Cui Bono?: From Question to Fallacy

· Logic



In our readings, we have often come across the question “cui bono?” as the key boon, the summum bonum, to the determination of whom it is behind a certain action held as being of doubtful behaviour.   This Latin expression, meaning “for whose benefit”, whether preceding or following the non-politically correct – but fellow-foreign expression used in a similar vein –  “cherchez la femme”, or, in English, the phrase “follow the money”, has often vexed us with its air of certainty in declaring a certain party guilty on the basis of whatever answer was given to the question.  We do not deny that it may be used as a tool for investigation, but brandishing the afore-mentioned resource as a weapon to indiscriminately mark a chosen victim as responsible for a certain deed, has, in our readings, been considered as a sign of fallacious thinking.

Without having had recourse to whatever similar writing may exist on this topic until just before placing this online, in order to guarantee originality of style, we therefore investigate how the question of “cui bono” is a species of logical fallacy.

“Cui Bono” as a Rough Police Tool

Let us imagine that we are sitting in the police station of a town, or precinct, where most of the local population is known to the authorities.  A robbery occurs.  If the procedure follows one of the many Hollywood narratives, the order goes out to round up the usual suspects.  It is therefore assumed, in the mind of Movieland officialdom, that the robbery can only have been for the benefit of a member of this class: the ones who are always under watch.

We will notice that the group of suspects, in almost all cases, is composed of more individuals than are needed for the crime.  This means that some of the persons sent to the station are, in the eyes of the Law, innocent of the charge.  Perhaps a master-mind criminal could even arrange to have himself taken for interrogation, in order to have an alibi for some misdeed for which he might be responsible at that very moment.  Be that as it may, after the usual procedure, all or most of the habitual offenders are freed.

Under interrogation without a lawyer, they may fall for this leading question: “Why did you do it?”  If used at the beginning, and not after a confession, this represents the path of least resistance on the part of the questioner – no assumption need be made about guilt – it is just a fishing expedition to see if anyone volunteers the required answer.  Without recourse to condemned, aggressive procedures, only a guilty person with impaired mental faculties would offer the requested explanation. This is the loaded question. Should the police rephrase the question under consideration in this article, and ask the suspect, “Quomodo furtum profui tibi? – “How did the theft benefit you?”, a relationship can be seen to “Cui bono?

We now have two possibilities for narrowing down the field of victims of suspicion – the correct way, or the expedient way.  Utility requires continued application of our fallacious question.

We now suppose that the order comes from on high, let it be the mayor, the chief of police, or whoever, to charge someone with the crime, so that the case can be considered solved. Whether such cases exist outside of the realm of the Hollywood movie studio police stations, we will let the reader fallaciously [!] decide on the basis of whether a mayor, police chief, or other, could indeed obtain any benefit by considering such an action.

While the observations that the police will make to the public (if any) are perfectly valid in a correctly conducted investigation, they can be presented as falsehoods masquerading as truth when cui bono serves as the spotlight on the case.

Some of the supposed evidence proving benefit to the accused could be: poverty, heavy debt (being possible while living at least a middle class life-style), or the need to keep up an expensive habit (or, way of life).  Poverty is easy enough to prove, and the Internet is rife with charges of the poor getting unjustly charged.  Evidence can be planted, witnesses suborned. Should the accused not be so poor, the circumstantial evidence will be easier to obtain – one just looks for evidence of gambling debts; expensive vice, bottles or clothes of the best brands; visits to the finest restaurants or night-clubs, etc., most probably provable by checking with a credit-card company.

The press will report, after the police findings are revealed, that it is evident that the person in question was in need and therefore perpetrated the crime.  Should a lawyer not be affordable, one will be awarded by the state, and this worthy will not go to the trouble of a change of venue on the grounds that the client has already been hanged, drawn, and quartered in the media.

Everyone, minus one person plus some potential friends and family, is happy that “justice” has been done.  The same goes, of course, if justice was done.

Foreign Affairs

The world was once, in the years following World War II, held more or less thrall to two super-powers.  Their accusations against one another, as well as those of many lesser countries, are nothing more than the application of the cui bono principle. In answer to questions such as, “Who benefited by the revolution?”, the almost standard answer would be, “the Russkies”, “the Commies”, “the Reds”, “Moscow”, etc.  Likewise, the answer to a question such as, “Who benefitted by the military coup?”, the answers would be, “the capitalists”, “Washington”, “the West”, “NATO”, “the Fascists”, “the United States and their running dogs” (whatever that means – especially since the same source considered the States to be “paper tigers”).

