William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Hypocrisy Fallacy: If You Don’t Do What’s Right, I Don’t Have To Either!

L is for 'Lots of armed body guards.'

L is for ‘Lots of armed body guards.’

We continue our delightful series1 of mistakes in logic, this time highlighting the hypocrisy fallacy. It also has an official Latin name: ad hominem tu quoque, which loosely translated is, “You canting, sanctimonious fraud!”

Suppose an opinionator—intellectual, journalist, television news reader, academic, celebrity, blogger, etc.—were to issue the following prototypical statement:

I think we can all agree that the notorious ax murderer Joe Blogs, who used his last words to state that killing is wrong, is a hypocrite. Therefore, hacking people to pieces with dull axes is okay.

We would be right to wrest from the grip of this man the bottle of which he is obviously too fond. But what if he said this instead?

The Catholic Church acknowledged covering up the crimes of a bunch of misordained molesting male priests who were ‘oriented’ mainly towards post-pubescent young males, therefore we are right to ignore what the Church says about fornication, birth control, self abuse, divorce, and abortion.

This time our man would be rewarded with at least sage nods from his audience, if not a plaque acknowledging his journalistic boldness. He would even be bought drinks when, indeed, he should be cut off, because he is engaging in the same fallacy as before.

A murderer preaching against murder does not make murder right; other men rape, abuse, or fornicate and preaching against these acts does not make these actions allowable, even if you really want to do them.

Another:

Because the very pro-abortion former executive director of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association Scott Richard Swirling has pleaded guilty to negotiating on-line to have sex with a man’s 12-year-old daughter, it means that those associated NFPRHA (pronounced nif-pur-Ha!) can’t be trusted in what they say about abortions on demand for pre-teen females.

This one is more difficult because it’s not clear if there is any hypocrisy. But if there were, then we cannot judge the morality of abortions from the actions of its prominent supporters, naughty as they are. Instead we say it is wrong because it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being whose life is “inconvenient”.

More examples:

If your doctor who is a smoker says smoking is bad for you it is not necessarily true that smoking is good for you. Though smoking does give one a rich, resonant voice (evidence: most radio and screen actors of old). Your author does not smoke. Though if he did, it would (a) be none of your damn business, and (b) no proof that smoking is good for you.

If a celebrity, say Michael Moore, rails against private ownership of firearms yet surrounds himself with firearm-carrying private citizens (and might even himself occasionally sport one), this does not necessarily mean private ownership of firearms is sound. Though guns are obviously the only way to frighten off obtrusive revenooers and other varmints.

If a prominent personage, say Joe “Wakka Wakka” Biden, preaches that sacrifice is good yet gives annually to charity a sum smaller than the amount he spends on hair plugs and tooth whitening, this does not necessarily mean giving to charity is unwise. Because “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, even as President of the Senate, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

Besides our intellectual elite, kindergartners are also especially fond of this fallacy:

“You’re a poopy head!” shouted Tot One.

“You shouldn’t call people names! You’re a poopier head!” retorted Tot Two.

Tot Two is entirely right that one should not call people wounding, scurrilous names; though in calling Tot Two a poopy head Tot One has given some evidence that he (Tot One) is in fact himself a poopy head, because poopy heads use this kind of language. However, this is not proof that Tot Two is not a poopy head, too. Tot Two will instead have to produce independent evidence that he did not steal the cookies out of Tot One’s lunch box.

Your examples?


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1Consisting so far of just this present one and this old one.

12 Comments

  1. 1. A journalism degree confer the ability to tell a story with anything close to accuracy.
    2. Peer review weeds out the chaff.
    3. “In God We Trust” printed on our money makes it true.

    Although maybe #3 isn’t a fallacy, at least about our money because the only things you can trust the government to do is devalue and take our money.

  2. They used to teach the logical fallacies in freshman composition, but today it is evidently not taught. Since Aristotle cataloged the logical fallacies and he’s just an old dead white man he can be ignored.

  3. Applying the (what I term) argumentum ad Latinis radix fallacy, I claim your argument is false.

  4. If other people engage in logical fallacies then it’s ok for Briggs to do so too.

    viz.
    1.That we are indeed “right to ignore” moral advice from axe murderer Joe Blogs (or a venal institution that protects its own paedophilic members) does not imply that the advice he (or it) gives is actually wrong. So the first two examples you give are not parallel. We can *not* take Blogs prohibition as permission but we *are* obligated to discount the moral authority of the Roman Church.

    2.You are right that Scott Richard Swirling should not be trusted on moral matters and also to acknowledge that this does not imply that his judgement (on matters other than paedophilia) is always wrong. But his behaviour provides no reason to distrust NFPRHA itself or others associated with it unless it had acted as an institution to protect Mr Swirling from prosecution. (That you think you have other reasons for questioning their judgement is of course irrelevant to the fallacy of connecting his misbehaviour to the institution without evidence that it failed to respond properly when made aware of it.)

