• Josh

Hypocrisy Arguments Cut Two Ways

I’m worried about the use of what I’ll call hypocrisy arguments, which take the following form:

  1. P1) Group A says they believe/support X.

  2. P2) But Group A also says they believe/support ~Y (meaning “not Y”, or “the opposite of Y”).

  3. ————–(THEREFORE)———————-

  4. C1) …what hypocrites Group A must be!

This sort of argument is often used by Republicans/Democrats to discredit Democrats/Republicans, or more generally against some outgroup by some favorite ingroup. Here are a few examples I’ve seen over the last few years. (I am decisively NOT saying any of these is a good argument, only that they are out there being made.)

  1. Ex1) Republicans say that people who do things when they are drunk and stupid, e.g. Brett Kavanaugh, made a ‘mistake’ as a kid that shouldn’t haunt him in adulthood. But they also say that a teenage pregnancy is a ‘mistake’ that the woman should have to live with her whole life… what hypocrites!

  2. Ex2) Democrats say they want to restrict access to guns, because the police will protect us and civilians can’t be trusted with firearms. But they also say that the police are untrustworthy and trigger-happy… what hypocrites!

  3. Ex3) Opponents of immigration into the US complain that illegals are arriving in vast numbers, and could become the majority political or economic force in the near future. But that was what happened in the early days of the US, when Europeans (“your ancestors”) immigrated from Western Europe… what hypocrites!

One way such arguments are used is as a justification for saying that Group A doesn’t really believe/support X; they must have some ulterior motive. (“Obama just wants to take our guns!” or “Republicans just want to dominate women!”) Other times it’s just considered a sweet burn against those stupid people in Group A.

There’s a related logical fallacy, which is called the Appeal to Hypocrisy (or “Tu Quoque“, Latin for “you also”). In this form, the conclusion (C1) is replaced by

  1. D1) Thus, X is false.

…which does not follow. Group A could be totally confused and hypocritical, but nonetheless have stumbled onto the correct conclusion by asserting X. Tu Quoque is important, but not what I’m worried about here; very often Group B (making the argument) doesn’t come right out and say X is false, just that we shouldn’t trust Group A because their beliefs appear inconsistent.

Instead, I’m worried that hypocrisy arguments like this are a double-edged sword, which often cut their wielder along with their target; the people making them should be aware of the equal and opposite argument against themselves. The way to see this is to notice that a new premise (P3) has to be smuggled in between (P2) and (C1), such that the full argument looks like

  1. P1) Group A says they believe/support X.

  2. P2) But Group A also says they believe/support ~Y.

  3. P3) X and Y have relevant similarities.

  4. ————–(THEREFORE)———————-

  5. C1) …what hypocrites Group A must be!

If we include (P3), then concluding (C1) makes a lot more sense. If X and Y are ‘similar’, how can Group A support X and also ~Y? In an actual conversation, this could be a very useful point to make. It can be very enlightening to ask someone “How do you accept both X and ~Y? Don’t X and Y seem similar to you? Shouldn’t a rational person who accepts X also accept Y?” and then let them respond with the ways in which they see X and Y as different. But at the level of sweet burns against the outgroup, nobody gets to respond to the “question”.

As a rhetorical tactic, though, this is dangerous and can blow up in your face. The reason is that once you accept (P3), you have to be aware that the argument might be turned against you. Suppose Group A believes X and ~Y, while Group B believes the opposite: both ~X and Y. Group B makes the argument (P1)+(P2)+(P3)→(C1). But by making this argument, Group B opens up the possibility that Group A can reply with their own, equal and opposite counterargument:

  1. P1b) Group B says they believe/support Y.

  2. P2b) But Group B also says they believe/support ~X.

  3. P3) X and Y have relevant similarities.

  4. ————–(THEREFORE)———————-

  5. C1b) …what hypocrites Group B must be!

Now everybody is a hypocrite! Hooray!


