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).

The Method to Science, Book 1 now available

I have now made the entire text The Method to Science, Book I, available online! Rather than continue to make each less available piecemeal, which I can do later (it is rather tedious to reformat and tailor everything to HTML), the entire text is now available as a PDF. It can be downloaded here: https://jonathanvajda.com/the-method-to-science/

I intend to create the next layer (updating spelling, such as ‘meerly’ -> ‘merely’, ‘compleat’ -> ‘complete’) after I finish the remaining books. There is so much to say by way of commentary. Much of what he offers is a fairly clear and straightforward case for Aristotelian philosophy and Thomistic Christian metaphysics. I’ll be brief for now, but here are a few tidbits of some odd or interesting contours of the text:

  • Addresses puzzles of non-entities and negations, and our meanings of such terms if they are truly nothing
  • Argues that nature abhors a vacuum, contra the Epicureans
  • Justifies his use of the 10 Categories (of Aristotle), clarifying along the way common misunderstandings and arguing against competing views (e.g., about absolute place, relative place, etc.)
  • Distinguishes between habits and dispositions
  • Clarifies why God is said to be eternal if there is no ‘before’ the Creation of the universe
  • Explains how many angels can fit on the head of a pin (sort of), and why
  • Warns against common misunderstandings of words and getting caught up in logomachy (arguments over meanings of words)

And that’s not all!

Method to Science, Lessons 2 and 3

I have posted the two most recent lessons from Sergeant’s Method to Science. First, some editing notes, and then some philosophical insights from Lessons II and III worth mentioning.

Editing notes. I have changed some conventions a little bit. First off, I am including both Sergeant’s marginal notes and mine in-text with a set-bracket, e.g. “{Sect. 7.}” and “{Latin: ‘secondary substance’}”, respectively. I use these because the normal brackets “[ ]” are used by Sergeant extensively to clarify his own speech or highlight a technical term, so I want to preserve a distinction between Sergeant’s voice and my own, to an extent that is more obvious to the reader. Yet one might worry but you’re still using brackets for your voice and his! To which I respond, yes, but that in my editing software it is more obvious, and this is what I consider canonical in my project. Second, when Sergeant uses margin notes he is fairly consistent in using them to refer to other passages in his same work, and thus when he does so I provide a link to that referent, if the page exists.

This brings me to the other new addition (thus far often frustrated by WordPress’s UI), that now every section has an anchor to which one may provide a direct link. E.g., to go to Lesson 2, Section 16, Note 2 -> the URL is currently “https://jonathanvajda.com/lesson-ii-of-the-distinction-of-natural-notions/#2.16note2“. I hope in the near future to make it easy to cite sections with a citation generator. I am currently intending a citation scheme like those for Locke and Hume to refer to a text, book number, chapter number, section number. E.g., “Essay IV.i.2.”

Philosophical comments. Lesson II highlights his Aristotelian system in adopting the 10 categories famously presented in Aristotle’s De Interpretatione. He defends his use and gives examples. One such example Sergeant offers is a sentence that contains predication from every category. “Peter1, tho’ but a yard2 and half high, yet a Valiant3 Subject4, fought5 and was wounded6 yesterday7, in8 the Field, standing9 upon his guard, armed10.” Not all philosophers in this period (or prior eras) have this pedagogical flair.

Later in Lesson II, he gives an argument against Ideism, the view that we have ideas in our intellect that stand for the objects outside the intellect, by which we know those objects, though ideas are fundamentally different from the objects themselves. While he affirms the axiom ‘Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver’ (Latin: “Quicquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis“), he raises the objection that the new Ideists are misapplying this axiom in a way that produces skepticism. He emphasizes that when we speak of these ten categories of predicates, they are not properly just ideas in the mind nor just the excitations of motions unlike the objects. Instead, what Ideists call an idea is much more like a “corporeal resemblance” (“phantasm”), which does not involve the definition or nature of the object so depicted. He worries that Ideists are collapsing the meaningful distinction between two different mental contents about objects of sense, say, of a tree, the definition of a tree vs the picture of a tree.

In Lesson III, Sergeant offers a rich exposition on individuality and essences. Not only does he give conditions for continued existence, he defines a thing (Ens) is something which is capable to exist, whereas something common (Man, Horse, Tree, etc.) are incapable to exist. He admits that there are essential differences among individual humans, and not just accidental differences. These offer a preview of a major point to be made in Sergeant’s work, insofar as having an answer to the problem of universals and of individuation.

However in this same passage there is a complicated and potentially unfortunate discussion of what it means to be a human. First, he is sticking to the traditional definition of rational animal, but he also talks about how some individuals are more human than others in that they have greater or lesser rationality, greater and lesser ability to respond in myriad ways to sensation, etc. Perhaps more work needs to be done to avoid the worry that some individuals who fit the definition rational animal might not have the same moral status.

