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The Appeal to Hypocrisy Fallacy, Explained

Updated on November 28, 2022StudentsWriting Tips

Wouldn’t it be great if the next time you turn in an assignment a day late, your professor thought back to their own days as a student and let it slide, rather than docking points? After all, they probably missed a deadline or two in their day.

The reality is, your professor probably did miss a few deadlines when they were a student. But another reality is that it doesn’t matter if they did. Their track record as a student has no bearing on whether it’s OK for you to miss assignment due dates; claiming that it does is the basis of the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy.

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What is the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy?

The appeal to hypocrisy fallacy is the logical fallacy of attempting to discredit an opponent’s position by pointing out their contradictory behavior or hypocritical stance. Take a look at this example:

Student A: Paying someone to write your essays for you is cheating. Student B: You copied my homework all the time in high school; this is no different. 

Student B may be correct, but here’s why their claim is fallacious: It doesn’t matter if they’re correct because their statement doesn’t invalidate Student A’s claim. Whether Student A is a paragon of academic integrity, or they cheat on every assignment they receive, has no bearing on the validity of their claim that buying essays is cheating.

This is why the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy is grouped with other fallacies of relevance. These are logical fallacies that introduce irrelevant claims and facts into conversations, rather than responding to the opponent’s stated position.

An appeal to hypocrisy is an attempt to turn the conversation’s focus onto an opponent’s flaws. In many cases, it’s structured as a personal attack. Whether the opponent did what the arguer claims doesn’t matter—it’s all irrelevant to the discussion.

Synonyms for appeal to hypocrisy

The appeal to hypocrisy fallacy is also known as the tu quoque fallacy. Tu quoque is Latin for “you also.”

An appeal to hypocrisy can also be a red herring—an attempt to redirect a conversation from its original topic. People use red herring arguments for a variety of reasons. Sometimes their intent is to reframe a discussion and avoid having to engage with specific subjects or facts. Other times, it’s because the individual genuinely doesn’t realize their contribution is irrelevant to the discussion. In many cases, an appeal to hypocrisy arises because the person thinks they’re making a relevant point, not because they’re arguing in bad faith.

The appeal to hypocrisy fallacy can look and sound similar to the ad hominem fallacy. Both highlight an opponent’s flaws, real or imagined. But there’s a key difference between them. While an ad hominem attack is a broad personal attack, an appeal to hypocrisy is a specific claim about the opponent’s behavior or beliefs that contrast their stated position. Take a look at this comparison:

Position: I think STEM majors should be required to take humanities courses. Ad hominem: You couldn’t pass a humanities course if you tried! Appeal to hypocrisy: But you didn’t take any humanities courses! 

Examples of the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy

Teacher: The goal of the school read-a-thon is to read a dozen books this week. Student: But you’re not reading any books.

Person A: You should buy an electric car. Gas-powered cars are bad for the environment. Person B: You should talk; you drive a gas-guzzling SUV!

Parent: Reading is a much healthier way to unwind than playing video games. Child: You play games on your phone for hours after work. 

How to avoid the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy?

Like any other logical fallacy, the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy can creep into your writing. It usually appears in writing you do in response to others’ positions, such as argumentative essays, persuasive essays, speeches, debates, and even social media comments.

The easiest way to avoid this fallacy is to question whether a claim you’re making about your opponent is relevant to the topic you’re writing about. There are cases where an opponent’s personal track record is relevant. For example, you might point out that a political opponent adopted their progressive views only when they determined those views would garner them more votes, and their voting record supports this claim.

A general guideline to follow in your writing is this: If you can’t support a claim using credible sources, don’t include that claim in your writing. To avoid the appeal to hypocrisy, ad hominem, and similar fallacies, follow this guideline with the addendum that the claim must also be relevant to your writing’s topic.

Appeal to hypocrisy fallacy FAQs

What is the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy?

The appeal to hypocrisy fallacy is the logical fallacy of attempting to discredit an opponent’s position by pointing out their contradictory behavior or hypocritical stance.

How does the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy work?

The appeal to hypocrisy fallacy works by drawing attention to an opponent’s flaws, rather than discussing the topic at hand.

How can I avoid the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy in my writing?

You can avoid this fallacy by ensuring every claim you make in your writing meets these two criteria:

  • It can be supported by credible sources.
  • It’s relevant to the subject you’re writing about or the person you’re debating.

A claim can be true but not relevant to the topic at hand. Similarly, a claim can be relevant but not grounded in facts. To avoid the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy, make sure any claim you make about your opponent’s previous record or positions supports the other claims you’re making rather than just serving to make them look hypocritical.

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