Recently, there was a post put up on the RNL defining people who did not serve in the military but who advocate the use of military force as ‘chicken hawks.’ I tried to explain to the author that this was fallacious reasoning, but he didn’t want to see it. The problem with the argument in this post is it attacks the person making the claim and not the claim. It also relies on making an attack based on soemthing that is known to have mass emotional appeal, then it frames the attack so it favors the attacker. But the argument does not try to show that the definition is correct, that the people being attacked meet that definition, and – most important – it doesn’t even address the argument the people being attacked are trying to make. It is all about attacking the messenger.
So, as you can see, the post in question contained multiple fallacies, but, on the whole, it commits what is known as the fallacy of tu quoque. Now, if you follow my posts, you are probably aware that I harp on fallacious reasoning quite often. However, this time, rather than just point out the mistake in reasoning, I decided it might be more useful to actually define it in detail and then explain how and why it is damaging and dangerous to accept a fallacious argument:
The fallacy of tu quoque occurs in our reasoning if we conclude that someone’s argument not to perform some act must be faulty because the arguer himself or herself has performed it. Similarly, when we point out that the arguer doesn’t practice what he preaches, we may be therefore suppose that there must be an error in the preaching, but we are reasoning fallaciously and creating a tu quoque. This is a kind of ad hominem circumstantial fallacy.
Look who’s talking. You say I shouldn’t become an alcoholic because it will hurt me and my family, yet you yourself are an alcoholic, so your argument can’t be worth listening to.
Discovering that a speaker is a hypocrite is a reason to be suspicious of the speaker’s reasoning, but it is not a sufficient reason to discount it.
So, why should we care if an argument is fallacious? The answer only matters if you care about the truth, or the truth as close as we can determine it. Look at the definition of fallacious:
1: embodying a fallacy
2: tending to deceive or mislead : delusive
And at the definition of fallacy:
1a obsolete : guile, trickery b : deceptive appearance : deception
2a : a false or mistaken idea b : erroneous character : erroneousness
3: an often plausible argument using false or invalid inference
In other words, if you accept a fallacious argument, you are most likely being deceived. The tricky part is that a fallacious argument can often sound reasonable and, from time to time, it will even arrive at the correct or a true conclusion. But, if you do not arrive at the truth by the correct path, you do not really understand that truth. This makes it more likely that you will fall for the next fallacious argument based on that conclusion: because you don’t really understand the fact. Think of it this way: when you were in school, why did your teachers make you show your work in math class? And did you get full credit if you got the answer right but worked the problem wrong? Well, accepting a fallacious argument is like giving full credit for a correct answer where the work is all wrong – or even missing all together.
Your teacher would have assumed you either cheated or have no understanding of what you are doing and got the correct answer by chance. In reason, we should treat the author of a fallacious argument the same way, but, depending upon the importance of the argument, we should be even more suspicious of the author’s intentions. If the author is someone who should know better – such as a professor or a journalist or even an elected representative – and they are using fallacious arguments, we should assume deception first and allow for honest mistake last. This is the only way to insure the preservation of truth within our society. It is also the duty of a free and self-governing citizen.