This is a common contention that comes up in heated debates. It seems to me like it qualifies as a non sequitur and a red herring. Possibly a different fallacy that I am unaware of.

I would like to know if anyone can give a good analysis of this retort to both stealman it and perhaps point to a more specific established fallacy that describes this as an example.

It goes without saying that no one is required to answer a question they do not wish to answer. That doesn't take away the reality of their justification being invalid.

  • The question itself may be a fallacy? Most hypothetical questions are.
    – Richard
    Mar 19, 2019 at 21:35
  • @Richard Could you please expand? What fallacy are you arguing is the case with this or other hypothetical questions? Mar 19, 2019 at 21:37
  • 1
    Its hard to say unless you tell us what the question was. But invariably hypothetical arguments, metaphors and analogies are flawed. Often last ditch attempts, or ill thought out. In my experice its always better to walk an argument slowly.rather than make leaps.
    – Richard
    Mar 19, 2019 at 21:43
  • The question here is based on whether it being a hypothetical question is what makes it valid to refuse an answer. If you don't have a rule that makes hypothetical questions bad, even if that rule is based on clear conditions, how can you argue that being hypothetical in itself is a justification for refusing to answer it? Interlocutor: "I refuse to answer your question because it is a hypothetical question." The heart of this question: "How does being a hypothetical question make it justified to refuse to answer it?" Mar 19, 2019 at 21:49
  • 2
    If true, this is neither a non sequitur nor a red herring, it is not a fallacy at all. One can take a pragmatic stance of dismissing questions answers to which may never matter as a matter of principle. After all, "one fool can ask more questions than seven wise men can answer". Or they can hold that such questions are only answerable when full context is available, which is impossible hypothetically. Of course, if it is only a tactical dodge, and they are happy to indulge hypotheticals on other issues, or try to make opponents do so, that's a different matter.
    – Conifold
    Mar 20, 2019 at 0:21

4 Answers 4


I hope I've understood your question. I think it's worth noting that often, in the context of an argument, a question is meant to be another way of phrasing an objection. For example, suppose I say "How can your theory account for x, y, and z?". Sometimes what I'm really saying is "Your theory cannot account for x, y, and z." I might follow this up with arguments for why x, y, and z are inconsistent with or unexplained by your theory. Other times, I may lazily leave it at the initial question and hope that you understand intuitively why I think x, y, and z are at odds with your theory. Anyways...

Suppose we are objecting to some proposition, P, by asking a hypothetical question. More precisely what we're doing is describing a hypothetical state of affairs that is difficult or impossible to account for given the truth of P. And when P is a theory or proposition that is supposed to be necessary in scope, then it should be able to account for these hypothetical states of affairs. If there is even one possible state of affairs that negates P, P cannot be necessarily true. Philosophers invoke thought experiments in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc. for this purpose all the time, since the theories in these areas of philosophy are often intended to be universally and necessarily true.

Here's an example. Suppose you say "all ravens are black". I can't just say "there's a possible state of affairs where there is a non-black raven", and conclude your proposition is false; my hypothetical state of affairs is irrelevant to the truth of your statement. On the other hand, if you say "it's morally correct that people should act to maximize the greatest amount of happiness for greatest number of people", I might likewise object by conjuring up some ridiculous-sounding situation, a thought experiment, where someone acting in such a way is doing something clearly immoral. This would be an acceptable objection. The difference is, with the moral proposition it is (as I understand it) intended to be a proposition about how all people ought to behave in all circumstances that they might find themselves in, whatever it may be. It has some kind of modal force.

If I've understood you correctly, then to answer the actual question in your first paragraph, I think the first thing you should do when debating is to always phrase your objections as declarative statements, not as questions. If your interlocutor still claims something like "I refuse to respond to any objection that makes use of hypothetical situations", you should state exactly what it is that your hypothetical situation is meant to contradict. If their statement has any sort of modal force or consequence, then hypothetical states of affairs are fair use.

  • That actually would be a great situation to use the argument, "I will not answer that hypothetical question because I'm not arguing that my claim is necessarily true." Mar 21, 2019 at 14:53
  • The typical situations I find this retort in are moral claims like, "Your vote supported Trump because you didn't vote for HRC in 2016." In that example, they claimed that you must vote your conscience during the primaries and vote strategically during the general election. Their justification: "Because that's just the way it is." Hypotheticals were meant to see if they would ever apply their strategic argument during the primaries. Mar 21, 2019 at 14:53
  • I think there's a typo where you first typed "x, y, and x." I think you meant to have a 'z' there. I tried to submit an edit suggestion, but the system required more than 6 char to submit it. Mar 21, 2019 at 16:02
  • @Philosophist Thanks for catching that! I fixed the typo. Mar 21, 2019 at 18:06
  • @Philosophist I see. Based on your example (that we're talking about morality), I still think moral statements have modal force (they don't simply describe what is the case, and are true of false based on the accuracy of their description). Moral statements (how one ought to vote in your example) make general prescriptions about how one should act. If they didn't apply generally to hypothetical (or unknown future) situations, then it seems they are useless as moral guidelines, and they just become extremely context specific and time-indexed. Mar 21, 2019 at 18:24

Every argument proceeds in two levels (at least) 

  • object level: the content of the argument in which the discussants swim (so to speak) 
  • meta level : in which the argument is enbedded

The second is invariably much more implicit, unreified. Yet the stakes here are typically much higher

One of the most key points is the assumption of good faith.

