Ad hominem (Latin for "to the person"), short for argumentum ad hominem, typically refers to a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.
The term ad hominem is applied to several different types of arguments, most of which are fallacious. The valid types of ad hominem arguments are generally only encountered in specialist philosophical usage and typically refer to the dialectical strategy of using the target's own beliefs and arguments against them while not assenting to the validity of those beliefs and arguments.
The most common form of ad hominem fallacy is "A makes a claim a, B asserts that A holds a property that is unwelcome, and hence B concludes that argument a is wrong".
The various types of ad hominem arguments have been known in the West since at least the ancient Greeks. Aristotle, in his work Sophistical Refutations, detailed the fallaciousness of putting the questioner but not the argument under scrutiny.
Many examples of ancient non-fallacious ad hominem arguments are preserved in the works of the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus. In these arguments the concepts and assumptions of the opponents are used as part of a dialectical strategy against the opponents to demonstrate the unsoundness of their own arguments and assumptions. In this way the arguments are to the person (ad hominem) but without attacking the properties of the individuals making the arguments. This kind of argument is also known as "argument from commitment." Italian polymath Galileo Galilei and British philosopher John Locke also examined the argument from commitment, a form of the ad hominem argument, meaning examining an argument on the basis of whether it stands true to the principles of the person carrying the argument. In the mid 19th century the modern understanding of the term ad hominem started to take shape, with the broad definition given by English logician Richard Whately. According to Whately, ad hominem arguments were "addressed to the peculiar circumstances, character, avowed opinions, or past conduct of the individual."
Except within specialized philosophical usages, the modern usage of the term ad hominem signifies a straight attack at the character and ethos of a person, in an attempt to refute its argument.
The terms ad mulierem and ad feminam have been used specifically when the person receiving the criticism is female.
Types of Ad hominem arguments
Ad hominem fallacies can be separated in various different types, among others are Tu quoque, Circumstantial, Guilt by association and abusive ad hominem. All of them are similar to the general scheme of ad hominem argument, that is instead of dealing with the essence of someones argument or trying to refute it, the interlocutor is attacking the character of the proponent of the argument and concluding that it is a sufficient reason to drop the initial argument.
Ad hominem tu quoque (literally: "You also") is describing the respond to a personal attack (or ad hominem argument) with a likewise personal attack.
Tu quoque appears as:
- A makes a claim a
- B attacks the character of A by saying he holds a property x- which is bad.
- A defends himself by attacking B, saying he also holds the same property x.
Here is an example given by philosophy professor George Wrisley to illustrate the above: A businessman and politician is giving a lecture at a University about how good his company is and how nicely the system works. A student asks him "Is it true that you and your company are selling weapons to third world rulers who use those arms against their own people?" and the businessman replies "is it true that your university gets funding by the same company you are claiming it is selling guns to those countries? You are not a white dove either". The ad hominem accusation of the student is relevant to the narrative the businessman tries to project thus not fallacious. On the other hand, the attack on the student (that is the student being inconsistent) is irrelevant to the opening narrative. So the businessman's tu quoque response is fallacious.
Philosopher Christopher Tindale approaches somewhat different the tu quoque fallacy. According to Tindale, a tu quoque fallacy appears when a respond to an argument is made on the history of the arguer. This argument is also invalid because it does not disprove the premise; if the premise is true then Source A may be a hypocrite or even changed his mind, but this does not make the statement less credible from a logical perspective. A common example, given by Tindale, is when a doctor advises a patient to lose weight, but the patient argues that there is no need for him to go on a diet because the doctor is also overweight.
Circumstantial ad hominem points out that someone is in circumstances (ie job, wealth, property, relations) such that they are disposed to take a particular position. It constitutes an attack on the bias of a source. As with other types of ad hominem attack, circumstantial attack could be fallacious or not. It could be fallacious because a disposition to make a certain argument does not make the argument invalid; this overlaps with the genetic fallacy (an argument that a claim is incorrect due to its source). But it also may be a sound argument, if the premises are correct and the bias is relevant to the argument.
A simple example is: a father may tell his daughter not to start smoking because she will damage her health, and she may point out that he is or was a smoker. This does not alter the fact that smoking might cause various diseases. Her father's inconsistency is not a proper reason to reject his claim.
Philosopher and pundit on informal fallacies Douglas N. Walton argues that a circumstantial ad hominem argument can be non-fallacious. This could be the case when someone (A) attacks the personality of another person (B) making an argument (a) while the personality of B is relevant to argument a, ie B talks as an authority figure. To illustrate this reasoning, Walton gives the example of a witness at a trial, if he had been caught lying and cheating in his own life, should the jury take his word for granted? Not on Walton's watch.
Guilt by association
Guilt by association can sometimes also be a type of ad hominem fallacy if the argument attacks a source because of the similarity between the views of someone making an argument and other proponents of the argument.
This form of the argument is as follows:
- Source S makes claim C.
