Some Thoughts on the Appeal to Hypocrisy in Political Discourse

Appeals to hypocrisy, in general, are grating to me. Tu quoque (“you also”) is an informal logical fallacy that seeks to discredit the validity of the opponent’s logical argument by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with its conclusions. It’s a fallacy because the actions of the opponent (while reflective of the opponent’s moral character) have nothing to do with the internal logic of the opponent’s argument or the “rightness” of the opponent’s conclusion. It’s a species of ad hominem.

In political discourse, moral character is the thing, though — isn’t it? So an appeal to hypocrisy, although not at all relevant to the substance of the argument itself (the argument over political doctrines, ideas) is relevant to the broader question of who is the better person to bring those political doctrines and ideas to the civic life. It has a limited role — limited to that question alone; and, to that end, I think the appeal is overused. Appeals to hypocrisy are empty — say we find someone consistent in championing ideas and therefore more worthy or more likely to champion those ideas — how do we measure moral character without looking at the internal consistency of the “rightness” of those ideas? “Hypocrisy” can’t tell us that.

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