The tu quoque fallacy is a type of ad hominem attack. The name comes from Latin, and it means “you also.”
Like any ad hominem fallacy, it involves bringing negative aspects of an opponent or their situation to attack their viewpoint. It involves rejecting someone’s views because of their supposed hypocrisy.
A to quoque fallacy example is: Alice advised us to exercise regularly; Alice does not exercise regularly; therefore, her recommendation must be rejected.
The tu quoque (Latin: “you also”) fallacy, involves the accusation of hypocrisy against someone instead of engaging with their argument.
It is a fallacy because being hypocritical does not change the truth value of whatever someone is saying.
This is an informal fallacy, meaning it can sometimes lead to true conclusions and sometimes to false ones. The point, however, is that the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises.
The first use of the term is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in John Cooke’s Jacobian era stage play The Cittie Gallant or Greene’s Tu Quoque (Cooke, 2020).
The common logical form of the tu quoque fallacy is as follows:
- A claims that statement X is true.
- A’s actions, or past claims, are inconsistent with the truth of statement X.
- Therefore, statement X is false.
Such reasoning is also known today as whataboutism or whataboutery.
This refers to the technique where a question or argument is not answered or discussed but retorted with a counter-question about something else.
With this definition in mind, what follows is a list of 10 hypothetical examples of arguments that commit the tu quoque fallacy.
- Alice advised us to exercise regularly.
- Alice does not exercise regularly.
- Therefore, her recommendation must be rejected.
This argument commits the tu quoque fallacy because it assumes that hypocrisy or inconsistency between Alice’s recommendation and her actions proves that her recommendation should be rejected.
Such reasoning may sometimes lead to a reasonable conclusion, but that conclusion would not follow from such premises.
Whether exercising regularly is or is not good advice does not depend on the personal actions of the one who recommends it. These two things are not logically dependent on each other. More generally, the value of advice does not completely depend on the consistency between the advisor’s claims and their past actions.
- Bob claims that cars pollute the air, thereby harming our health and contributing to climate change.
- Bob recommends that we should limit how much we drive cars.
- Bob owns and drives a car.
- Therefore, Bob’s recommendation should be rejected, and his claim that cars pollute the air and contribute to climate change is false.
This argument commits the tu quoque fallacy. After all, it makes two unwarranted assumptions: (1) that Bob’s recommendation should be rejected because he is acting hypocritically and (2) that Bob’s claims about cars and pollution are false because they are inconsistent with his actions.
The conclusion does not logically follow from the premises.
Just because Bob does not follow his advice does not mean that the advice is flawed. More importantly, Bob’s actions have nothing to do with the truth and falsity of what he says about cars, air pollution, and climate change.
- Clarence advised me not to cheat on my romantic partner because that would ruin our relationship.
- Clarence has cheated on his romantic partners in the past.
- Therefore, Clarence’s advice should be rejected, and his claim that cheating will ruin our relationship is false.
This argument, like the example above, makes two erroneous assumptions.
It assumes that the truth value of Clarence’s first claim is affected by his past actions and that his advice should be rejected because of that.
The inconsistency between Clarence’s recommendation and his actions does not prove that I should not heed his advice.
- Our professor recommends that we should not plagiarize other authors and should always cite our sources.
- Our professor has plagiarized other authors in the past.
- Therefore, the professor’s advice should be rejected.
This argument commits the tu quoque fallacy because it assumes that the inconsistency between the professor’s recommendations and past actions proves that the advice they give should be rejected or ignored.
It is, however, erroneous to assume this because the professor’s actions have nothing to do with the value of the advice they give.
Our accusation in premise (2) might be correct, but that does not show that the recommendation in premise (1) has no value.
- Helen told me that junk food is bad for my health and that I should stop eating it.
- Helen eats junk food.
- Therefore, Helen’s claim that junk food is bad for health is false, and her advice should be ignored.