To be concrete, consider example (Ex2) from above:

  1. A=Adam is a Democrat // B=Bryan is a Republican

  2. …who believes both

  3. X=[gun control is good] // ~X=[gun control is bad]

  4. …and

  5. ~Y=[cops are untrustworthy] // Y=[cops are trustworthy]

And so the “debate” begins:

Bryan says: Adam is such a hypocrite! He supports restriction of firearms for ordinary citizens, but he also thinks the justice system is dangerous and racially-biased. So how is an ordinary citizen supposed to defend themself against a corrupt and trigger-happy police force when they can’t have access to guns of their own? Adam must secretly just hate the Second Amendment and want to take our guns!

Adam replies: No, Bryan is the hypocrite! If he thinks the police can be trusted to uphold the law fairly and impartially, then why does he need that assault rifle? He doesn’t really think he’ll need to defend himself against the government, because he says he trusts the government; he’s just brainwashed by the NRA!

So Bryan replies: No no, Adam is a super-hypocrite! If I can’t trust the police, then how can I defend myself if I’m attacked? The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but he claims that the police aren’t good guys. So if we listen to Adam we’ll all be unsafe!

Adam chimes in: No no no, Bryan is a mega-super-hypocrite! He claims…

Bryan again: No no no no, Adam is an ultra-…

On and on and on forever. I reiterate that these are caricatures that way oversimplify the situation and I’m very much not saying any of these are good arguments (though one may sound much more plausible to you, depending on your belief about the conclusion).

The point is that these are bad arguments. Adam and Bryan have reduced a multi-dimensional problem to a single axis, on which one end says [guns good, cops bad] and the other says [guns bad, cops good]. Then each sat down at one end and accused the other person of hypocrisy for choosing the other side. But if one side is contradictory then so is the other.

(Maybe unhelpfully, a logical proof: Let GG = [guns good], ~GG = GB = [guns bad], CG = [cops good], and CB = ~CG = [cops bad]. If A’s belief that [GG, CB] is hypocritical, that means that they refuse to acknowledge that GG implies ~CB; that’s (P3) . This means that A asserts the logical contradiction [~CB, CB]. If that’s the case, then [GB, CG] = ~[GG, CB] = [~GG, ~CB] = [~GG, GG] is contradictory too. Therefore, if A is a hypocrite then B is also a hypocrite.)

(The analogue for the other examples is left as an exercise to the reader.)


So you see, hypocrisy arguments cut two ways. If your hated outgroup is asserting two things that seem contradictory, but you believe the opposite of those things, then you are being contradictory too. Of course, in the Real World things are usually more complicated than Philosophy 101-style arguments. But at least, we should be wary and at least consider the possibility that our argument can be wielded with equal power against us.

What do we conclude? It could be that we should take stock of our own hypocrisy, elucidated by the flip side of our own hypocrisy argument. Or, more commonly, maybe the argument is oversimplifying a complex situation and we need more than one degree of freedom to quantify our thoughts about it.

In any case, often the best way out is usually to reject (P3); this is exactly what most people do when someone makes the argument against them. They might say, “Sure, maybe these X and Y have surface similarities, but they are different in important ways so that the comparison you are making is not a good one.” To reject (P3) often means to acknowledge nuance, a necessary condition for figuring out what is true. But if you reject (P3) then you have to reject both hypocrisy arguments.

In (Ex2), Adam may support gun control and be also worried about police brutality, but reject (P3) because he does not think of the two as being related in the most relevant ways; he might say, sure, police brutality is a problem, but I’m more worried about mass shootings than I am about defending myself violently against the police. Or, maybe he rejects the strong form of (P1): he supports gun control of only a certain kind, which would not infringe upon a person’s basic right to self-defence. Or he rejects (P2), holding that police brutality is a serious problem that needs to be solved at a level that does not require shooting back. (And, you know, all of this in reverse for Bryan and his equal and opposite argument.)

Ideally, Adam and Bryan (and you and I) could have a conversation and figure out what each actually believes before painting the other as a stupid or misguided hypocrite. But in the meantime, be careful how you wield hypocrisy arguments against your enemies, lest you cut yourself.

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