  5. Sander van der Wal

    20 April 2013 at 1:01 pm

    An institution with a “holier than thou” attitude cannot expect to have the moral high ground if it behaves worse than the people it is preaching to. Their teachings might still be right given their own premisses, but they would be more believable is they actually acted according to their own premisses too.

    So, why take their premises as the basis of your own morality? You mignt end up just as them

  6. William Sears

    20 April 2013 at 3:38 pm

    It seems that you are going to have trouble getting people to accept this as a fallacy despite your excellent opening example. I predict that the typical response will be (has been): what is Briggs’ secret agenda?

    Although there are many lists, I wonder if there are a well defined number of logical fallacies, or are new ones being added every day, and do they all have Latin names?

    There is also the fallacy of trolling for a way of re-expressing ones opponent’s statements so that it fits a classical fallacy in an attempt to claim victory. Pointing out a fallacy in an opposing argument is not the same as being right oneself. Is there a Latin name for this?

  7. Briggs

    20 April 2013 at 3:46 pm

    William Sears,

    Yes. It is called vide si haeret, which more or less means see if it sticks.

    Sander,

    Excellent subtle version of the fallacy.

    Alan,

    No, sorry. With sadness in my heart, I’ll have to mark you down. Whatever Briggs does, you still have to do the right thing.

  8. Richard Brimage

    20 April 2013 at 4:59 pm

    The Bible quote using ‘charity’ is probably from the King James version. I am sure you are aware that modern translations use the more accurate word ‘love’ instead. Still very interesting reading as usual.

  9. Sylvain Allard

    20 April 2013 at 10:19 pm

    I recall few decades ago a man getting married at a Catholic Church.

    I recall the same man getting divorced.

    I recall the Catholic Church saying that a man cannot be married twice under the church, unless the spouses died.

    I recall that divorced man falling in love with a girl about 30 years younger.

    I recall the couple requesting a meeting with the pope JP2, something that is granted to any catholics believer, so the man could have is first marriage annulled, so he could get married under god again, while his first wife’s was very still alive.

    So is there any reason to give any credit to a Church that disrespect its own belief if there is enough money in it for them.

    It doesn’t mean that anyone has to forget his own moral belief. But no one has to follow what someone preach but refuse to follow.

    Abortion doesn’t go against my belief, if god intends a for a woman to get pregnant, he also intend what ever happen to the fetus.

    The last drink I had was over 20 years ago, I never smoked or took any illicit drug.

    Yet I don’t care if people take drug or not, drink or not, or smoke or not. I don’t claim one is better than the other.

  10. @Richard Brimage – The problem is not that “charity” is inaccurate — it is in fact a more precise term than “love” — but rather that the everyday meaning of the word “charity” has changed over time. Charity used to mean caritas; today it mostly just means alms, and the word “alms” has all but disappeared. If you just say “love”, though, you can end up with the sort of nonsense shown in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, in which the monotheistic Cylons said, “God is love,” but the love they had in mind was erotic love.

  11. @Gary – Please explain how any of the three examples you give relate to the fallacy being discussed.

  12. One of the recent popes not so long ago remarked that one can judge a person by their actions/deeds–not their words. This was essentially a re-stating of the old bit about judging a tree by its fruits.

    When an institution like the R. Catholic Church engages in the brutalization of children by, in part, enabling some priests to persist in such behavior by moving them to unsuspecting parishes one can conclude the institution is corrupt in a very fundamental way. Ditto for the other persons/examples noted — each conditioned on the subject being highly corrupt in some fashion relative to some subject-matter-related expertise.

    That brings us to the other old saying to the effect, ‘The Devil can quote scripture to suit his purposes.’

    While a corrupt person/institution may be eloquent and quite correct on some matters of morality–when we KNOW (pretext of the examples given) to be corrupt — we cannot know with any certainty that that person/institution is in fact explaining other matters correctly. I.E., we do not know if by engaging in a conversation, or being a willing audience, with such a corrupt entity if we are in effect engaging in a conversation with the devil, or the devil’s agent, and being manipulated to some degree.

    In other words, while we might learn a lot of good info from the devil…when we KNOW it’s a devil in some form (“devilish”), the policy lesson is clear: Stay Away … and get your information elsewhere.

    Philosophy may lead to one conclusion–that corrupt (“Devilish” experts may be useful resources for conveying good information)…but, in such cases such as this, long-standing established Church policy says something quite different — DO NOT ENGAGE THEM.

    Unless one is the Church…in which case there’s that infallibility thing popping up….

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