Tu Quoque, as Ad Hominem
Sunday, September 30, 2007 7:00:51 PM
... and that man is by nature a political animal. ... But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature ... (1253a, translated by Benjamin Jowett)
Although many philosophers and psychologists, including Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Freud, have also used the notion of social instinct in understanding the rudiments of social phenomena, such an analysis is too vague to found basic principles of social psychology. Even so, the open texture of the concepts describing the social impulses of human beings, ubiquitous as they are, should not disqualify them for use in suggesting the psychological basis for the occurrence of tu quoque arguments in human negotiations, ostensibly for the settling and resolution of differences.
Just as consensus or common ground is sought to resolve disagreements in attitude and in belief, so likewise the claim, as well as criticism, of "you too" can help forge a similar social outlook among disputants. The tu quoque argument, however, is adopted not so much as a technique for building group cohesiveness as it is adopted as accusation or threat of separation: the locutor or speaker under scrutiny is claimed to be no better, claimed to be the same as, or claimed to be, in fact, worse than the person or point of view who was first criticized.
The tu quoque argument often occurs a social environment such as that just described, and I think it arguable that an even greater variety of circumstances than those hastily outlined here are related to the many and various claimed instances for various sub-types of the fallacy. Nevertheless, some indeterminacy of the application of term tu quoque to describe marginally appropriate fallacious passages, of course, is intrinsic to the notion of what it is to be an informal, as opposed to a formal, fallacy.
Consider this straightforward example of ad hominem from Time's letters section:
It is outrageous for Elizabeth Edwards to attack Hillary Clinton's electability. After all, the Clintons have a long track record of winning tough elections by comfortable margins, while John Edwards certainly can't make the same boast.
(Reba Simansky, "Inbox," Time, 170, No. 13 (24 September 2007), 10.)
Ms. Simansky is arguing since the Edwardses do not have a record of decisively winning close elections and the Clintons do have such a record, Ms. Edwards is mistaken in her belief that Ms. Clinton cannot be elected. A simple restatement of the argument is enough to indicate its lack of cogency.
Since the first and central issue of Ms. Clinton's electability is being dropped in favor of a personal judgment concerning Ms. Edwards' purported immoderate assertion, Ms. Simansky's letter is clearly an ad hominem. But is it tu quoque?
The standard tu quoque argument is based on the notion that a individual's criticism of a point of view or situation applies equally or even more so to the person making that claim about the individual. In other words, rather than trying to disprove Ms. Edwards' remark about Ms. Clinton's electability, Ms. Simansky accuses the Edwardses of having even a smaller chance of winning the election. Rather than trying to disprove a remark about someone's character or circumstances, one accuses the locutor of having the same character or circumstances.
The attendant fallacy of ambiguity of shifting between Ms. Clinton and the Clintons, as well as shifting between Ms. Edwards and the Edwardses, makes the conclusion of the quoted argument even more suspect.