as precisely explained as it might have been. Here is a primer on what else Domenici might have included in his definition. I guess he ran out of time before clarifying, “When I say I am a strong believer in the benefits of traditional marriage between a man and a woman, what I mean is a marriage in which the man is sleeps with his co-worker’s daughter and fathers a secret child that he only bothers to fess up to thirty years later.”
The Tu Quoque Fallacy prevents us from mentioning this during an argument, not because it is not relevant, but because tradition demands it of us. We are then forced to take Domenici’s value-of-marriage claims at face value despite contradictory evidence that suggests something else might be fueling the New Mexican’s opposition. That something else might be a lot of things; one obvious possibility is an outright animus toward gays but because we are forbidden to discuss the individual making the argument, our hands are tied. Thus, a man concealing his hatred is allowed to continue concealing it, to his and his argument’s benefit, in the name of…something. Comity? Decency? Reason?
Perhaps, but if the achieving those things requires excluding evidence that may be of importance? I am not sure that what is gained is actually worth it.
Tradition For Tradition’s Sake
The idea behind the Tu Quoque Fallacy is one in which we do not cast aspersions against our argumentative opponents, and that in fact, to do so is dirty pool. I get why we would not want to bog the conversation down by thoroughly accounting the entirety of our unrelated beliefs that might happen to be hypocritical. Arguments would be worthless if any unrelated hypocrisy could be considered damning enough to end the conversation. But when the hypocrisy is evidence of at least the possibility of a dishonest opponent, to exclude its consideration from an intellectual back-and-forth is to do a disservice to the exchange. This is not theater after all, at least as far as I understand it. It is not about putting on a show. It is about a back-and-forth that seeks to move us closer toward something that might vaguely appear to be truthful.
Before I finish, I want to make one other point: when I have made this argument before, I have been asked if this means I am more willing to take somebody’s point seriously if they themselves do not possess the same sort of hypocrisies that Pete Domenici does. The answer, in short, is yes. This does not then mean that I am simply looking for the person who has lead the least hypocritical life; but I struggle to believe an individual is being honest with me about the badness of something if I know that individual has engaged in it. My working assumption, although this might be wrong, is that most people tend to feel similarly.
Perhaps that last part is not true. I acknowledged above my own bias toward actions rather than words; somebody who prefers the opposite presumably believes deeply in the mistake of the Tu Quoque Fallacy. I can certainly understand why. It allows an arguer to have their cake and eat it too. Or in Domenici’s case, it allows him to have his co-worker’s daughter while still married to his own wife and still demonize gays as the ones who are a threat to marriage.
In ending, I want to again acknowledge that Kuznicki, who generously allowed me to quote him, was right to describe me as engaging in the Tu Quoque Fallacy, and he was right to recommend the approach that he did. The problem though is that I do not think I was wrong to have done it.
**I really wish I thought to combine Pete Domenici and the Tu Cock Phallusy in some way more effective than this, mostly because I’m still 14 apparently.
***Yeah, that’s the ticket!