Lastly, in Lesson III, Sergeant attempts to resolve a problem concerning substance dualism. He affirms that we have a corporeal nature and a spiritual nature; does this mean that we are two beings, and not just one? In his response he offers that we are not both body and spirit formally. Instead, a human is “formally a body, tho’ his Soul be of a spiritual Nature, which makes him virtually a Spirit.” This formal vs virtual distinction is curious, in that in modern terms this sounds like his account tends toward Functionalism. I need, of course, to read this more fully how the virtual distinction doesn’t commit himself to such.

Works of John Sergeant, electronic

I began a project in my spare time of editing and cleaning up extant electronic versions of the works of the early modern philosopher and theologian, John Sergeant (1623-1707). The most famous and most easily available are his Method to Science (1696), Solid Philosophy (1697), and Transnatural Philosophy (1700).

You can go to the “John Sergeant” link in the menu to see what chapters and sections are available thus far.

One of my concerns has been to perform this project with the rigor of text criticism in mind. First it means that any changes I make, I document them or have some other way to verify that I made a change. Second that texts are available as they were printed. This means that archaic and irregular spellings are preserved (e.g., “compleat” instead of “complete”, “metaphysicks” instead of “metaphysics”, etc.). Third, it means that if and when I make an official, complete edited version, I can justify every revision or textual variant I am introducing into the stream of textual transmission.

I may post every now and then when I reach important milestones.

Phase 10 Score Tracking Spreadsheet

Want to keep track of scores Phase 10 but don’t want to use paper? There really wasn’t any easy way to do it electronically. I can’t think of an app that would do this well. Here’s what I would want the score keeper to be able to do:

  • enter in numbers and the total score is calculated automatically
  • keep track of who has completed a phase in a round
  • easily calculate which phase each player is on

Well, could a spreadsheet do that? Yes! Yes it can!

Here’s mine:

And here’s the template version: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1PzaZWrFHKojBDYrMMDB-5gSQEs9ORg65Jt4MMbVfI2M/copy?copyComments=false

It accomplishes all of the intended tasks. Phases completed are shown by checking a box, and at the bottom is a tally of how many boxes are checked. Pretty straightforward. But it also gives a round amount you can enter, and the running total automatically displays on the right.

How can you use it? You’d probably want to download/copy the file. It’s a google sheet. Enter your own players and scores under the player’s names.

If you use it and like it, please let me know! If you found mistakes or ways to improve, let me know! If you want to distribute it (or modify and distribute), please credit me.

Bible Reading Plan Spreadsheet

I wanted to start doing the Robert M’Cheyne Bible reading plan this year. In it there is about 4 chapters per day, organized to have two from the Old Testament, and two from the New. There is an emphasis on reading the New Testament twice throughout the year.

Here’s a PDF of M’Cheyne’s plan with some pros and cons mentioned at the start:

No big deal – there are a lot of ways to keep track. Well, I’m the kind of guy I don’t want to have paper around, so I’d like to avoid printing something off. I also don’t want to install an app that doesn’t let me manage things precisely.

You guessed it! It’s time for a spreadsheet.

Unfortunately, the PDF I had above isn’t really conducive to importing into a spreadsheet. So I grabbed a PDF from this site:

Specifically, I grabbed from the Printables:

And I modified from there.

The result? A spreadsheet that has every reading in its own cell, every date in its own cell, and a checkmark box for each reading. Reusable each year, because the dates don’t mention a year. It’s a Google Sheet, so feel free to download, copy, revise. Etc.

If you use it and like it, let me know. If you think there are mistakes or improvements to be made, please let me know. If you want to distribute it, please credit me and Ben Edgington (edginet.org).

Informed Consent Ontology – ICBO 2019

ICBO 2019 : International Conference on Biomedical Ontology 2019

Poster: Using Stases to Enrich When and Where Regulations are in Force

Abstract: Using Stases to Enrich When and Where Regulations are in Force

Ontologies in OWL suffer limitations in time-indexing, yet these difficulties may be overcome with the use of the class ‘stasis’ in the Common Core Ontologies. The Informed Consent Ontology exemplifies an effective implementation of stases for tracking whether a biospecimen or informed consent process is subject to regulations in the relevant jurisdiction. Other OBO Foundry ontologies may be similarly improved by using stases.


I am a PhD student at the University of Buffalo working on the Problem of Universals. My focus is on the Early Modern period. This functions as a window into many other philosophical problems, including those of interest to a broader academic community, such as those found in applied ethics (e.g., biomedical ethics or professional ethics) and in applied ontology (e.g., a representation of what exists in, say, the relationships between paper documents and the information they contain or the obligations they prescribe).