There is a growing tendency to label some argumentative moves commonly performed in public discourse as “whataboutism”. A quick search on Google Trends shows that the term has begun to gain more serious traction in 2017, reaching its peak popularity in June 2020 and March 2022 – likely in the context of debates on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, as Ben Zimmer points out, its roots can be identified much earlier on, first as a charge against defenders of the Provisional IRA’s actions during the Troubles and later as a charge against a particular brand of Soviet-style rhetorical strategy. When whataboutism is pointed at in public speech, it is usually done so as to discredit an objection to an argument not by showing that it fails on its own terms, but rather because it constitutes an illegitimate move aimed at deflecting attention from the topic on which the argument is focused. But is whataboutism, especially when it concerns questions of justice, problematic, or – to the contrary – is the charge of whataboutism largely vacuous?
It is important to first note that whataboutism can come in different versions. In a recent article, Elizabeth Anderson discusses whataboutism as “a form of positional esteem competition that makes three moves at once. First, it says, ‘You are no better than us’. Second, it purports to support the respondent’s construal of ostensibly first-order moral claims as actually second-order: ‘You don’t really care about this problem; you are only trying to claim that you are superior to us by pretending to care’. Third, it suggests that the claimants lack moral standing: they are in no position to cast the first stone”. Since this type of whataboutism primarily aims to attack the opponent’s moral character, and only through this attack to suggest that we should also discard the moral claims put forward by said opponent, I will name it agential whataboutism. This is distinct from another way in which whataboutism is sometimes deployed. Here, the aim is not to undermine the moral standing of the person offering the argument, but to show that the argument’s conclusion should be rejected because it is premised on an inconsistency between our stated beliefs and/or reasons to act and beliefs and/or reasons to act endorsed in other similar cases. Since in this case the objection is entirely independent of the agent putting forward the moral claim, I will label it as substantive whataboutism.
Substantive whataboutism, as I describe it here, operates as a form of analogical argument and can apply to a wide range of contexts. The crisis generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proven to be a particularly fertile environment for the thriving of such argumentative moves, which standardly seek to undermine either the case for condemning the invasion as a violation of the established international order, imposing sanctions against the Russian regime, or supporting Ukraine and Ukrainians. To get a better grasp of the way in which whataboutism is deployed, here is one example involving the situation of Ukrainians who have been forced to take refuge in neighbouring countries because of the war. Objecting to the idea that these countries should provide significant financial assistance to them, some have argued in the following manner: “You claim that our country should spend money helping Ukrainian refugees. But what about our own vulnerable citizens? The country hasn’t spent much money to help them. Since these cases are similar, our country should not help Ukrainian refugees either”. Alternatively, the argument can also appeal to previously performed actions (or lack thereof). For example, instead of helping a country’s own vulnerable citizens, the analogy can instead be tweaked to refer to Syrian refugees, which in the past have not been adequately cared for by many of Ukraine’s neighbours.
While we may feel an inclination to disagree with this position, the idea that there is indeed a certain similarity between the two cases is not unfounded. The reason is that our claim defending the support of Ukrainian refugees relies on a duty of justice which the state must satisfy and which it has failed to satisfy in the case of its own vulnerable citizens and in the case of past refugees. However, in order to reach the desired conclusion (which, at least when whataboutism is present in the public discourse on the Russian invasion is by and large conspicuously in favour of inaction), a further implicit move is made which is to treat consistency as the decisive criterion for our reasons to act. On this view, assuming that we cannot both alleviate poverty in our country and provide assistance for refugees we should do neither, since we have compelling reasons to do both and it would be inconsistent to only do one. But such a move is wrongheaded. Justice cannot be substituted for consistency as the primary moral driver for action in such cases, since consistency does not matter for its own sake but only insofar as it plays a part in enhancing or diminishing something which is morally valuable. Here, consistency does not only fail to enhance justice but is actually detrimental to it, since more people will have their urgent basic needs met if we do provide financial assistance to refugees, rather than if we would refrain from taking any action. This is also the case when it comes to the refugees treated much worse in the past by the same state. Acting consistently by refusing to grant Ukrainian refugees assistance because such assistance was previously refused for Syrian refugees can only serve to further amplify the injustice perpetrated by the state, instead of diminishing it.
More generally, then, the problem with substantive whataboutism is that it fails to correctly identify what is at stake when it comes to evaluating normative claims, by wrongly assuming that consistency should determine such evaluations instead of the moral values appropriate for the respective claim. That being said, there can be instances when consistency does matter, and an analogical argument structured in a similar way to the one offered above can be properly employed in such cases. For example, if a state were to only assist ethnically Ukrainian refugees and refuse to provide similar benefits for Romani or Tatar Ukrainians, a salient complaint can be raised based on the fact that the state is acting inconsistently, but this is because here the differential treatment based solely on ethnicity is precisely what constitutes the injustice, and justice is the appropriate moral value appealed to in evaluating the action of the state. So while in this latter context, the charge of whataboutism would itself be wrong, in numerous other cases it can indeed be legitimately used as a shorthand indicating a type of misguided argumentative move.
 I do not distinguish here between duties of justice, assistance, care, or rescue, a distinction which may perhaps be relevant for a more in-depth discussion than possible here.
 For example, a slaveholding society is not less unjust if it consistently subjugates all slaves to a similar degree.
 Some might say, then, that prioritizing the country’s own citizens to the detriment of refugees would be equally acceptable on justice-based grounds, since in that case as well more basic needs would be met than if we do nothing. While this is true, it does not defeat the point of the discussion which was merely to show that we should not let consistency requirements bias us towards inaction in cases where justice considerations are what fundamentally matter. Any further claim beyond this would require both empirical assesments (e.g. the costs required for helping refugees vs alleviating poverty) and normative assessments (e.g. whether the status of refugee warrant stronger economic protection from the state than that extended in the case of ordinary residents) which go beyond the scope of the article.