Political Discourse, the Argumentum ad Misericordiam, and the Tu Quoque Fallacy

We need to get serious about our political discourse.

Matthew Fagerstrom

It is not a novel insight that the most recent inauguration has been contentious, nor is it a novel insight that political discourse has been so acrimonious that it is less a true discourse and more an endless cycle of screed and counter-screed. However, not only are these rants bitter and relatively devoid of anything resembling rational discussion of relevant policy issues, they are also egregious arguments from a structural standpoint as well. As an aside, I am weary unto death of clickbait videos titled something along the lines of “person delivers an epic rant on x, y, or z” because honestly if your political opinions are going to be informed by yelling and theatrics then what is even the point of being engaged in politics if your primary form of political media consumption is angry ramblings from people with whom you already agree? I’ve never seen one, even from people I agree with, that has been anything other than uninformative at best and an earache at worst. Returning to my actual point, the things that pass for arguments are either appeals to emotion, which are in and of themselves fallacious, usually in the form of an argumentum ad misericordiam, which is the appeal to pity, or are, as is becoming increasingly common, the tu quoque, which literally means “you’re another” but is usually referred to as the argument from hypocrisy. Both of these incredibly common rhetorical ploys are fallacies, which more or less means that arguments made using them are invalid. Now, just because the argument is invalid does not mean that the conclusion is; to say that a conclusion is invalid because the arguments supporting it are fallacious is to engage in the fallacy fallacy. With that having been sad, I will now explain each in turn.

I will start with the argumentum ad misericordiam since it is the more common, and the more vexing of the two. The argumentum ad misericordiam is the argument from pity, but it is also known as the sob story. The most common form of this argument is used when political candidates try to sell policies by talking about one emotional story where the implementation of whatever policy the candidate is peddling would have either averted the nasty situation or would have rectified it. At best, the argumentum ad misericordiam is an anecdote, and at worst it is a way to get otherwise level headed people to buy into an absolutely moronic proposal. I will provide three examples from recent issues to illustrate. The first one is in the form of a viral video where a Republican talks about how he was against Obamacare until it “saved his life” as the video puts it. That’s not an argument at all — it’s an anecdote with no statistical meaning, especially when the policy affects so many people. There are similar things that are arguments, however, like saying how many people would lose insurance if Obamacare was repealed, but the experience of one person is not an argument at all, but is instead an argumentum ad misericordiam. Another one comes in the form of the name of a bill that Trump strongly supported, and that is Kate’s Law. This is a particularly egregious example because the fallacy is embedded directly into the bill’s name in order to drum up support for it. The experience of one woman is not enough to determine sentencing policy across the entire nation; again, looking at statistics about illegal immigrants and crime is an argument, but an isolated example is absolutely not. The third example comes from my own writing. If you have ever read my minimum wage research (a link is in my pinned tweet on my Twitter account), you will notice that I describe one business’s experience with the minimum wage and how it caused them to relocate, and there has also been discussion about a business that closed in Seattle. These are also examples of the sob story and, by themselves, are not evidence or arguments that support my position. This is one of the reasons that the argumentum ad misericordiam is so vexing. It is really useful as an illustrative tool, to put a face on a statistic or give a concrete example out a sea of numbers. I’m not denying that, but what I am denying is that it has any place on its own as an argument, or that it is even necessary; raw facts and data coupled with solid economic theory should be enough. It does not make an argument truer, only more forceful, which is entirely another thing. The intention of me using the example of the firm relocating is not to say that that is evidence that the minimum wage destroys jobs, since it is just an anecdote, but it allows me to give an example of the consequences supported by the data that I have compiled. An emotional sob story should always be attached to the data, because it is meaningless on its own. This is part of the reason that I find economics to be the most important science for people interested in politics. Without data behind it, an argumentum ad misericordiam has all the logical backing of saying smoking does not kill because one’s grandfather smoked a pack a day and he lived to be eighty, or something along those lines.

The tu quoque is another frustratingly common fallacy that seems to be cropping up more and more throughout this political cycle. Again, I will try to offer an example on both the left and the right. The tu quoque is the argument from hypocrisy, and it is accusing your opponent of engaging in whatever it is that they accused you of. So, if your opponent calls you X, you just call them X back as if that settles the argument. On the right, this took the form of Trump supporters saying that Clinton supporters had no right to criticize Trump’s foul language because Bill Clinton had done worse to women, allegedly. At first blush, that looks somewhat reasonable. However, the negative actions of one individual do not absolve the same sins in another, so the proper response is, of course, to chastise them both. Of course, if you accuse your opponent of doing X while you also do X, then it would be illegitimate to base your opposition to your opponent on grounds of doing X because you also do it, and thus you have demonstrated that it does not matter to you as much as you say it does, but accusing your opponent of doing X and then having them accuse you of the same thing does not absolve them of their sin. On the left, Democrats saying that Republicans have no business telling people to stop insulting Barron Trump because Malia and Sasha were viciously mocked is the exact same fallacy. It is a distraction from their own negative behavior by pointing out that their accusers also did it; it does not excuse the behavior at all. Now, the tu quoque is not necessarily a fallacy when it can be quantified. So, for example, if you were in a debate and said that your opponent’s tax plan would cause a $2 trillion increase in the debt and they responded by saying that your plan would also increase the debt so you cannot criticize, it would be appropriate to respond by saying that your plan would only increase the debt by $1 trillion, so it is a better plan on that metric. In debate, as in life, two wrongs do not somehow make a right. It just shows that there now two wrongs that need to be rectified.

Proper discourse is important if we are to pass rational policies, but the political discourse of the modern era has been sorely lacking on that front. I have gone through two of the most common fallacies in modern day discourse, but I could spend countless pages showing how common a great many more are (off the top of my head, appeal to authority and argumentum ad populum jump to mind as other notable offenders). Every side of the contentious debates have facts and statistics to spare (which is part of the reason I view economic theory as the truly vital battleground, but that is a different matter entirely), so why not use them instead of screaming at one another, since that is likely to convince no one.

Matthew Fagerstrom

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Matthew Fagerstrom is an economics and political science student at Villanova University.

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