Introduction to Ad Hominem Fallacies

One of the most common non-rational appeals is an argumentum ad hominem--or, as the Latin phrase suggests, an "argument against the person" (and not against the ideas he or she is presenting). Our decisions should be based on a rational evaluation of the arguments with which we are presented, not on an emotional reaction to the person or persons making that argument. But because we often react more strongly to personalities than to the sometimes abstract and complex arguments they are making, ad hominem appeals are often very effective with someone who is not thinking critically. Consider a few examples:

  • A political candidate is gaining support by proposing a tax change. So her opponent argues that the candidate herself would be one of the chief beneficiaries of that tax change.
  • Your doctor tells you to lose some weight. But why should you listen to a doctor who is himself overweight?
  • A friend has recommended a new investment opportunity, but your significant other rejects the recommendation with the remark, "How could you possibly value the advice of that idiot?"

In each of these cases, there is an argument (concerning taxes, health, or investments); and in each, the argument is given less importance than something about the person making that argument. And that's what is wrong with ad hominem appeals. After all, if the tax proposal is an improvement, if the medical diagnosis is sound, if the investment opportunity is worthwhile--then what difference does it make who is presenting the argument--or even why?

Ad hominem fallacies take a number of different forms, though all share the fact that they attempt to re-focus attention, away from the argument made and onto the person making it. And remember--it doesn't really matter whether the terms of the attack are true or false. What matters is whether the argument is acceptable, not the person arguing it. After all, even if Adolf Hitler says so, 2 + 2 still equals 4.

Among the most frequent ad hominem appeals are attacks on:

  • personality, traits, or identity:
    • "Are you going to agree with what that racist pig is saying?"
    • "Of course she's in favor of affirmative action. What do you expect from a black woman?"
  • affiliation, profession, or situation:
    • "What's the point of asking students whether they support raising tuition? They're always against any increase."
    • "Oh yeah, prison reform sounds great--until you realize that the man proposing it is himself an ex-con."
  • inconsistent or contradictory actions, statements, or beliefs:
    • "How can you follow a doctor's advice if she doesn't follow it herself?"
    • "Sure, he says that today, but yesterday he said just the opposite."
  • source or association for ideas or support:
    • "Don't vote for that new initiative--it was written by the insurance lobby!"
    • "You can't possibly accept the findings of that study on smoking--it was paid for by the tobacco industry."

The point is that each argument must be evaluated in its own right. Information or suspicions about vested interests, hidden agendas, predilections, or prejudices should, at most, make you more vigilant in your scrutiny of that argument--but they should not be allowed to influence its evaluation. Only in the case of opinions, expert and otherwise, where you must rely not on the argument or evidence being presented but on the judgment of someone else, may personal or background information be used to evaluate the ideas expressed. If, for example, a used car vendor tries to prove to you that the car in question is being offered at lower than the average or "blue book" price, you must ignore the fact that the vendor will profit from the sale, and evaluate the proof. If, on the other hand, that used car vendor says, "Trust me, this is a good deal," without further proofs or arguments, you are entitled to take into account the profit motive, the shady reputation of the profession, and anything else you deem to be relevant as a condition of "trust."


Exercises for Ad Hominem Fallacies


1. For an attack to be considered an ad hominem fallacy, which of the following must be true of it?

It must be negative.

It must focus on the sources of the argument rather than on the argument itself.

It must be made before the argument is considered.

It must convince the reader that the argument is worthless.

2. There are several different sorts of ad hominem fallacies, depending on the focus of the attack. Which of the following is not a kind of ad hominem?

An attack on the speaker's inadequate evidence.

An attack on the speaker for switching sides.

An attack on the speaker for being a lawyer.

An attack on the speaker's sour disposition.

3. You and four friends are discussing the governor's televised explanation for raising college tuition, which you have just seen. Which of the following comments is not an ad hominemappeal?

Jack: Why bother listening, anyway? You know the guy is a fascist!

Kamala: Sure, he paid next to nothing back when he went to college, and now he raises fees for us!

Dien: If he won't raise taxes for the rich, how come he'll raise fees for students?

What did you expect? The new fees have the approval of the Republican Party and Rush Limbaugh!

4. At a debate over raising student fees to support the intercollegiate athletics program, a member of the football team argued that the relatively minor fee increase was a small price to pay for the increased recognition and sense of pride that comes with a winning team. Which of the following would be an ad hominem response to that argument?

"Do you really expect a football player to be against more money for athletics?"

"When was the last time we had a winning team, anyway."

