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(Moved from Politics.SE)

Alice and Bob are two students who are habitual cheaters.

Alice to Bob: You really should stop cheating on your exams.

Bob to Alice: I'll stop cheating if you stop cheating too.

Does the hypothetical argument above fall under whataboutism? It seems borderline to me. In this argument, Bob doesn't deny that Alice is right, but he refuses to stop cheating with a rationale that indirectly criticizes Alice for hypocrisy. The latter seems like a hallmark of whataboutism.

Related: Why is "Whataboutism" often criticized? and How can I respond to Whataboutism?

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    Does "community standard" enter into this particular example? "EVERYBODY cheats!" is not necessarily whataboutism, if it is true that everybody does cheat.
    – Boba Fit
    Nov 17, 2022 at 15:06
  • @BobaFit It certainly is whataboutism. When you get pulled over for speeding and you point out to the cop that everyone else is too, it makes no difference. You're the one he pulled over and you're the one who's getting the ticket. Other people's lawbreaking does not excuse yours.
    – user4894
    Nov 18, 2022 at 1:23
  • @user4894 cop here is supposed to be an impartial judge. In the OP Alice is both the cop and the other cheater (and also the legislator of the traffic regulations.) Nov 18, 2022 at 4:46
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    It may or may not be fallacious. What the exact argument is, if it's an argument, is ambiguous, and so is the nature of the response. (Alice isn't saying why Bob should stop cheating, and Bob is simply presenting a condition under which he'd stop cheating, without explicitly defending his cheating.)
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 19, 2022 at 0:41
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    I don't see an argument here...
    – obe
    Nov 19, 2022 at 15:35

5 Answers 5

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Bob's response in your example does not pertain to the truth or falsity of what Alice said, so his response isn't an argument at all. It's not really meaningful to say whether it is fallacious.

A fallacious argument from Bob might go along the lines of, "no I shouldn't, because you haven't stopped yourself". This is fallacious because it purports to show that cheaters should not stop cheating, but (at best) what it actually concludes is that Alice does not think cheaters should stop cheating. Whether Alice thinks her own claim is correct does not affect whether it is actually correct, because Alice's claim does not concern her own beliefs.

But Bob's response to Alice in your example is not a counter-argument; it is a proposal. Bob has not disputed that he should stop cheating, he instead proposes that both of them stop cheating together, and declares that this is the condition on which he will do what Alice said he should do.

Of course, Alice might not trust that Bob will uphold his end of such a bargain, but that's neither here nor there. Insofar as "I'll stop cheating if you do" is a proposition with a truth value (rather than a speech act), for all we know, it is true; perhaps Bob will stop cheating if Alice does. Something being true doesn't necessarily mean that an argument is logically valid, but Bob doesn't suggest any premises from which he claims the truth of his statement follows, so there is just no argument for us to assess the validity of.

Now, language and communication are complicated, and it's certainly possible that depending on the context and on Bob's tone of voice, expressions, body language or so on that when Bob says "I'll stop cheating if you do", perhaps what he really means (and what Alice understands him to mean) is "No, I don't need to stop cheating, because you aren't stopping". That would be a fallacy, and in real life we might rebuke Bob on the basis that we know what he meant even though he didn't say it out loud. But that's interpersonal skills, not logic.

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No

This is a fallacy, but not a whataboutism. This is instead a Tu quoque fallacy, which is similar to an ad hominem. Rather than disputing Alice's accusation, Bob says that Alice is guilty of the same thing. Tu quoque is latin for "you also."

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    Or perhaps Bob is pointing that she holds him up to impossible standards (since she cannot uphold them herself)... or that she does not apply the same standards to him as to her. Though with the specific formulation of the Bob's answer given in the OP, I'll stop cheating if you stop cheating too. you interpretation is correct - he seems to agree with her moral values and the validity of the argument. Nov 18, 2022 at 10:23
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It depends.

Whataboutism is about derailing the discussion about a particular problem by pointing out another problem. The focus is on the derailing, not on actually wanting to solve that other problem.

So if Bob is genuinely offering a pact to Alice that they both stop cheating, and is considering Alice accepting this pact a possibility, it is not whataboutism.

If the anticipated outcome is eg Alice denying that she is even cheating in the first place, followed by a transition into a discussion of whether or not Alice is cheating, then it is whataboutism.