So if A decides that B is not arguing in good faith, it stops mattering what reasons A uses to excuse himself. 

"You are asking a hypothetical question" sounds to me like an object level rendering of the meta level "you are arguing in bad faith"

A couple of...

Egregious examples

of the meta level stopping an object level discussion

  1. Sye Bruggencate kicked off stage.

  2. On the python programming list a certain «Dihedral88888» used to put the most weird responses.
    Someone realized it was a bot to experiment with the Turing Test!

    After that oldtimers needed to inform the newcomers that Dihedral was not a "person" to be argued with!! 

Added later

In response to questions Ive added further explanation and examples of two levels

Game and Matrix

Lets start with simple games; say Monopoly.

In Monopoly we agree to some simple rules of how things proceed (by throwing 2 dice) and the “facts” such as Mayfair is expensive property and Baltic Avenue is cheap etc.

Outside the context of the game the rules are not there and the facts are non-sense — a monopoly 1000$ (MSD) will not get you a 1$ (USD) loaf of bread.

Still people play the game… Why?

If you look at football at the game level you would see two bunches of 11 people kicking around a ball.

However the real point of that activity comes from those 2x11 but from the thousands who need an excuse to need an excuse to mill around drunk hollering raving. This (for football) constitutes

The Matrix

Matrix (for our purposes) has three interlocking meanings

  • A net — fine as gossamer but all-surrounding
  • The Film (the Dark Side!)
  • The generating “Mother-Principle

All games exist in a matrix

  • Literal games like monopoly, football
  • Metaphoric games — certain mathematicians of the logicist/formalist school define math as playing with symbols without giving them (absolute) meanings
  • Arguments. An informal (heated) discussion, a formal debate, a court-case are all arguments… with different matrices


1. Notice outside the lift

[Elevator for Americans]

Dogs must be carried in the lift

Now think for a moment what this means

And consider this “meaning”

All people who use the lift must bring a dog that they carry

Why is this meaning far-fetched?

Because the matrix of domesticated dogs is that they can bite and bark and pee and poop … inconveniently. (Apart from the second) presumably these should be at the owners' expense!

2. Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is the instruction given by Krishna (who is to Hindus somewhat analogous as Jesus is to Christians)

The Gita has two audience-members — Arjun and Dhritarashtra — on opposite sides of a war.

Arjun asks a number of questions. Krishna evades,dodges,dances around every one of them. Until at the end Arjun exclaims

My confusion is destroyed, my doubts are dispelled, I am situated in knowledge by your grace O Lord and am ready to fructify your instructions.
Chap 18 verse 73

I should mention that "grace" is a poor translation for prasad in the original. Like the bread and wine in a Catholic church is actually much more physical.

At the same time Dhritarashtra too received the full teaching ie the full knowledge But he received it very differently — no gratitude or even a word of thanks. As a result even though he had the power and authority to end the war his moha delusion won costing him the obliteration of his kingdom lineage family and his favorite but erring son.

What is the difference?
Same at the knowledge (object) level.
Utterly different at the matrix level of prasad.

Arjun receives in the matrix of a confused but suppliant devotee; which emancipates him.
Dhritashtra receives as an arrogant and deluded king; he is destroyed as a result

3. Vedanta

When you begin to understand that the matrix is the key thing but is always most elusive you wish like Neo to exit. This theory of escape is called in Indian philosophy Vedanta (end of knowledge or knowing)

To explain at length would require books! (And I am not qualified!!) But heres a very rough 3 point summary

  1. All our reality (so-called) is a simulation — sansar — in invisible matrices
  2. The meta-matrix of all matrices is the great illusion — maya
    Curious coincidence: matrix and maya are both "she"!!
  3. When you escape you see the reality. Plato called it the Form. Kant called it Noumenon. Hindus call it (usually) Brahman
  • Could you expand on what you are saying in the "Egregious examples" section of your post? I'm a bit lost on what you are suggesting there. Mar 21, 2019 at 22:40
  • Umm... Are you asking about one of the egs? Both? The relation to the above? To the basic notion of levels (of reality)? Are you familiar with the use-mention distinction en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use%E2%80%93mention_distinction ? Here is a 3 line "proof" that I often give my students to illustrate the U-M distinction: «1» Cat is a mammal «2» Mammal is a six letter word «3» Therefore cat is a six letter word Mar 22, 2019 at 2:22
  • Or... Let's say a "heated argument" is proceeding. It suddenly "ends" with blows being exchanged. Or worse someone pulls out a gun. Can we therefore conclude that a fist or a gun are argument-winning strategies? If not should they be listed in the official lists of fallacious arguments? Mar 22, 2019 at 2:31
  • Oh, so you mean to say that people stop trying to make sense and just spit out whatever sounds clever to them. It's bad faith, but we could grant the charity that they acted in bad faith due to their impression that I was acting in bad faith. Is that what you mean? Mar 22, 2019 at 4:43
  • Sure the accusation "You are arguing in bad faith!" could itself be made in bad faith. But no I did not want to invoke this extra complexity into the discussion (just yet 😈 ) Mar 22, 2019 at 4:53