"What is a 'relatively minor' increase for one person may be quite large for another."

"Shouldn't we be taking pride in academic achievements, rather than athletic ones?"

5. In a murder trial, the prosecuting attorney would not be using an ad hominem attack if she claimed that the jury should disregard a forensic pathologist's expert testimony because:

the pathologist is being paid by the defense.

the pathologist is a bozo.

the pathologist has no experience with gunshot wounds.

the pathologist is a close friend of the defendant.

1. For an attack to be considered an ad hominem fallacy, which of the following must be true of it?

You answered:

It must be negative.

An ad hominem is usually but not always negative. Re-focusing attention on the speaker's good qualities, in order to gain acceptance of his or her argument, would also be a fallacy. The strategy of this fallacy is to get the reader, or the listener, to ignore the argument entirely, and to make a decision based on some non-rational, usually emotional criterion.

1. For an attack to be considered an ad hominem fallacy, which of the following must be true of it?

You answered:

It must focus on the sources of the argument rather than on the argument itself.

Correct!

An ad hominem attack must focus on the sources of the argument rather than on the argument itself. Those sources might be the person making the argument, or other targets originating the argument or somehow associated with it.

1. For an attack to be considered an ad hominem fallacy, which of the following must be true of it?

You answered:

It must be made before the argument is considered.

An ad hominem is usually committed after the argument has been stated, by way of reply or retort, but it might well be used before the argument has been given, as a pre-emptive distraction. Depending on the circumstances, such a pre-emptive attack might also be considered the fallacy of poisoning the well.

1. For an attack to be considered an ad hominem fallacy, which of the following must be true of it?

You answered:

It must convince the reader that the argument is worthless.

The strategy of this fallacy is to get the reader, or the listener, to ignore the argument entirely. An ad hominem tries to prevent the evaluation of an argument, rather than to evaluate it as worthless.

2. There are several different sorts of ad hominem fallacies, depending on the focus of the attack. Which of the following is not a kind of ad hominem?

You answered:

An attack on the speaker's inadequate evidence.

Correct!

An attack on the speaker's inadequate evidence would go right to the heart of the argument and its support, and so would not be an ad hominem.

2. There are several different sorts of ad hominem fallacies, depending on the focus of the attack. Which of the following is not a kind of ad hominem?

You answered:

An attack on the speaker for switching sides.
An attack on the speaker for switching sides is an example of an ad hominem that attacks inconsistency of beliefs, actions, or statements in the person making the argument. While this may (or may not) tell you something about that person, it tells you nothing about the argument itself.

2. There are several different sorts of ad hominem fallacies, depending on the focus of the attack. Which of the following is not a kind of ad hominem?

You answered:

An attack on the speaker for being a lawyer.
An attack on the speaker for being a lawyer is an example of an ad hominem that attacks the individual for her or his profession, instead of confronting the arguments made.

2. There are several different sorts of ad hominem fallacies, depending on the focus of the attack. Which of the following is not a kind of ad hominem?

You answered:

An attack on the speaker's sour disposition.
Attacking the speaker because of his or her sour disposition is an ad hominem attack on personality.

3. You and four friends are discussing the governor's televised explanation for raising college tuition, which you have just seen. Which of the following comments is not an ad hominem appeal?

You answered:

Jack: Why bother listening, anyway? You know the guy is a fascist!

Calling the governor names ("a fascist") attempts to persuade by avoiding the argument in favor of more inflammatory details about the person making the argument. Since it fails to deal with the argument itself, this is an ad hominem.

3. You and four friends are discussing the governor's televised explanation for raising college tuition, which you have just seen. Which of the following comments is not an ad hominemappeal?

You answered:

Kamala: Sure, he paid next to nothing back when he went to college, and now he raises fees for us!
Pointing out apparent inconsistencies in someone's prior behavior or statements ("he paid next to nothing back when he went to college"), is an ad hominem attempt to persuade by avoiding the arguments in favor of more inflammatory details about the person making the argument.

3. You and four friends are discussing the governor's televised explanation for raising college tuition, which you have just seen. Which of the following comments is not an ad hominemappeal?

You answered:

Dien: If he won't raise taxes for the rich, how come he'll raise fees for students?

Correct!

This may not be the best reply to the governor, but it does appear to deal with the philosophy behind the governor's arguments, rather than with the individual making them. Notice that this attack on inconsistency focuses on what could be a relevant inconsistency in the support for the argument.

3. You and four friends are discussing the governor's televised explanation for raising college tuition, which you have just seen. Which of the following comments is not an ad hominemappeal?

