No human begin is morally perfect. My question is then, how can any one human being encourage another to improve their ways when that other person can always just reverse the question and ask "Why don't you do the same"?

For example, imagine if we have two people, say Claude and Raul. Claude is a psychopatic murderer who kills people for fun. He represents the ultimate evil. Raul is an ordinary person, he's not necessarily 'evil', but he does have moral imperfections such as selfishness and dishonesty.

Now imagine if Raul wants to encourage Claude to become a better person. How can Raul do this?

Raul attempts by saying this:

Raul: Clause, stop killing people. Can't you see how wrong that is?

Can't Claude just calmly respond with

Claude: Yes, Raul, it is very wrong. But so is being selfish, greedy, and dishonest. Why should I change my ways if you don't change yours?

What can Raul respond with here? I mean, obviously he might try to argue that, yes, it's not good to be dishonest or greedy, but it's much, much worse to kill people! But can't Claude still ignore the relativeness that Raul is trying to bring into the debate, and keep everything in absolute terms? For example by saying

Claude: Yes, I know it's much worse, but that's irrelevant. You are asking me to cause a moral shift in my behavior. I ask you why you are unwilling to do the same? Whatever answer you have to my inquiry, is the same answer I will give to your inquiry.

Hence, is Claude not immune to any argument Raul can throw at him, because by construction Claude will throw the same argument back?

  • 2
    The argument that killing is just "as wrong" as being selfish, greedy, or dishonest is a fallacy of (false) moral equivalence. And no, the difference is not ignorable. "Whatever answer you have to my inquiry, is the same answer I will give to your inquiry" does not work, because the answer may rely on the difference: it is more excusable to persist in lesser offenses than in greater ones. It does not work even if the offenses are the same: if Raul's "reason" is personal weakness it is not transferable to Claude either.
    – Conifold
    Dec 22, 2018 at 0:43
  • it's possible via force, even just the threat of force. The right way is to exercise it yourself soasto inspire others. Dec 22, 2018 at 1:37
  • I assert that truly "selfish" and "dishonest" people only pretend to care about morals by pointing out errors in others. Which of course if true would be completely in keeping with their real character. Why on earth would anyone believe them to be sincere about anything, if they are in fact dishonest and selfish? There are perfectly logical psychological reasons for morally corrupt people to fake decency. Neither would I ever expect to reason with any "psychopathic murderer who kills for fun". Rational people can easily see that there would be no point in ever trusting them to behave.
    – Bread
    Dec 22, 2018 at 2:21

4 Answers 4


Ad hominem

In your example the psychopath is attempting to refute an ideal by pointing to a person explaining it to him. This logical fallacy is called an ad hominem attack - whether it is a good idea to stop killing for no reason or not doesn't depend on whether the person you're talking to is morally perfect or not.

Tu toque (or tu quoque)

As jobermark points out in the comments

This specific flavor of ad hominem is so common it even has a more specific name 'tu toque' -- "And what about you?"

The Wiki page explains it as:

Tu quoque "argument" follows the pattern:

  • Person A makes claim X.
  • Person B asserts that A's actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  • Therefore, X is false.

An example would be

Peter: "Bill is guilty of defrauding the government out of tax dollars."

Bill: "How can you say that when you yourself have 20 outstanding parking tickets?"

  • 1
    This specific flavor of ad hominem is so common it even has a more specific name 'tu toque' -- "And what about you?".
    – user9166
    Dec 22, 2018 at 16:46
  • what if the argument is that morality is impossible? @jobermark is that still tu toque
    – user35983
    Dec 28, 2018 at 14:36
  • Fallacies are never about conclusions, they are about process. 'Morality is impossible' is a conclusion -- the arguments of Montaigne and Pyrrho, and even to some degree Buddha and Lao Tzu, make this argument in ways that are not fallacious, but are meaningful on their own terms. 'Tu toque' -- constantly comparing one side's sins with the other's, is a process that is convincing for reasons other than being meaningful.
    – user9166
    Dec 29, 2018 at 12:39

Ethical improvement does not require ethical perfection, the same can be said to encouragement to ethical improvement. If I have been able to ethically improve myself then it is possible consistently encourage others even if one is not ethically perfect. The key to consistency here is actually ethically improving oneself. One standard of measure, for instance, in ethical improvement, is the time between one's bad behavior. Ethical improvement might be said to occur if the time between one's ethical transgressions gets longer each time as well as the degree of the transgression declining. Most people, for instance, cannot become honest over-night as the Buddha will note, but they can learn to keep track of why they lie each day and the reasons for those lies. Soon, the Buddha will say they will see they are lying for selfish reasons and that these lies simply thicken the walls of their ego and taking them farther from the path of wisdom. Aristotle will use a temporal concept as well when he talks about virtue coming from a firm and unchanging state of character, being honest once does not make one an honest person, just a few lies in a life time of truth telling don't make one a dishonest person. The key in any case is how often one misbehaves and the degree of misbehavior, ethical improvement, can thus be seen, at least in part, in terms of reducing the frequency and level of misbehavior.


It feels like a false dilemma. Where one says either stop doing bad OR stop calling for good. One can choose to continue doing good AND continue doing bad AND continue to call for good.

When a hypocrite smiles at you and it made your day did the hypocrite do something bad? Is good behavior only good behavior from a good person and not from a bad person. What if the bad person did only good for 2 weeks is that enough to be called a good person or is 2 years the minimum.

Because you can be bad and encourage good. I do think even tough people down voted your question this is a main reason why I hardly see people correcting bad behavior of other people. Because they feel like they aren't perfect so don't have the right to advice others, including the government.


First, you are assuming that the only way to encourage the adherence to a behavior is verbal. That's a fallacy: most behaviors are mostly adopted by imitation (if you have a negative behavior, even if you tell your kid to do good, he'll do wrong, and conversely, even if you say nothing but act correctly, he'll learn to behave correctly). Morality, ethics and formal law suggest behaviors that we learn mostly by imitating others, not because someone encouraged us verbally.

Second, even if I'm wrong, I surely can point the right way. Assuming that I'm wrong because I do wrong is a fallacy tu quoque (the other is sustaining his argument upon my wrong acts). The fact that I've acted wrong does not mean that what I say is wrong.

The fallacy is not ad hominem (the other is sustaining his point upon my wrong behavior, not attacking myself).

The fallacy is not either ad auctoritatem (the other is not sustaining his argument upon his authority).

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