When one wants to justify the harm one has done by saying that others have done the same or that this evil was only a reaction to the harm done by someone else, they commit the logical error of appealing to hypocrisy.
The appeal to hypocrisy has two major forms of expression. The first of these, and probably the most common, is summarised in the Latin expression tu quoque, meaning “You, too!”, or in the colloquial translation: “Who are you to speak?”. The second form under which this sophism is encountered refers to the justification of a negative action as a reaction to another negative action, which apparently would lead to the transfer of the final result into a positive zone.
Who are you to speak?
The classic situation that gives rise to the temptation to use this sophism can be described as follows: a person’s corrective statement is challenged and rejected by appealing to the issuer’s lack of authority, ascribed to the fact that he has behaved similarly to the person which he incriminates. In this way, the hypocrisy of the one who makes a certain statement is considered a sufficient argument to reject his statement. The validity of the transmitted message is established not by referring to a well-defined system of norms and values, but by evaluating the extent to which the sender reflects in his own experience the transmitted message.
Examples of this type of logical error are found everywhere: the driver whose reproach is rejected on the grounds that he too did not obey the traffic laws; the boss’s assessment challenged on the grounds that he, in turn, had failed to fulfill his obligations to his superiors; an unfaithful husband being unjustified to express himself about the immoral behaviour of his wife, etc.
You shut up! I’m the one losing here
A complex set of factors prevents us from taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the critical observations that are made to us and to admonish the one who makes that observation:
An unbalanced self-image makes us, on the one hand, overestimate ourselves (“Lord, I thank You that I am not like other people”, as found in Luke 18:11) and reject any comments from someone we consider inferior precisely because of his failure to rise to the standard he recommends to us. On the other hand, we sometimes feel our own value is dependent on our performances obtained in different fields, in which case we easily interpret critical observations as personal attacks.
When we are outraged by the impudence of our accusers, we must not lose sight of the fact that their hypocrisy does not justify our mistakes. Correcting our own mistakes is the surest way to add value, even if their signalling comes from a crooked path or from a questionable person.
The absence of a well-defined and assimilated value system makes us evaluate the relevance and validity of certain observations, not according to the system of absolute values to which we should refer (before God), but according to the image (more or less subjective) that we have about the one who issued it—which can never be a moral benchmark for judging one’s conduct. The Christian has an extra motivation to set his point of reference beyond the human level, namely the biblical promise of God’s assessment of each of us. The apostle Paul refers to this evaluation of God in the context of the evaluations that people make of each other (erroneously!): “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth” (Romans 2:1-2).
Fight fire with fire—but the burning will remain
There are specific consequences of sinking into the pit of sophistry that can lead to naming the evil “good” and the good “evil” (see Isaiah 5:20). We usually correctly perceive evil as something we would like to get rid of at least as much as we want to put out a burning fire, but when it comes to the method by which we do this we often fail.
The fire in the public wealth and the burning of Romanian morality
One of the traumatic processes, perceived as a great evil, that Romanian society went through at the beginning of communism, was collectivisation. And, rightly, the forced metamorphosis of private property into public property can only be classified as “bad” in many ways. Among the negative side effects of this process is the unorthodox attempt by people to compensate for the shortcomings caused by this decision: the practice of transferring something back from public to private property, goods likely to supplement the legal but small income of a household.
By repeating and multiplying this reaction to evil, an interesting mutation occurred in the genetics of Romanian morality: “theft from the state” (or from the enterprise, factory) came to be viewed as more acceptable in the collective mind than theft from private property.
In this way, someone who would never put his hand into someone’s pocket on the bus, “even if he were starving”, can ride the same bus without a ticket and not give the issue a second thought. The evil of the illicit journey is easily justified by the usually unpredictable schedule of means of transport, by their unsafe conditions, etc. and, slowly but surely, it comes to be seen as a good deed, even a virtue, described as “managing the struggle”.
This is in fact an example of the second form of the sophism we analysed in this article, summed up in an easily-recognisable concept ever-present in casual conversation: “If the state steals from us, we also steal from the state.”
“It is obvious that the mind of every public person balances, at any time, two distinct interests: a public and a personal one. (…) In most cases, these two interests (…) are not only different, but also opposite, so that the exclusive pursuit of one means the sacrificing of the other.” And when the reaction to an evil comes from the same category, only as an expression of the protection of self-interest, the end result cannot be in the category of good, and the effect, if not visible in the short term, certainly becomes obvious in the long term.1
The ability to think long-term and anticipate the effects of one’s own decisions—beyond the immediate perspective of assessing the moral authority of the author of a particular observation or beyond the appearance of personal gain obtained by circumventing moral values—can save one from the conclusion expressed by the wise Solomon: “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).
Resisting the natural tendency to reject an opinion that would actually benefit you if you would accept it, going beyond the impression left by the profile of the sender, means that you have learned to avoid the appeal to hypocrisy. Choosing to resolve a situation in other ways than those that generated it or rejecting the idea that an evil generally deserves an answer from the same sphere, depends on the consistency of adhering to a system of authentic values, a consistency that is achievable by exercising something that develops through exercise: our discernment!