Hypocrisy and Responsibility: On the Uses and Abuses of tu quoque for Life

February 21, 2017

By Andrew Spear

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye;
and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (Matthew 7:5)

Tu quoque is a type of fallacious reasoning that trades on the moral badness of hypocrisy. A hypocrite is someone who does not consistently act according to his own moral commitments. Such a person suffers from ongoing cognitive dissonance, espousing one thing but doing another, and thus lacks integrity. Socially, he cannot be trusted: knowing he is a hypocrite means knowing he will violate promises when it is convenient. Hypocrisy is thus justly condemned. Indeed, the Italian poet Dante viewed it as among the worst sins, worse than adultery and even murder. However, we should not let our condemnation of hypocrisy blind us to other more severe moral failings, and this is what the fallacy tu quoque attempts to do. People committing this fallacy use the badness of hypocrisy as a smokescreen to cover up their own worse crime of refusing to acknowledge moral responsibility. For example, President Trump recently raised eyebrows by responding to Bill O’Reilly’s suggestion that “Vladimir Putin is a killer” by asking “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

Now, O’Reilly may have had any number of instances in mind, but let’s suppose he was referring to the approximately 34 journalists murdered in Russia since 2000. O’Reilly’s point was then roughly:

  1. Putin is responsible for some of the 34 murdered journalists in Russia.
  2. Anyone responsible for even one murder is a killer.

Conclusion: Putin is a Killer.

Since killing innocent people is morally wrong, O’Reilly was suggesting that this fact about Putin ought not be ignored.

President Trump’s response implies that O’Reilly’s critique is hypocritical because the U. S. has committed similar actions, and thus that O’Reilly’s criticism itself lacks legitimacy. This last step is the tu quoque fallacy. Even if the U. S. were 100% guilty of the same crimes as Putin (and President Trump’s assumption here has been questioned), this would not lessen the legitimacy of O’Reilly’s critique of Putin. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and even a morally reprehensible messenger (O’Reilly — ultimately the U.S. — according to President Trump) can provide perfectly legitimate criticism (the message).

Significantly, tu quoque admits of both a legitimate use and a condemnable abuse. First, tu quoque can be used legitimately to question whether a particular moral principle is in fact one we endorse and, if so, whether everyone is consistently following it. Charitably understood, President Trump’s response to O’Reilly could be taken as a call for careful consideration and consistent application of the moral principle at issue. This is a basic demand of morality so should be taken seriously. We either accept that murdering innocent people is wrong or we don’t. If we do, then it applies to everyone. If we don’t, we shouldn’t criticize anyone for violating it. The sign someone is using tu quoque in this legitimate way is that they are equally willing to consider the moral responsibility both of their critics and of themselves and their allies, and attempt to have a nuanced and serious conversation about this. Someone who uses tu quoque in this way still acknowledges the burden of explaining both whether they accept the moral principle at issue and whether they think the cases at issue are relevantly similar, their own included.

The abuse of tu quoque is its use to avoid acknowledging moral responsibility for oneself and one’s allies, and to silence critics. What is bad about this more typical deployment of tu quoque is that it is a subtle form of deflecting legitimate criticism by changing the subject. At the same time, tu quoque is often deployed so as to end or cut short serious conversation. The President’s formulation: “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” is neither seriously raising the question of whether the principle it is wrong to kill innocent people is an acceptable one nor does it offer legitimate options for serious dialogue going forward. The correct response to such a use is this: “I’m happy to talk about whether the U.S. (or whoever) has consistently followed this principle, but first, please tell me whether you yourself accept the principle and whether you yourself think it does apply to the case we have been discussing—Putin (or whoever)—and your endorsement of him: if so, how do you respond to this criticism?”

In short, hypocrisy is bad, but refusal to acknowledge moral responsibility worse. The hypocrite may be self-deceived or confused; the person who uses tu quoque is not: if he knows that the moral principle applies to his critic under conditions putatively identical to his own, then he knows it applies to himself under those same conditions. Those who use tu quoque in the abusive sense—almost all who use it—are thus worse than the hypocrites they criticize. Their duty, like ours, is to confront criticism directly and answer it, and to lodge moral complaints against others in the same way – this applies to us all, whether in life, in work, or in political office.


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Page last modified February 21, 2017