I have justified such arguments along the lines of "I have better things to do."

If you permit talking about the debate in the debate (a complex topic of its own), one can rationally justify such a defense by pointing out the unreasonable resource cost associated with said hypothetical.

As a concrete example, I often refuse to engage with people on such hypotheticals if they do not accept the premise of linguistic relativity. Quite often the final resulting disagreement is so fundamental and boring that nobody gains from such a venture. My own arguments tend to rely on such a premise, but nobody cares to talk about such mind numbing details so we don't realize that we're talking past eachother until its too late. From an effort perspective, this is a very costly descent into madness that can only result in tears. (If I think there's a chance that the argument will help me win another proponent of linguistic relativity, the game is on!)

If one were to approach what is a "rational justification" to a hypothetical individual who lives forever and can afford to spend unbounded time on a debate, then I have a feeling the result would be that such excuses are not justified. However, I refuse to entertain this, as it is a hypothetical question. ;-)

  • The ease of making an argument does not determine the validity of the argument. Mar 20, 2019 at 2:07

In the context of a debate, a hypothetical question is not a logical argument. That is, it does not have premises and a conclusion which follows from those premises. So if you want the question to carry logical validity, it must be embedded in a broader argument. For example, instead of asking "Does your proposed ethical framework allow [some action]?" we might use this argument:

  1. Under your proposed ethical framework, [some action] must be either acceptable or unacceptable.
  2. If it is acceptable, then your framework contradicts a widely held intuition.
  3. If it is unacceptable, then that would seem to contradict what you have already told me about your ethical framework.
  4. Therefore, I doubt that your ethical framework is correct.

The explicit form of this argument is important, because we can see the weakness of premises (2) and (3): Some people might reasonably disagree that the widely held intuition is correct, or we might have misunderstood the ethical framework in the first instance. Structuring the argument as a question masks these weaknesses and purports to shift the burden of proof onto our interlocutor, forcing them to explicitly rebut (2) or (3). This can be fair, for example if the ethical framework has been poorly explained and we want it clarified. But it is quite unreasonable to demand an account of every conceivable hypothetical once we're sure we understand their position. At that point, we should be shifting to the explicit mode of the argument, to make it clearer that we're no longer suggesting an incompleteness in our opponent's theory.

On the other hand, if your question is not intended as a logical argument at all, then of course your opponent may fairly refuse to answer. Your opponent might just as reasonably refuse to talk about the weather, to play Go Fish, or to do any number of other things which have nothing to do with the debate. The only exception is when you are specifically asking for clarification about your opponent's position, in which case a hypothetical may be a poor vehicle for your question. Hypotheticals sound like arguments, even when they are not intended that way.

  • To add some clarification, an example where I have encountered this retort was in reference to me trying to make sure if my interlocutor was serious about their claim and would be consistent with it. As he claimed that it would be irrational to not vote strategically during an election in the US (insincere voting), I asked if he would have voted for a candidate he didn't like (Sanders) during the primaries if he had good evidence to believe that they had a better chance against his opposition. This he refused to answer, as he said it was a hypothetical. I've encountered many like this before. Mar 21, 2019 at 3:34
  • @Philosophist: The reason your opponent refused to answer that question is because he interpreted it as a "hidden argument" as I have described. However, when we reinterpret your question in this manner, it becomes a fallacious argument from incredulity (i.e. "Really? You'd vote for that guy?"). You should be clear that you are asking the question out of a sincere desire for clarification, and not as an argument. Otherwise, it's quite fair to refuse to engage with the apparent logical fallacy.
    – Kevin
    Mar 21, 2019 at 4:15
  • I would counter that with the principle of charity. I did what I could to communicate. Mar 21, 2019 at 8:17
  • @Philosophist: The principle of charity is something we practice when reading the work of others. It is not a right we get to demand. Your opponent did not understand you. You are the only person with both the power and the desire to change that fact.
    – Kevin
    Mar 21, 2019 at 15:36
  • he was refusing to listen to what the question was, because, as he explained "it's a hypothetical." Under the premise of wanting to have a rational dialogue, charity is required. It's not a right that gets demanded by me. It's an observation that you cannot both be rational and refuse to follow the principle of charity. Mar 21, 2019 at 15:58

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