Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hypocrisy and Fallacies

When is an appeal to hypocrisy fallacious? Specifically, I’m talking about the claim, “If you argue that someone is hypocritical, therefore their view is false, that is fallacious.”

And there is something about this that is definitely right. Consider the pro-life movement. Suppose I support the outlawing of abortion in most, or even all, circumstances. Suppose further that I have never adopted any of these children whose abortions have been prevented. Suppose finally that I have never even so much as helped someone in need. “You’re a hypocrite!” the charge is levelled; and so I would be if I did nothing for anyone, ever. But what is supposed to follow from this? Surely not that abortions are permissible (the falsehood of my view). Something similar follows when people accuse liberals of being hypocrites because of immigration policies/executive order policies not opposed; nothing of relevance to the issue at hand follows from this.

But perhaps people don’t always mean to argue this way. Perhaps, instead, they mean something like the following: You didn’t hold to principle X last week, and now you do. Thus, either you have to admit that you were wrong last week, or wrong today—or else you’re being logically inconsistent.

What follows from this line of reasoning is that in cases where the opponent does not concede being wrong in the past—if this is really such a case as outlined above, and not a mistake in fact—then it follows they are wrong today. Thus, there is a kind of logical hypocrisy that, when pressed, can result in the establishment of the falsehood of a view. This is due to the law of noncontradiction; no two contradicting propositions can be true of the same thing at the same time and in the same sense.

So let’s apply this attempt at a correct appeal to hypocrisy to both test cases above. In the case of the pro-life movement, it might go like this: “You claim that God commands that life is sacred, but you seem uninterested in the poor and destitute. Are you wrong to be uninterested (since if life is sacred, one ought to be interested in the well-being of the less fortunate) or is life not sacred?”

And this makes some sense to me. Either life is or is not sacred, and unless I answer that I was wrong to be uninterested, then I affirm that life is not sacred (unless, of course, I challenge the facts of the matter). But this is not a particularly amazing strategy, since, of course, I can simply admit the error of my ways and hold to the sanctity of life. And while it’s true that if suddenly I were to claim that life is not sacred, I would not be right about this (truth isn’t up to me), it is true that if both of us in the debate agreed that life is not sacred, then there would be no more debate. What about the second case?

“You didn’t seem worried about executive orders when the last president was doing them. Either executive orders are worrisome or they are not. Either you were wrong to be not worried, or you are wrong to be critical of the current president merely for using them.”

This also strikes me as correct. Much of the analysis is the same as above; I can get out of this by admitting I was wrong. However, if I don’t challenge the facts of the matter, and I don’t admit I was wrong, then it follows I cannot criticize the president on this matter alone.

People don’t always mean this when they have an appeal to hypocrisy. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, they mean “X is a hypocrite; he’s wrong!” But sometimes they do—maybe—have this other style of argumentation in mind.