Bronze-level articleArgumentum ad hominem

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An argumentum ad hominem (from the Latin for "to the person") is a logical fallacy that occurs when one attacks the person making an argument rather than the argument itself. The fallacy is a genetic fallacy -- the source of the argument is almost always irrelevant to its truth. Even if the ad hominem attack is true, that fact has no bearing on whether the disputant's argument is logically sound.

Contents

[edit] Alternate names

  • Argument against the man
  • Attack on the person
  • Character assassination
  • Personal attack

[edit] How ad hominem works

Ad hominem arguments work via the halo effect, a cognitive bias in which the perception of one trait is influenced by the perception of an unrelated trait, e.g. treating an attractive person as more intelligent or more honest. People tend to see others as tending to all good or tending to all bad. Thus, if you can attribute a bad trait to your opponent, others will tend to doubt the quality of your opponent's arguments.

[edit] Strict usage

An ad hominem argument has the basic form:

A makes claim X
There is something objectionable about A
Therefore X is false


[edit] Set in less formal language

You can claim that your opponent is wrong.
This is perfectly fine, so long as you offer evidence against your opponent's position.
You can claim that your opponent is wrong, and just incidentally a shithead as well.
Also fine … if a bit gratuitous. This is ad hominem, to be sure, but it's not necessarily fallacious ad hominem.
If you've offered sufficient evidence of wrongness that you're effectively presenting the wrongness as evidence of shitheadery rather than the other way around, you're skating the line, but still on the right side of it.
However, it has the adverse effect of distracting any audience from your best and strongest evidence, and giving your opponent a great deal of scope for further distracting tactics.
You can claim that your opponent is a shithead and therefore wrong.
This is the ad hominem fallacy in its most naked manifestation. It's rarely seen in this completely bald form.
You can simply claim that your opponent is a shithead, without any overt claim about your opponent's position.
In theory, this could possibly be done legitimately by a sublime artist of rhetoric.
In practise, however, all you've done is take a bald ad hominem fallacy and glue a bad toupee onto it.

Note that the distinction between fallacy and legitimate argument here is whether you've offered strong evidence against your opponent's position. Without that, your argument fails in any case. A fallacious ad hominem argument is one that attempts to substitute evidence against the person for evidence against the position.

[edit] Subtle uses

Often, ad hominem attacks are used subtly in order to influence the views of spectators. There are many forms of this, such as pointing out bad things they (the opponent) have done in the past in arguments about morality (the argument that the opponent does not practice what they preach is a special case called ad hominem tu quoque). While ad hominem attacks are used mostly in arguments about philosophy or morals, it can also be used in other debates, such as when people supporting evolution are said to be "justifying genocide and mass suicide," though this could also be referred to as a straw man fallacy.

Another case is the circumstantial ad hominem or appeal to motive where an opponent's argument is discarded on the basis that they have some motivation for making it; for example, that it is in a banker's best interests to say he has not stolen from his company's accounts, so obviously he has. All "well they would say that, wouldn't they?" arguments are based on this form of ad hominem.

[edit] Blatant uses

Ad hominem attacks are hardly ever used plainly, and people who do are generally trolls who want to provoke people to fight.

[edit] False positives

Ad hominem attacks are strictly fallacious when the attack has little or no bearing on the argument at hand. For example, dismissing a female scientist's opinion on a subject because she is a woman would be a fallacious ad hominem argument. Dismissing it for being incorrect and making a sexist comment at the same time would not be, though the fact that something is not a logical fallacy does not automatically make it an effective or desirable debating tactic.

Calling someone an idiot when you have explained the evidence five times and they still refuse to address it, or provide counterexamples, is not an ad hominem attack, but rather a valid logical conclusion based on their actions. Similarly, tacking an insult onto the end of any argument might be bad form, but it doesn't automatically make it an ad hominem. It's only an ad hominem if you say the other person must be wrong because they are an idiot - not the other way round. Creationists sometimes make the mistake of calling a personal insult an ad hominem attack when it is not intended to address the truth or falsity of the creationist's claim, but merely to denigrate the creationist. Likewise, creationists are known to mischaracterize logically sound arguments as ad hominem attacks in an attempt to obscure the soundness of the argument or their burden to respond by making an emotional appeal.

A criticism is also not an ad hominem argument if a person's merits are actually the topic of the argument. A habitual liar is not physically incapable of telling the truth, and therefore dismissing their claims entirely is not valid, but it is certainly not incorrect to weigh their testimony as less trustworthy than that of someone with a reputation for studious honesty if comparing contradictory claims by the two. In cases of testimony the goal is to establish which claim is more likely to be true, so the character of witnesses is a valid subject of discussion.

All too often, people cry "ad hominem" when their debate opponent insults them, while failing to see the opposing arguments.[1]

[edit] Alternative meaning

The traditional meaning of the phrase is that an "argumentum ad hominem" is one tailored to appeal to the person with whom one is arguing rather than to impartial reason. This definition may be seen in Modern English Usage by H. H. Fowler, a book whose explanations of usage are often taken as highly authoritative, if not definitive. For example, if you wanted to convince someone that Costa Rica was a superior place to go on vacation and you knew that the person was a keen birdwatcher, you might point out that Costa Rica is full of interesting bird life.

Fowler also mentions the following types of argumenta:

... ad crumenam (purse), one touching the hearer's pocket

... ad baculum (stick) or baculimum, threat of force instead of argument;

... ad ignorantium, one depending for its effect on the hearer's not knowing something essential;

... ad populum, one pandering to popular passion;

... ad vericundiam (modesty), one to meet which requires the opponent to offend against decorum.

[edit] See also

FrenchWiki.png
Si vous voulez cet article en français, il peut être trouvé à Argumentum ad hominem (français).

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. [http://laurencetennant.com/bonds/adhominem.html The Ad Hominem Fallacy Fallacy


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