You answered:

What did you expect? The new fees have the approval of the Republican Party and Rush Limbaugh!"

Suggesting that someone has hidden reasons for adopting a position ("The new fees have the approval of the Republican Party and Rush Limbaugh!"), is an ad hominem attempt to persuade by avoiding the arguments in favor of more inflammatory details about the background of the argument or the person making it.

4. At a debate over raising student fees to support the intercollegiate athletics program, a member of the football team argued that the relatively minor fee increase was a small price to pay for the increased recognition and sense of pride that comes with a winning team. Which of the following would be an ad hominem response to that argument?

You answered:

"Do you really expect a football player to be against more money for athletics?"

Correct!

It would be an ad hominem to reply by saying, "Do you expect a football player to be against more money for athletics?" This fits the category of "affiliation, profession, or situation"--disregarding the speaker's arguments because of who he or she is, rather than what he or she says.

4. At a debate over raising student fees to support the intercollegiate athletics program, a member of the football team argued that the relatively minor fee increase was a small price to pay for the increased recognition and sense of pride that comes with a winning team. Which of the following would be an ad hominem response to that argument?

You answered:

"When was the last time we had a winning team, anyway."

This option, since it address the claims rather than the speaker, are not ad hominems, even if it is not necessarily the most effective reply, either. "When was the last time we had a winning team, anyway," doesn't address the claim that students benefit from a winning team, but does undercut the implied equation of having a team and having a winning team.

4. At a debate over raising student fees to support the intercollegiate athletics program, a member of the football team argued that the relatively minor fee increase was a small price to pay for the increased recognition and sense of pride that comes with a winning team. Which of the following would be an ad hominem response to that argument?

You answered:

"What is a 'relatively minor' increase for one person may be quite large for another."

Challenging the speaker's use of "relatively minor" is good critical thinking technique, since the phrase is intentionally vague, and since the size of the fee raise may well determine how acceptable it will be.

4. At a debate over raising student fees to support the intercollegiate athletics program, a member of the football team argued that the relatively minor fee increase was a small price to pay for the increased recognition and sense of pride that comes with a winning team. Which of the following would be an ad hominem response to that argument?

You answered:

"Shouldn't we be taking pride in academic achievements, rather than athletic ones?"

Thisoptions, since it addresses claims rather than the speaker, is not an ad hominem, even if it isn't necessarily the most effective reply, either. "Taking pride in academics" questions the sort of pride athletic achievement can provide--though there is certainly no reason one could not experience pride in both.

5. In a murder trial, the prosecuting attorney would not be using an ad hominem attack if she claimed that the jury should disregard a forensic pathologist's expert testimony because . . .

You answered:

the pathologist is being paid by the defense.

Stating that the "pathologist is being paid by the defense" suggests that payment has somehow influenced or corrupted the pathologist's findings. If so, the findings can and should be disproved, and this need not involve resorting to the innuendo of this ad hominem; but if not, this attack on the pathologist's integrity is unjustified.

5. In a murder trial, the prosecuting attorney would not be using an ad hominem attack if she claimed that the jury should disregard a forensic pathologist's expert testimony because . . .

You answered:

the pathologist is a bozo.

Calling the pathologist names, like "bozo," is designed to undercut his credibility. But such an attack is never acceptable. After all, even if the pathologist is a "bozo" (whatever that means), even a "bozo" can speak the truth or make a valid argument.

5. In a murder trial, the prosecuting attorney would not be using an ad hominem attack if she claimed that the jury should disregard a forensic pathologist's expert testimony because . . .

You answered:

the pathologist has no experience with gunshot wounds.

Correct!

The prosecuting attorney would not be using an ad hominem attack if she claimed that the jury should disregard a forensic pathologist's expert testimony because the pathologist has no experience with gunshot wounds. The pathologist's expertise is a legitimate issue for attack. Such an attack might contain other fallacies or exaggerations but, in general, reasonably disputing the expertise of an individual on whose judgment we rely is not an ad hominem.

5. In a murder trial, the prosecuting attorney would not be using an ad hominem attack if she claimed that the jury should disregard a forensic pathologist's expert testimony because . . .

You answered:

the pathologist is a close friend of the defendant.
Stating that the "pathologist is a close friend of the defendant" suggests that this relationship has somehow influenced or corrupted the pathologist's findings. If so, the findings can and should be disproved, and this need not involve resorting to the innuendo of this ad hominem; but if not, this attack on the pathologist's integrity is unjustified.

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