Fallacious and non-fallacious Whataboutism

In my view, many so-called ‘fallacies’ have rational counterparts. A fallacy is just a counterfeit for sound or cogent reasoning. It looks like good reasoning, but it is off in a subtle way. It is because there is a legitimate form of reasoning adjacent to the fallacy, which explains why the fallacy is so appealing.

Someone asked on Reddit “Is whataboutism always fallacious?

Here’s my reply:

Bringing up someone else’s lack of consistency across cases is not fallacious in and of itself. It’s basically an appeal to say “Show me your principles, so I can understand you” and follow-up “But are you really even relying on these principles? It appears you aren’t in this other case.” It is not fallacious only because if there is a double standard, it would best to find which standard should be applied. The rational inquiry is about what is the standard to which one ought to appeal.

Likewise, bringing up another case can highlight that the same principles are applied consistently, but there is a morally relevant difference between the two cases. The appeal to consistency, that like cases should be treated alike, can be satisfied, when one shows that the two cases are importantly dissimilar.

Bringing up someone else’s lack of consistency can be fallacious, if the effort is designed to distract, divert, or otherwise ignore the reasoning of the argument. At that point, the ‘what about’ isn’t brought up to find out either the principles or the morally-relevant differences between the two cases, but rather to gainsay the conclusion in a snarky way. In other words, it is fallacious when the charge of hypocrisy is irrelevant to the truth of the conclusion.

I’ll give a positive example:

Pro-life advocates believe that some people have special obligations to the vulnerable. Some positive rights (and positive duties) can accrue naturally. E.g., biological mothers have a unique relationship with duties to their unborn child.

But some pro-life advocates don’t think this clearly, or don’t really hold this view. They get confused or they get accused for holding a general obligations view, that we general obligations to anyone who is vulnerable. If you can help save someone’s life, then you ought to save that person’s life. If you can help stave off starvation, then you should do it.

And so critics might say what about charity work, welfare programs for poor mothers, welfare programs for children, government funding for adoption and foster care, sending government aid to other nations, etc. In other words, pro-lifers who appeal to the principle “we all, in virtue of being persons capable of saving lives, have obligations to care for any person who is in need of life-sustaining care.” Such a pro-lifer could be inconsistent in their principles, if they want to make abortion illegal but think that the government should never impose a tax to help the poor.

This is a NON-FALLACIOUS whataboutism.

Some critics say “You only care about them when they are in the womb! What about when they are born? You don’t really care about their welfare!”

This is a FALLACIOUS whataboutism.

Why? The pro-lifer thinks that the mother (and father) still have special obligations to the child after birth, unless she (they) can responsibly delegate them to another, say adoptive parents, extended family, etc.

Some critics say “You only care about the fetus’s rights. What about the mother? Doesn’t she have rights?”

This is a FALLACIOUS whataboutism.

The pro-lifer cares about the rights of the mother too. But some rights are more fundamental than others; say, my right to property is less fundamental than my right to life; likewise my right to autonomy is less fundamental than my right to life.

Some critics say, “You only care about the right to life, but what about standards of living? You seem to think you gotta keep them alive even if their life is horrible.”

This is a FALLACIOUS whataboutism.

The pro-lifer thinks that welfare is morally important. Welfare programs do not automatically get legal justification because welfare is morally important. Moreover, special obligations (individual to individual) are not the same, but grounded differently, as general obligations (individual to group, or group to individual).