This argument assumes that the inconsistency between Helen’s actions and her recommendation, as well as her claim about the health defects of junk food, prove that her advice should be ignored.
Moreover, the argument assumes that Helen’s actions prove that her factual claim in premise (1) is false. Neither of these assumptions follows from the premises. The conclusion, therefore, does not follow from the premises.
- My mother told me that I should quit smoking because it is bad for my health.
- My mother is a lifelong smoker.
- Therefore, my mother’s advice should be ignored, and her claim that smoking is bad for my health is false.
This argument is similar to the one above. It also commits the tu quoque fallacy. The argument dismisses the mother’s recommendation and her claim because the mother’s actions are inconsistent with her recommendation.
The counter-accusation may be correct, but hypocrisy does not invalidate the mother’s argument in premise (1).
- My classmate recommends that I should start playing basketball because I like watching it and have the athletic potential to play it well.
- My classmate does not play basketball.
- Therefore, my classmate’s advice should be ignored, and their claim that I could potentially play basketball well is false.
This argument makes two erroneous assumptions and thereby commits the tu quoque fallacy: (1) it assumes that my classmate’s advice should be ignored because of its inconsistency with their actions and (2) that my classmate’s claim about my athletic abilities is false. Neither of these conclusions is logically warranted by the two premises.
- My neighbor recommends that I should start reading philosophy.
- My neighbor does not read philosophy.
- Therefore, my neighbor’s advice should be ignored.
The argument commits the tu quoque fallacy because it assumes that a weak form of hypocrisy proves that the neighbor’s advice has no value.
Perhaps I should start reading philosophy. Perhaps I should not. The point is, however, that the conclusion does not logically follow from the two premises.
- Tom says that stealing from a store is morally wrong.
- Tom once stole something from a store.
- Therefore, Tom’s claim that stealing from a store is morally wrong is false.
This argument commits the tu quoque fallacy because it assumes that Tom’s past actions determine whether his claim in premise (1) is true or false.
In reality, Tom’s claims and his past actions are separate things and do not wholly depend on each other. The conclusion of this argument does not follow from its premises.
- My psychiatrist told me that I should adopt a pet to improve my mental well-being.
- My psychiatrist does not own a pet.
- Therefore, my psychiatrist’s recommendation should be ignored, and the claim that adopting a pet will improve my mental well-being is false.
This argument makes two erroneous assumptions: one about rejecting the recommendation and another about the falsity of the claim in premise (1).
In actuality, the fact that the psychiatrist does not own a pet does not warrant the conclusion.
Other types of ad hominem
There are three common kinds of ad hominem:
- The abusive ad hominem
- The circumstantial ad hominem
- The tu quoque (Hansen, 2020).
The first kind (abusive ad hominem) argues that someone’s view should not be accepted because they have some negative qualities.
For example: “Alice’s ideas about our project should be rejected because she used to be a thief.”
The second kind (circumstantial ad hominem) argues that someone’s position is based on self-interest and should therefore be rejected. The problem is that if believing something is in someone’s interest, that does not make the belief any less true.
The third kind (the tu quoque fallacy) is the subject of this article. It involves turning the argument back on the person who originally said it.
For example: “I will not follow Bob’s advice about reading lots of books because Bob himself does not read a lot.”
The tu quoque (Latin: “you also”) fallacy is a species of ad hominem attack. It involves the accusation that someone’s claim and their past actions or beliefs are inconsistent. Someone who commits the tu quoque fallacy turns the argument back on their opponent or interlocutor. The argument erroneously assumes that hypocrisy discredits the original claim. In essence, it responds to allegations by saying: “you do the same thing,” or it responds to recommendations by saying: “you don’t do that thing.” The accusation of hypocrisy may be true, but it does not have any bearing on the validity of the original allegation, recommendation, or claim.
Cooke, J. (2020). Greene’s Tu Quoque Or, the Cittie Gallant. Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Incorporated.
Hansen, H. (2020). Fallacies. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/fallacies/