- Group G, which is currently viewed negatively by the recipient, also makes claim C.
- Therefore, source S is viewed by the recipient of the claim as associated to the group G and inherits how negatively viewed it is.
An example of this fallacy could be "My opponent for office just received an endorsement from the Puppy Haters Association. Is that the sort of person you would want to vote for?"
Abusive ad hominem
Abusive ad hominem argument (or direct ad hominem) is associated with an attack to the character of the person carrying an argument. This kind of argument, besides usually being fallacious, is also counter productive as a proper dialogue is hard to achieve after such an attack.
An ad hominem fallacy occurs when one attacks the character of an interlocutor in an attempt to refute their argument. Insulting someone is not necessarily an instance of an ad hominem fallacy. For example, if one supplies sufficient reasons to reject an interlocutor's argument and adds a slight character attack at the end, this character attack is not necessarily fallacious. Whether it is fallacious depends on whether or not the insult is used as a reason against the interlocutor's argument. An ad hominem occurs when an attack on the interlocutor's character functions as a response to an interlocutor's argument/claim.
Key issues on examining an argument whether being an ad hominem fallacy or not are whether the accusation against the person stands true or not, whether the accusation is relevant to the argument. Lastly, it should be examined whether the ad hominem argument shortens or diminishes the counter argument. An example is a dialogue at the court, where the attorney cross-examines an eyewitness, bringing to light the fact that the witness was convicted in the past for lying. If the attorney's conclusion is that the witness is lying, that would be wrong. But if his argument would be that the witness shouldn't be trusted, that would not be a fallacy.
Argument from commitment
The term ad hominem is used to refer to a type of valid argument that employs, as a dialectical strategy, the exclusive utilization of the beliefs, convictions, and assumptions of those holding the position being argued against, i.e., arguments constructed on the basis of what other people hold to be true. This usage is generally only encountered in specialist philosophical usage or in pre-20th Century usages. This type of argument is also known as "argument from commitment."
Usage in Debates
Ad hominem fallacies are considered to be uncivil and do not help creating a constructive atmosphere for dialogue to flourish. An ad hominem attack is an attack on the character of the target who tends to feel the necessity to defend himself from the accusation of being hypocrite- not an easy task. It is so powerful of an argument it has been employed in many political debates. Since it is associated with negativity and dirty tricks, it has gained a bad fame, of being always fallacious.
Eithan Orkibi, having studied the Israeli politics prior to elections, described two other forms of ad hominem attacks that are common during election periods. They both depend on the collective memory shared by both proponents and the audience. The first is the precedential ad hominem, according to which the previous history of someone means that he does not fit for the office. It goes like this: "My opponent was (allegedly) wrong in the past, therefor he is wrong now". The second one, is a behavioral ad hominem: "my opponent was not a descent in his arguments in the past, so he is not now either". This kind of attacks are based on the inability of the audience to have a clear view of the statistical percentage of fault statements by both parts of the debate.
Criticism as a fallacy
Canadian academic and author Douglas N. Walton has argued that ad hominem reasoning is not always fallacious, and that in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue, as when it directly involves hypocrisy, or actions contradicting the subject's words.
The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that ad hominem reasoning (discussing facts about the speaker or author relative to the value of his statements) is essential to understanding certain moral issues due to the connection between individual persons and morality (or moral claims), and contrasts this sort of reasoning with the apodictic reasoning (involving facts beyond dispute or clearly established) of philosophical naturalism.
- "And you are lynching Negroes"
- Appeal to authority
- Appeal to emotion
- Appeal to motive
- Association fallacy
- Character assassination
- Discrediting tactic
- Ergo decedo
- Fair Game (Scientology)
- Fake news
- Fundamental attribution error
- Graham's hierarchy of disagreement
- Hostile witness
- Negative campaigning
- Poisoning the well
- Presumption of guilt
- Race card
- Red herring
- Shooting the messenger
- Smear campaign
- Straw man
- Tone policing
- The Art of Being Right
- Tu quoque
- Tindale 2007, p. 82.
- Walton 2001, p. 207-209; Wong 2017, p. 49.
- Walton 2001, pp. 208-210.
- Walton 2001, p. 210.
- Tindale 2007, p. 91.
- Wrisley 2019, pp. 71-72.
- Olivesi 2010; Sommers 1991.
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- van Eemeren 2001, p. 142.
- Wrisley 2019, p. 88; Walton 2015, pp. 431-435; Lavery & Hughes 2008, p. 132.
- Wrisley 2019, p. 89.
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- Hansen 2019, 1. The core fallacies.
- Walton 2006, p. 123.
- Wrisley 2019, p. 83.
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- Merriam-Webster 2019, note1.
- Weston 2018, p. 82.
- Walton 2006, p. 122.
- Orkibi 2018, pp. 497-498.
- Walton 2008, p. 170.
- Taylor 1995, p. 34-60.
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