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I love hearing a good conspiracy theory.
And, apparently I’m in good company with the majority of other people.
However, I mainly love these far-fetched theories because they are, by and large, ridiculous. And therefore…entertaining.
But in our society of uncertainty and frequent tragedies, people tend to look for ways to make sense of devastating circumstances by asking, “Who benefits?” From here, conspiracy theories are born. However, sometimes questioning a person’s or group’s motives is taken to such an extreme level that it becomes so complicated that the actual truth–no matter how devastating it is–becomes a more reasonable concept to believe.
Cui bono, Latin for who benefits?, is a phrase used to suggest that whoever benefited from a particular event or someone else’s struggle is also the person who caused it. One can come to this conclusion because people assume others are generally self-serving.
Now, whether or not people are inclined to act in ways that ultimately only benefit themselves is an age-old debate dating back to the earliest philosophers. But even if this is the case, sometimes innocent people inadvertently benefit from others’ misfortune–and it’s under these circumstances in which the cui bono fallacy becomes relevant.
It’s helpful to understand the cui bono rule of thumb because it can help guide your reasoning in a variety of different situations. Therefore, in this article, we will talk more about this concept and go over 5 examples of its use. After reading this article, you will be able to spot this logical fallacy and recognize when you need to consider the role that cui bono is playing in someone else’s reasoning and when it should have an impact on your own reasoning.
Let’s start by taking a deeper look at what this logical fallacy is and why people use it.
What is Cui Bono?
This Latin phrase is used in our modern society to either suggest that there is a hidden motive behind an action or that the person actually responsible for some type of misconduct might not be the same person that people initially suspect.
People also use this concept to figure out why something has happened, such as a new policy being actuated at work. If the new policy seems pointless to you, consider the larger implications it has and who it will impact. Then consider who it will benefit–is it a new policy that will increase the company’s bottom line? Or will it help increase employee satisfaction? If so, you may look towards accounting and human resources, respectively, when trying to find the origin of the policy.
It’s critical to be advised that while ‘cui bono’ is a beneficial factor to keep in mind and it can help you find a likely explanation for an event, it’s not a rule that’s guaranteed to bring you to the correct verdict. Take weeds, for example. Weeds actually benefit from global warming, as the warmer environment and increased amount of carbon dioxide are conducive to their growth. However, weeds are obviously not responsible for causing global warming.
So unlike deductive logic, cui bono won’t always give you the right answer. Rather, it suggests that those who will benefit from certain circumstances are more likely to be responsible for them.
The Problem with Cui Bono
Cui bono assumes that self-interest is the determining factor in an event without considering other–possibly more relevant–factors.
When used in criminal trials, cui bono is often found by working backwards through the case. For example, if someone is murdered and a family member is designated to inherit a lot of money, people may look toward that beneficiary and then work their way back in order to fit that person into the scene of the crime. Meanwhile, those who start their investigation at the scene of the crime and work their way out are chasing an entirely different pool of leads. Starting on the outside and working your way in can give a true criminal a scapegoat for their wrongdoing.
Let’s look at a few examples to further explain this fallacy.
5 Cui Bono Fallacy Examples
1. Anti-Vax Movement
Over the past decade or so, as the internet has become a primary place for people to divulge misleading information, we have taken a few steps back from the leaps and bounds that modern medicine has taken, thanks to the anti-vaccination movement.
Those who stand behind this movement essentially believe that instead of creating a high-quality product, pharmaceutical companies would rather spend their time and effort bullying medical researchers and doctors into lying to the public about the dangers of vaccinations.
This would mean that the companies that make vaccines distribute low-quality medications without putting any research into them–and instead, research the best ways to trick the public into buying their products.
All this is done, apparently, in order to protect pharmaceutical companies’ profits.
The cui bono fallacy comes into play here when you stop to consider the fact that making high-quality vaccines is actually easier, more profitable, and much less risky than selling junk and then spending a ton of money to ensure people keep the secret.
2. Stricter Laws Against Violence?
Both domestic and international terrorist events have been blamed on governments who were looking to tighten up legislation against violence.
