"Well, he would, wouldn't he?" - fair or unfair?

When Lord William Waldorf Astor denied having met or had an affair with Marilyn Rice-Davies, she famously replied, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” - meaning, if Astor were innocent, he would deny guilt, and if he were guilty, he would still deny guilt - therefore, his claim of innocence was meaningless.

This is well known enough that there’s a term for it:

I think this is one of those logical arguments that is simultaneously correct yet unfair. This “he would, wouldn’t he?” logic completely dismisses the protests of a genuinely innocent defendant (*if *the defendant is innocent).
Furthermore, by the same logic, “The plaintiff would, wouldn’t he/she?” If the defendant were guilty, the plaintiff would claim the defendant is guilty; if the defendant is innocent, the plaintiff would still claim the defendant is guilty. So doesn’t the logic go both ways?

What do you mean, “fair or unfair?” The phrase in question is merely shorthand for saying “Don’t take this person’s assertion at face value because s/he has a strong incentive to lie about it”.

Sometimes that assessment is true, sometimes it’s false, depending on the circumstances. I don’t see how you can categorically assign it a single binary “fairness” value.

Directly questioning a person’s integrity is rarely worth the trouble, because a dishonest person will, dishonestly, claim to be honest, and of course an honest person will truthfully do likewise. When the matter at issue goes directly to the person’s integrity, you have to approach the issue indirectly and try to uncover a contradiction.

This saying shouldn’t be used to judge whether the statement being made is true or not. It merely points out that both an innocent and a guilty person could be expected to say the same thing, therefore what they say is not good evidence for either position.

There can be an assumption of guilt and maybe that’s where you get your idea of fair/unfair but it can apply to any claim. If I accuse you of being a Sasquatch posting from the woods and you deny it… well, you would, wouldn’t you?

It’s a little like saying that the Fifth Amendment only protects the guilty.

“If he had nothing to hide, why would he refuse to testify?”

It’s an attempt to define guilt by tautology. There is no innocence: the guilty person will, obviously, lie when protesting the charges.

The police, of course, are very familiar with the truth this behavior. “I didn’t do nothin’!” Yes, they really do all say that! But a factually innocent person will say it also!

Well, you know, this is why we have trials. If everyone could be relied upon to tell the truth, a large part of the legal system would be redundant.

I think you’re mistaken, really, in calling “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” a logical argument. It might be part of one – in the form of an inference from the initial propositions of an argument – but I don’t think it’s a complete argument, in and of itself.

I think the logical argument would go something like this:

Proposition: Lord Astor has been accused of behaviour which, if true, would lead to serious consequences, for himself and others.

Proposition: Lord Astor denies that behaviour.

Inference: The consequences of the accusations being true are serious enough that Lord Astor, if guilty of them, would be highly motivated to lie (“Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”).

Conclusion: Lord Astor’s denial alone is insufficient evidence.

Which, as I say, is why we have trials.

The context of the original remark is a bit different from your OP. MRD was an 18 year old showgirl giving evidence to a bunch of middle aged powerful establishment men - a group of which Astor was a part. There wasn’t any chance that Astor’s protests of innocence were going to be dismissed without a hearing - her problem was to get them to admit the possibility that her version might be correct, rather than defaulting to “well, he’s a Lord, of course he’s telling the truth!”

Also, presumably MRD knew perfectly well whether Lord Astor had met her or not. So “well, he would” was completely appropriate from her lips. She didn’t have to keep an open mind on the subject.

It wouldn’t have been appropriate from a judge presiding over the hearing though - who presumably didn’t know who was telling the truth, and ought to be open to both possibilities.

Perhaps, but the most important part of that is:

Which is never a factor to be dismissed, is it?

I wonder if the stereotypical British understatement is causing a calibration error here. To me, the appropriate response would simply have been “well, he’s lying”. “well, he would” implies that there’s still an open question about the truth value (as would be the case for a judge, but not Rice-Davies), but maybe that’s just cultural avoidance at making a direct claim.

In fact, at one time in English jurisprudence the defendant was not allowed to give evidence, because of course they’d lie if it would save their neck.

In one of his essays, C. S. Lewis coined the phrase “Bulverism” to refer to the presumption that anyone claiming something as an objective truth in fact is presumed to have an underlying motive for wanting it to be true. (And this was decades before the term “deconstructionism” was in vogue).

“William Waldorf Astor”? “Marilyn Rice-Davies”?

Are you testing us?

Joseph McCarthy infamously used this “logic” to “prove” that anyone he accused of being a Communist, who then denied it, was in fact a Communist.

The “proof” works when the result is what the audience already wants to hear.

Or saying, “He must be guilty–why else would he be on trial?”

The “he would, wouldn’t he?” line of attack relies on the fact that the antogonist may have an interest in lying. But it assumes that, in defence of that interest, he would indeed lie. It discounts entirely the possibility that the antagonist might ever tell the truth when it is against his own interest. In other words, it presumes that he lacks integrity, or the virtue of truthfulness. And if there is no evidence for this assumption then, yes, it’s unfair.

(PS: The unfairness of the tactic is neatly illustrated by the fact that most of those who have studied the Profumo affair are of the view that, on the balance of probabilities, Astor didn]t haae an affair with Rice-Davies. But few people remember that, when faced with the prejudical assumptions implicit in Rice-Davies’ quip.)

Snap, crackle, pop, Rice-Davies.