Tu Quoque

In the context of a disussion about the authenticity of anti-abortionists' genocidal comparisons, Will Baude makes a important observation that can be extended to the wider context of moral argumentation in general, and ad hominem responses to moral arguments in particular.

The presumption that human beings always react to genocide with immediate, urgent, action is idealistic, but naive. The historical truth is that even well-meaning and politically-active people do not always move for immediate boycotts and armed overthrow, even when the slaughter of innocent people is at hand. Darfur is only the most recent example-- there has been some American response, but no armed influx of volunteers to Somalia of the sort that ASG suggests is necessary to mark out sincerity.

There are at least three possible reasons why. 1: Tactics. Those who are confronted with a genocide know that persuasion, patience, sometimes yield more and sturdier fruit than unyielding resistance. 2: Values. Hard as it is to believe, for some people values such as democratic legitimacy, respect for the rule of law, and pluralistic tolerance of even very evil beliefs can outweigh the short-term gains of forcing one's moral code on everybody one can reach. This can also be comined with #1. 3: Apathy. People have many demands for their emotional and moral attention and sometimes they are stretched too thin. Yes, yes, they concede, X is a grave evil, but there is only so much that they can do, there is so much else that needs doing, and they have to live their lives after all.

The type of argument Will criticizes here is a logical fallacy, specifically Ad Hominem of the form Tu Quoque (or possibly Ex Concessis, depending upon the preferred definition). Libertarians (and others who express strong displeasure with the status quo) often bear the brunt of this criticism, with questions like, "If you're so libertarian, how come you use public roads, police and fire services, government-financed education, ...?" Well, some libertarians do actively avoid interacting with the government, by avoiding the costs and benefits of taxation as much as possible. Others, including myself, do not. My actions may or may not reflect poorly on me -- as Will notes, there are good pragmatic reasons for this approach -- but they surely do not reflect poorly on the logical veracity of my arguments.

Then again, I'm not so sure. In matters of ethics, sometimes all we have to work with is the personal consistency of those who make moral claims. When someone like Peter Singer tries to persuade each of us that we are personally, ethically responsible for doing everything we can to feed starving children in third-world countries, is it really inappropriate to ask whether he follows his own advice?

True, while carnivores make poor vegan spokesmen and Thomas Jefferson, for all his eloquence, cannot be held up as a paragon of abolishionist virtue, it would obviously be invalid to conclude from these examples that slavery and meat eating are a-ok on the grounds that some of their spokespeople are hypocrites. On the other hand, it is hard to take an argument seriously when it is put forth by someone who doesn't appear to believe the argument himself, or at least doesn't find the argument persuasive enough to change his own actions.

Of course, focusing on desirable legal rules rather than personal (or political) ethics is an easy way to exempt oneself from this dilemma.

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In matters of ethics,

In matters of ethics, sometimes all we have to work with is the personal consistency of those who make moral claims.

Then you must regard the Prudent Predator as the most moral philosophy in existence.