For example, the 2005 London bomb attacks–where four Islamic terrorists were ultimately arrested for coordinating a series of suicide attacks in London that targeted morning rush hour commuters who were on three tube trains and one bus.
This incident brought about plenty of internet conspiracy theorists who claimed Prime Minister Tony Blair had ordered actors to stage the bombings using fake blood to give people a reason to support extreme anti-terrorist legislation. Those making such claims thought that the idea of Tony Blair staging this attack was more reasonable to believe than the allegation that this was a true terrorist attack.
Another example of this is the Sandy Hook shootings from 2012. Here, 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people by gunfire, including 20 children. Many questioned the veracity of this incident, which prompted President Obama to make a big push for increased legislation surrounding gun control. Those who considered cui bono believed that these shootings were staged by the government to gain compassion from the country in order to force stricter laws on gun control.
Both of these examples give criminals and scapegoat and point the finger at innocent parties due to the fact that they apparently stood to gain something from the incident.
3. Policy Change
Cui bono is also relevant in policy changes, suggesting there is a high probability that people who are responsible for a new policy or change in policy are often the ones who will ultimately benefit from it.
For example, many cities, including Portland, OR, are in the midst of urban development, which invites a need for additional housing. Policy-makers claim that the housing increase will: “ease shortages, lower prices, promote equity, and reduce pressure for unsustainable suburban expansion.”
This all sounds good for people living in the city. But, considering cui bono, think about who will benefit from this expansion. At first glance, one may think that anyone who wants more affordable housing will benefit. And, with the idea of building high-rises, farmland will be conserved, and a sustainable infrastructure can be built.
However, when this growth plan is analyzed, it becomes clear that the benefit of the end result will go to those with financial interest in building high-rises, and these people aren’t genuinely concerned about social equality or housing costs.
This example shows how you can use the cui bono rule of thumb for your benefit. When you hear the claimed benefits of the increase in housing, you probably initially think it’s a great idea and a winning situation for everyone. But when you stop to think about how the policymakers may be especially benefiting from this plan, you will see the “benefits” aren’t worth the cost of the project for everyday people who will be living in these planned areas.
4. Criminal Cases
The theme of cui bono in criminal cases comes up often both in movies and in real life where valid observations of an innocent party are presented to the public to shine a spotlight away from the truth.
Some “evidence” that could be used against someone being falsely accused includes factors such as poverty, heavy debt, or a need to maintain an expensive habit. There are endless examples of the poor being wrongfully convicted. Along with being victims of the cui bono fallacy and becoming a scapegoat for the guilty party, this population doesn’t have the means to pay an experienced lawyer to fight for them in court, so they often end up paying for another person’s crime.
Without any other factors being taken into account, inaccurate conclusions can easily be made. Cui bono should not be the only angle that one looks at when trying to solve a crime, as circumstantial evidence could potentially be made for any case if there is someone who ultimately benefited from the crime in some way. However, this doesn’t substantiate guilt.
5. 9/11 Conspiracy Theories
We’ve established that the cui bono fallacy is often used to suggest that the guilty party is among those who have something to gain from the circumstances, which is typically a financial gain. Although, the beneficiary may not always be evident, or they may have diverted people’s attention to a scapegoat.
Many theories have arisen about those who financially benefited from the 9/11 attacks, suggesting Osama Bin Laden was a scapegoat. Some of these theories point to Israel and others point to our own government and important leaders in our country. Considering this type of information as being proof that Osama Bin Laden was not responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks is an example of cui bono because of the focus on a less obvious suspect due to their financial gain.
Final Thoughts on Cui Bono
So there you have it, five examples of how cui bono plays out in everyday life. Hopefully you can see the importance of considering other factors aside from ‘cui bono’ when considering who is responsible for an event. And, hopefully you will consider ‘cui bono’ when an offer seems too good to be true.
Cui bono moves us past our initial reaction to things and asks us to recognize the impacts of an action or event, and who will benefit from it–and, therefore, who won’t. It encourages us to explore “why” something is happening beyond the initial descriptions we are told.
Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.