Thursday, July 21, 2016


I've been thinking a lot lately about several related fallacies of reasoning, all very popular in our current political debate: whataboutery (well, what about that awful thing Y did?), relative privation (well, X is even worse off), tu quoque (well, you do it, too), not as bad as (well, that's certainly not as bad as what you believe), appeal to hypocrisy (well, how can X say that when just last week he did this?).

What we tend to overlook is that none of these arguments can be legitimately used to prove the objective rectitude of any position. (The fact that Hillary Clinton erred in deleting emails does not prove that Melania Trump did NOT err in plagiarizing Michelle Obama; Trump's fraudulent business schemes do not justify Clinton's questionable money dealings). All that this reactive finger-pointing can do is call attention to inconsistency and hypocrisy in an opponent's behavior or thought.

We all engage in this kind of visceral, relativistic thinking, and it's undoubtedly a pretty normal evaluation process. Still, we should be aware of what we are doing. Whataboutery can help us prioritize and choose the least bad among possible alternatives--all of which (all sides, intriguingly, agree) are flawed. In other words, with reference to our personal rubric of expectations, whataboutery allows us to assign and compare DEMERITS for failures. But it can never prove that the performance of one of the alternatives merits our approbation because it is NOT flawed. Some other form of evidence-based assessment is required for that.

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