Logical Fallacies 101: Genetic Fallacy and Tu Quoque

By Thomas McCuddy, 

“The church is full of hypocrites!”  “The only reason you are a Christian is because you were raised as one!”

Sound familiar?  These are two prominent accusations against Christianity and Christians.  I’ve heard them many times, read them many places, and have even received them personally.  Both are similar in nature, and both are fallacies of thought.  Let’s examine them individually.

Tu Quoque

The first is officially named tu quoque, which is Latin for “you also.”  We could also call this the “hypocrite” fallacy.  Basically, the situation looks like this. Two people are arguing over the existence of God.  Person 1 (Bill) accuses person 2 (Robert) of making a self-refuting statement.  Robert fires back at Bill and points out other times when Bill has made self-refuting statements himself.  So, Robert’s argument can be summarized as “you too make self-refuting statements.”  Robert might also call Bill a hypocrite (ad hominem) for pointing out Robert’s self-refuting statements. Robert is claiming that Bill is not in a position to criticize Robert’s own arguments, and thus says tu quoque, or “you do it too!”  in reply to Bill’s accusations.

The problem is that Bill’s original accusation and argument have gone unaddressed. Bill might be right.  He might be wrong.  But Robert has chosen not to engage Bill’s argument and is accusing Bill of the same thing, rather than dealing with Bill’s argument.  It is irrelevant whether Bill has made self-refuting statements in the past, or whether he is a hypocrite. What matters is whether Bill’s argument in question is self-refuting.

These scenarios are easy to spot. Here are a few examples:

Parent: “Clean your room.”
Child: “Your bedroom is messy too!”

Wife: “You haven’t changed the oil like I asked you!”
Husband: “You also haven’t washed the dishes!”

Christian: “You shouldn’t watch pornography.”
Atheist: “You watch bad TV shows too!”

A person’s character is irrelevant to the truthfulness of the original statement.  Tu quequo is a form of ad hominem— It attacks the person and distracts from the original argument in question.[1]

Genetic Fallacy

The second fallacy is related because like the first, it attacks the person in a way that is irrelevant to the argument, but it is a bit trickier.  It is called the “genetic fallacy” because it attacks the “suspicious psychological origins of the argument” (Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, 81).

Peter Kreeft gives a nice general explanation of how this works.

“’You say that because you are a man.’ His being a man and his motive as a man may have absolutely nothing to do with the logic of the argument. It may be convenient, it may be advantageous, but neither have anything to do with logic.” (Kreeft, 81)

So, any reply that takes the form of “you say that because you’re a ____” or “you say that because your background is ____” most likely commits this fallacy.  To be relevant and not simply attack the person, the person’s origin or characteristics would need to be logically relevant.  Racism, sexism, religion, and even criminal records can and will motivate, but motivation is not logical reason.  It’s psychological reason (i.e., motivation for doing or saying something), but it is not logical reasons (i.e., argumentation and premises that lead to a conclusion supporting an idea or action).  Even police know that motive alone does not convict people.  Guilt must be proven and innocence defended just as in arguments.

Kreeft highlights confusion of the use of “because” as part of the problem (Kreeft, 81).  For example, I treat my wife right “because” people should be treated right.  I also treat my wife right “because” I love her.  The first is my moral reason; the second is my emotional motivation.  Notice that if my emotional motivation changes, my actions should not, as I have a logical reason that remains unchanged.

For example, I as a man may say something because my masculinity motivates me, or I might have a logical reason for saying it, but the two are not necessarily connected.  To accuse me of the first without addressing the second is the genetic fallacy.

This has often been used against Christians and Christianity in general, claiming bias of the writers and modern believers without considering the logical reasons or data presented in favor of Christianity.  “Of course you believe Jesus rose from the dead; you’re a Christian!” This objection from the unbeliever is fallacious because it is the claim “Jesus rose from the dead” that is in question, not the person’s personal belief on the matter.

Arguments and propositions come to a stalemate when the genetic or tu quoque fallacy is used. These fallacies leave arguments unaddressed, as participants in the debate attack one another rather than their arguments, impugning each other’s characters and origins.  Such methods lead to a dead end in discussion, and dialog reduces to an endless stream of memes and passive aggressive one-liner-social-media comments.

How to Avoid Tu Quoque

The best way to avoid this fallacy is to address arguments rather than opting to point out someone else’s mistakes.  If a person calls you out on something or demonstrates how you are wrong, own it.  Pointing out their mistakes will deflect blame and error from you or allow the other person to share blame and shame, but it will not make you right.  Furthermore, if the other person is simply making a claim or idea, then address the claim or idea; stay on topic. Do not irrelevantly attack them by pointing out something else they have done wrong.

For example, if a person wants to start a divorce ministry, pointing out that the person is not perfect is irrelevant to starting a divorce ministry.  However, if the person has been divorced multiple times, the person may not be qualified or this may be relevant to the success of the ministry.

So, make sure that any references to the person’s character or activities are actually relevant to the context. Otherwise you are arguing using a tu quoque fallacy to deflect the issues or to avoid addressing the main arguments against you.

Avoiding Genetic Fallacies

Don’t confuse someone’s motivations with their claims.  In other words, don’t condemn a male pastor for preaching about the roles of wives, by saying that “he’s only saying that because he’s a man.”  What he says may be beneficial for husbands, but his reasoning may have nothing to do with his husbandry and everything to do with the objective role of wives as set by Scripture.

Also, don’t confuse someone’s lack of experience as reason to reject his or her argument.  In other words, don’t condemn a male pastor for preaching about motherhood on Mother’s Day.  He may not be a mother, but he has one and could be married to one, and may even have a daughter who is one.  He may have a male’s perspective on motherhood, but his perspectives are irrelevant in terms of his argument and data.

In conclusion, the best way to avoid tu quoque and the genetic fallacy is to deal with the argument and the words of the person and leave the person’s history and character out of your reply unless the individual’s history and character are directly related and relevant to the argument.

Thomas ministers as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Dublin, NC, while also serving as Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Languages at Carolina College of Biblical Studies in Fayetteville, NC. Thomas earned a Master’s in Biblical Studies and Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte. Thomas is currently enrolled in the Doctorate of Ministry program at SES. 

Thomas’ passion is to disciple believers to live their faith thoughtfully and consistently. Follow Thomas’ blog at www.faithdefense.com.

[1] NOTE: This is not what Paul is doing in Romans 2:21: “You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?  While you preach against stealing, do you steal?”  Paul isn’t nullifying or ignoring the argument of “thou shalt not steal.” That’s not the issue at hand for Paul.  The purpose of Paul’s argument is to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the Jews who (1) teach not to steal, (2) themselves steal, and therefore (3) are hypocrites.






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