Two Wrongs Make a Right

Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Red Herring > Two Wrongs Make a Right > Tu Quoque


Consider that two wrongs never make a right,
But that three lefts do.
Source: "Deteriorata", National Lampoon Radio Dinner Album, but see the Reader Response, below.



The operation cost just under $500, and no one was killed, or even hurt. In that same time the Pentagon spent tens of millions of dollars and dropped tens of thousands of pounds of explosives on Viet Nam, killing or wounding thousands of human beings, causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. Because nothing justified their actions in our calculus, nothing could contradict the merit of ours.
Source: Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, from his memoir Fugitive Days, defending a bombing attack by the Weathermen on the Pentagon. Quoted in "Radical Chic Resurgent", by Timothy Noah, Slate, 8/22/2001.



This fallacy involves the attempt to justify a wrong action by pointing to another wrong action. Often, the other wrong action is of the same type or committed by the accuser, in which case it is the subfallacy Tu Quoque. Attempting to justify committing a wrong on the grounds that someone else is guilty of another wrong is clearly a Red Herring―that is, a fallacy of irrelevance―because if this form of argument were cogent, one could justify anything―assuming that there is another wrong to point to, which is a very safe assumption. Nonetheless, such arguments often succeed as distractions, just as a pickled herring drawn across the trail would distract bloodhounds from the chase. By changing the subject from one wrong action to another, the arguer may manage to throw you off the scent. Don't be distracted!



Nicholas Capaldi, How to Win Every Argument: An Introduction to Critical Thinking (MJF, 1987), pp. 147-148.

Analysis of the Example:

This is a very clear example of the fallacy. The terrorists tried to justify bombing the Pentagon on the grounds that the Pentagon had unjustifiably bombed Viet Nam. The gist of the fallacy is contained in the last sentence, which claims that the wrongness of the Pentagon's actions justified a similar wrong: "Wrong + wrong = right."

Reader Response:

Alert reader Ken Smith sent in the following correction of the National Lampoon quote:

The quotation from National Lampoon's "Deteriorata" that you list on your page is incorrect. The word "lefts" does not appear in the text at all. As spoken by Norman Rose on the album, which I have in front of me and playing, the words go:
Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do.

I've seen this misrepresentation in other places on the web; it must have been made by people who have never actually heard the recording (considering its scarcity on vinyl, and that it has not been issued on CD.).

It's a shame, because the "lefts" version is more clever. Also, it puns on two meanings of "right", which is an example of a funny equivocation. Thanks to Ken, though, for the correction.

Fallacy: Equivocation

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Aidan Bissell-Siders for pointing out a broken link.