Scott Tibbs

Red Herrings and Whataboutism are not valid arguments

By Scott Tibbs, February 18, 2022

We as a culture have lost our ability to engage in logical argumentation. Instead of dealing with principles - especially moral principles - we embrace whataboutism, red herrings and straw men. When those tactics are exposed and refuted, the person making anti-logical arguments resorts to mockery. If you criticize bad behavior by a public figure, people unhappy with the criticism inevitably use one of the following two "arguments" in a feeble attempt to "defend" the public figure who engaged in bad behavior:
  1. "Well, you did not criticize the other person who did it, so you must be OK with it."

  2. "Yes, but this other bad behavior is obviously OK, right?"
This is childish and stupid. "He did it tooooooooooooooooooo!" is not a valid argument for why bad behavior is suddenly acceptable. Whether what someone did is right or wrong is not dependent on other people doing the same thing, or other people committing other immoral acts.

Note: I am intentionally not using specific examples so as not to get drawn into the weeds on any specific situation. The argument I am making is from principle and logic, not about what this or that celebrity, politician, pundit, athlete, activist etc. has done that is morally wrong.

Example #1: Of course, in many cases, the person accused of "inconsistency" (or "hypocrisy") actually has denounced that same immoral act by others. But if you are demanding "consistency" in looking for whether someone has condemned every single instance of a specific bad behavior, you are setting up an impossible standard. No one can address every single instance of bad behavior. And even if the person denouncing an immoral act by one person has excused it when committed by others, that does not excuse that immoral act. Moral standards are not dependent on anyone's consistency.

Example #2: Pointing at a different immoral act is not a defense of the immoral act that is being condemned. Again, it is impossible for someone to denounce every single immoral act ever committed. While #1 is an example of a tu quoque fallacy (also known as whataboutism) the second example is an attempt to distract from one immoral act by directing the conversation to a different immoral act. Red herrings are almost never used in good faith, but an attempt to distract from an augment the fish-tosser is losing.

This is the Internet, so these dishonest logical fallacies will never go away. But people who actually do act in good faith can make a sincere effort to stop using them. Stop trying to defend the immoral actions of someone you support with distractions. Stop embracing tribalism over principle. And above all else, stop falsely accusing others of "hypocrisy" because they do not denounce every single immoral thing that has ever been done. We can and should do better.

Opinion Archives

E-mail Scott

Scott's Links

About the Author