At times, those who should be versed in diplomacy do not even couch their language in such a way to mislead one into not knowing who the beneficiaries of intended actions would be.  May the reader pardon us for not stating who it was who claimed that Russia had too much mineral wealth to use all by itself.  This is the pot calling the kettle black, and this is still going on, for example, with the December, 2013 distribution of cookies by an Assistant Secretary of State of an important government to protesters showing their displeasure against an elected regime not in line with momentary/monetary interests.

So much more colourful are the spats at international conferences, where each person has their designated seat – the option to leave is always present – and any insults tarnish their user more than the person mocked.  Here come to mind comments made by a certain president – referring to a political enemy – about the smell of sulphur at the United Nations, or his altercation with the King of Spain, leading the latter to tell him angrily to shut up. We can condemn the incivility, but the transparency of thought is commendable.

Returning to our main theme, the cui bono argument is often bandied about in the context of whether a certain bellicose action by a certain super-power has any purpose other than to secure petroleum supplies from an affected nation.  It can be seen that there is a certain inconsistency of the argument, because on other occasions, the emphasis is on putting friendly governments in place.  In such an event, the mineral resources would have to be considered as being of secondary nature.

In the particular case of petroleum, one must also consider that there exist competing interests, such as those arguing against global warming, who, as a consequence, must prefer that oil remain underground. With the cry for doing something about this perceived problem becoming stronger year by year, one should expect some country to put a regime change into effect for this purpose in the near future!

At the time the super-powers were considered basically equally, mutually-assured destruction (MAD) was an idea which should more correctly have been designated AHMAD – Anti-H-bomb Mutually Assured Destruction.  This policy defies the traditional analysis of those who ask cui bono, because they never consider the possibility that two enemies could benefit by a certain action.

Not very surreptitiously, we have also slipped into our argument, that as soon as “MAD” became irrelevant, the hunt was on for AHMAD and anyone with a similar name.  We read of  Muslim fundamentalism worrying not only the United States, but super-regional powers such as Russia and China.

The answer to our question then becomes confusing, in that we are unable to see if the battle waged against certain Moslem nations is the result of a desire for their oil, a desire for regime change, or a desire to stamp out unfriendly elements.

We see this especially in the case of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein, friend of the United States, almost overnight became an enemy.  Hence, the potential oil exports suddenly were no longer available because of a bungled change of regime, boots were put on the ground, and unending conflict has led to even unfriendlier hostiles in the region, and the differences of opinion between all the parties which could have any benefit – of whom all or some of the following have been accused: Great Britain, France, Iran, Iraq, ISIS aka IS aka Daesh, or ex-ISI, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States – if not more.  The cui bono question becomes irrelevant and immature. A listing of all players to the dispute will not provide a solution.  It is not like the two world wars, when, in spite of many players, only two sides were involved, and both knew what they wanted, without mincing words.

The Cui Bono Classification of Logical Fallacy

The question cui bono is often used as a type of circular reasoning.  (One web site puts it as the ante hoc fallacy, rather a bit of an invention, but we do like the concluding paragraph in this link.)   We have seen, in the case of the police example, that we start from the premiss of the assumption that a member of a certain group is responsible, and then one moves on, to possibly charge someone from that circle.

Let us be more specific: In the traditional whodunit, the cliché is that the butler did it. Why? It is unstated, but we have to assume that it is he, who would have benefitted.  Why it is not the lowliest of female servants, or the gardener who is charged [context here], is something that the cliché has prevented us from considering, but we are aware of people having maids stealing quite frequently in the country where this author lives (and of their children being picked up for crime – foreseeable, when the help comes from the slums).

A meeting takes place in Davos, Switzerland, and the rich are said to benefit from the conclusions arrived at. The same goes for the Bilderberg group.

We can therefore see that the rich look for the poor as the beneficiary of a nefarious action, and that the “poor” consider the rich to be ipso facto responsible for decisions which are not even known to the public.  It is class warfare on a new level.

Our attempt at an illustration. Notice, it need not be people who are accused - one site suggested that "cui bono" implied an ad hominem attack - we show it could be ad machinam.

Our attempt at an illustration. Notice, it need not be people who are accused – one site suggested that “cui bono” implied an ad hominem attack – we show it could be ad machinam.


When the Question is Valid – and Not

There are times when the question is valid, though the answer might still elude us.  When agreements, laws, or executive decrees are made with secret clauses, when prisoners are charged, and the lawyer is not allowed to see the evidence, we might as well be living under an absolute monarchy.  The greatest contribution these made to world culture is their palaces – most unlike the white elephant constructions made today. And surely, asking “Cui bono?” would be irrelevant, which it should be even now, as an impertinent question answered in such a way to defame others.


Sunday, January 24, 2016, Paul Karl Moeller.

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