Sheeplock was at the annual Barnyard Animal Fencing Competition where he had already taken first place in the Ovine class and was about to face off against a large but exceptionally nimble steer in the Bovine class. To up the stakes, they agreed on a “first to 3 points” rule. Sheeplock struck first and fast with a quick feint and thrust to score a point. The steer showed his legendary speed by scoring two fast points in succession. Sheeplock came back again to score and tie it up, all the while Dachson looked on, videoing the exchange and taking notes to help improve. As they squared up for the final point, a judge rushed in, calling a time-out and handing Sheeplock a phone. It was a judge overseeing a high-profile fraud case who needed his expertise immediately. Sheeplock returned the phone, saluted the steer saying I forfeit and give you the match this year sir as critical thinking always takes first place with me and rushed off to the courtroom.
A charted helicopter had them on site quickly. They beheld a bitter war of words between the prosecution and the defense. The prosecution’s case was that the defendant misled investors when stating that her new diabetic testing kit was 5 times more sensitive than existing models and needed no actual blood to function. In fact, the new kit was only slightly more sensitive and still required a blood sample. This caused investors to pour millions of dollars into the product which they saw no return on. The defense’s position was that any good inventor or business person will always overstate their or their product’s worth as part of the game of doing business. In fact, hasn’t the prosecutions own legal firm occasionally inflated their own number of cases won to gain clients?
The judge looked to Sheeplock, wondering how to end this impasse. Dachson conferred with them both briefly, having seen the root of the problem and Sheeplock agreed. Turning to the jury, Sheeplock said Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what you see before you is the defense actually admitting to a crime but saying it is fine because other people commit the same crime too. This is no defense, I say, but merely a ploy to weasel out of the case. If you are pulled over for speeding, did the argument that everyone else speeds too work? I think not. Did the prosecution’s legal firm ever overstate its victories? Perhaps, but does that have any bearing here? No. Now you must decide this case. Looking pleased, the judge let Sheeplock and Dachson leave for their next engagement.
What our intrepid duo encountered was a Tu Quoque fallacy, which is Latin for You Too (pronounced too-kwo-kwee). It is when you state that while yes you did something wrong, but so did someone else, so you didn’t actually do anything wrong. Sheeplock’s example of using this as an argument to avoid a speeding ticket is quite appropriate and I’m guessing never worked if you tried it. Let’s look at some other all too common examples:
I see this happening routinely in any political argument. A Republican may say that they have to raise taxes and that the Democrats can’t complain because they did the same thing in their last term. This doesn’t mean that the reasons for raising taxes were the same between the two. They might not even be raising taxes on the same things. Political debates are awash in Tu Quoque arguments – it’s almost like they are a requirement. See if you can reverse the parties and make the same argument (it’s a fun game!)
Children are especially good at this argument. Imagine little Timmy gets caught stealing cookies from the jar. In his defense, he says his sister Sally took some first and wonders why he is in trouble. It doesn’t matter if his sister took cookies first, he still took some and her heinous crime doesn’t make his right. I’m also pretty sure Sally isn’t going to be happy with her little brother once Mom has a talk with her.
Does this show in debates of alternative vs conventional medicines? You bet it does. An argument against alternative medicine is that they can’t describe how their product actually works. They may counter that even big pharmaceutical companies do not fully understand exactly how their drugs work in the human body so why are alternative medicines so bad? In fact, the mechanisms by which many drugs work is well understood (depending on the drug and yes, more research is always possible-especially with newer drugs). Even if big pharma needs to do more research, it doesn’t mean that alternative medicine works.
I think many of us use this argument on ourselves.I’m overweight but not as much as some so I must be ok, right?No, I still need to eat a few less cookies and shed some pounds – it’s about me not about comparing myself to anyone else.Everyone is having trouble saving money, so I don’t have to worry about it – no, I definitely should manage my savings better.Look at your own thinking and I’m sure you’ll see this. Tu Quoque arguments are a good one to learn to avoid in our own thoughts and speech.I was reminded of this while reading The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe book, which has a short section on this and other fallacies. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book so far (I have no affiliation with them).I’m currently in the section on fallacies and metacognition.. But, it’s time for me to go and come up with a better argument to get out of this speeding ticket.