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Whataboutism is a fallacy in a formal debate, where

  • there are clear criteria/standards/values/premises against which the validity of the claims is evaluated
  • there are judges or another authority able to impartially enforce these rules.

The situation Alice vs. Bob is usually not this kind of situation: by accusing Alice of being a cheater, Bob is not opposing her argument, but questioning whether she can be an impartial judge and/or whether they agree about the moral standards to which she wants to hold him. By dismissing his objections as whataboutism she would be trying to enforce a debate on her own terms, possibly a priori unfavorable for Bob. Indeed, Alice is trying to act here simultaneously as the Bob's debate opponent, as the judge, and as the legislator of the code of conduct.

While stating that Alice can speak only for herself solves the problem for Bob, it is not the end of the story for Alice: Bob's retort points at a number of potential logical fallacies that Alice might be committing even according to her own system of values, notably Nirvana fallacy (judging Bob against an impossible ideal, which herself cannot attain) and Special pleading (judging Bob by different standards than those applied to herself.)

Remark:

  • Since the question was moved from Politics SE, it is worth giving an example:
    This situation often happens in political discussions, e.g., when somebody accuses Russia of illegal invasion of Ukraine, but dismisses counter-accusations about the US illegally invading Iraq as whataboutism. We could call this answer fallacious/whataboutism, because the US actions in Iraq do not in any way justify Russian misdeeds in Ukraine. However, one can question whether somebody covering up the US actions in Iraq is capable of objectively judging Russia and whether they have any moral right to do so. In absence of impartial authority for enforcing international law, it remains "my word against your word".

  • More precisely the first sentence of this answer should read "Whataboutism is an informal fallacy in a formal debate". This would require explanation that informal and formal mean different things here. Whataboutism is an informal fallacy, because it is not an error in logical reasoning, but an attempt to change the subject of the debate. Formal here refers to a debate properly judged and conducted according to agree upon rules. Court procedures are a good example.

  • Another good example of what whataboutism is an what is the problem in Alice vs. Bob is given in the comments by @user4894:

When you get pulled over for speeding and you point out to the cop that everyone else is too, it makes no difference. You're the one he pulled over and you're the one who's getting the ticket. Other people's lawbreaking does not excuse yours.

This example illustrates the presence of four different agents: the driver pulled over, the "everyone else", the cop and the legislators who mandate the traffic regulations. Alice is assuming the roles of three of them.

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  • If a cop pulls over only black men, and you tell the cop that all the other white people are speeding but didn't get pulled over, would we still say "just because white people are lawbreaking doesn't excuse yours"?
    – Eyeofpie
    Nov 19, 2022 at 10:43
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    @Eyeofpie excellent example: as should be clear from my answer - being black doesn't make one innocent, but the cop might be committing both fallacies mentioned in my answer (nirvana and special pleading.) So one cannot easily dismiss the driver's objections as whataboutism. Nov 19, 2022 at 10:54
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It's Irrelevant.

Informal fallacies are soft classifications that bleed into each-other. Fundamentally, informal fallacies are "non-sequiturs", things that don't follow from before. The basic form is this:

  1. If A is true then B is true.
  2. B is true.
  3. Martian lizard tutus dream pinkly.

The issue isn't so much that 3 is incorrectly constructed, it's that 3 has nothing to do with the previous points. From a formal, logical perspective, all you can say is that 3 does not follow ("Hoc non sequitur" or something, hence the name).

Informally, we can speculate about why someone might have thought 3 was relevant. Some of the mistaken thought patterns have names (the informal fallacies). But there are many ways to get to the same incorrect place, and speculating which mental path led to non-sequitur is useful only as a critical or learning tool, not as a formal taxonomy.

Think of it this way: I insist that 59 + 23 is 72. Is that a "carry-error" because I failed to carry out of the ones place or a "digit error" because I recorded 5+2 as 6? It may be useful for me to understand the problem so I can fix my thinking, but absent some deeper explanation of my thought process, you can only firmly conclude that I got it wrong.

Note also that informal fallacies are not necessarily strictly incorrect as applied to sufficiently fuzzy logic. For example, try reading Bob's final remark as instead saying "I refuse to engage with a premise that you clearly don't believe yourself."

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