What is an Ad Hominem Argument?
An ad hominem argument, known traditionally as the argumentum ad hominem, is a fallacy that sidesteps the issue at hand by attacking the person who has put the issue forth. If seen objectively, it’s clear that the opponent has not in any way addressed the argument. However, in debates taking place in front of an audience, this can be quite effective. If the audience is convinced that the individual who has proposed the argument has no right to do so on personal grounds, then their stance is weakened to the point of being insubstantial. Before they are able to justify their initial position, the individual is then forced to defend their character. However, from a purely objective standpoint, this is a logical fallacy. It is possible for an individual to make a valid argument even if aspects of their personality or character run counter to their proposition. The character attack is irrelevant from the perspective of the initial argument.
“Ad hominem” is a Latin term which means “to the person.” Essentially, by criticizing the individual making the argument, the validity of the argument itself is called into question. This is a form of misdirection whereby the actual subject is avoided and the attention of the audience is focused on the person instead of the actual content of the argument. This is common in all forms of argumentation, from political debate to casual verbal conflict. However, in proper debate, it is considered to be an admission of the weakness of one’s position. Regardless of the individual’s character or history, if they have put forth a valid argument, then the argument is still valid.
Forms of Ad Hominem Attack
One interesting fact about ad hominem attacks is that the meaning has changed over time. Originally, the term applied to an appeal to the person rather than to the logical content of the argument. However, it currently means an attack on the person instead of an appeal to them. In logical terms, an ad hominem argument is a form of fallacy of irrelevance, in that the argument is irrelevant to the subject at hand. More specifically, it is known as one form of genetic fallacy, which is an attack on the origin of an idea or piece of information. The idea is apparently invalidated due to its source. Since hominem is the Latin term for “man”, an equivalent term, ad feminam, has been coined for attacks against a woman making an argument. However, this term can also be used to describe an invalidation of the female perspective itself. The argument may go something like this, “Of course she’d say that. She is a woman, after all.”
One form of ad hominem argument is known as “tu quoque.” In Latin, this means, “you too.” So, the tu quoque ad hominem argument is one which attempts to invalidate the argument by demonstrating that the speaker has acted in some way that shows that they, too, have acted against the argument in question. Basically, this is calling the opponent a hypocrite. “You can’t say that because you did it too.” It’s a powerful argument, both for the receiver and the audience. At the same time, it’s a logical fallacy. Even if an individual has done something in opposition to their argument, this does not mean that their argument is invalid. Just as with all ad hominem arguments, a valid perspective is still a valid perspective, even if it comes from an apparently unreliable or hypocritical source.
Another form of ad hominem argument is circumstantial. Essentially, circumstantial ad hominem arguments claim that the proponent is likely to make the argument given their circumstances. On the one hand, this argument is powerful because it shows that an individual’s position may be based more upon personal interest than objective logic. On the other, the degree of personal interest has no effect on the logical validity of the argument itself. This is powerful in legal proceedings. The legal system works on the principle of reasonable doubt. This means that an individual should not be considered guilty if an individual can reasonable doubt that they are guilty. The circumstantial ad hominem argument is also powerful in debates with an audience. If the onlookers believe that the argument is based upon personal interest, then the logical value of it may be overlooked altogether, even if it is supported by authority or alleged personal observation.
Ad Hominem Examples
One great example of an ad hominem argument can be found in a popular comedy movie, Anger Management. Here’s the quote:
Dr. Buddy Rydell: So Peanut likes the spicy humor. Maybe he’d enjoy the knee-slapper you told me earlier about the great Buddha.
Older Arnie Shankman: Oh, what did you say about Buddha?
Dr. Buddy Rydell: Dave said, “How does a guy who weighs over six hundred pounds have the balls to teach people about self-discipline?”
In this instance, Dr. Buddy Rydell casts aspersions on the whole of Buddhist philosophy by attacking the character of Buddha. Many depictions of Buddha show him to be obese. Dr. Rydell focuses on this, calling Buddha’s perspective regarding self-disciple into question. In addition, he employs a straw man fallacy, oversimplifying or distorting Buddhist teachings to make them easier to refute. Even without the straw man argument, this is a classic and beautiful example of the ad hominem argument.
The ad hominem argument is known in political circles as mudslinging. Donald Trump has provided an excellent example of this with his comments in 2016 regarding Carly Fiorina, a woman who was going for the Republican presidential nomination. Here’s a quote:
Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?
In this quote, we can see Trump attacking the person, rather than Fiorina’s political position, philosophical stance, or anything else. He attacked the individual rather than addressing anything relevant to the topic at hand. One thing to remember is that the ad hominem attack is often used as a last resort when the opponent is unable to constructively counter the argument itself.
The tu quoque form of ad hominem is another that we commonly encounter, especially in day to day interactions. “How can you say that to me? You did it yourself!” It’s almost certain that you’ve heard this argument yourself. If you have children, that certainty rises to near 100%. Anyone who has kids has heard something like this before. Maybe you have told your children not to sneak out, not to smoke, not to do drugs, whatever it is, if they know enough about your own history, odds are, they can throw it right back in your face. “But you did it when you were my age!” From the perspective of logic, these arguments still have value, as they may help the child avoid trouble or health issues. With the tu quoque ad hominem argument, the validity of the proposition is sidestepped in favor of the personal attack.
One highly publicized example of the circumstantial ad hominem attack took place in the Promufo Affair of 1961. John Promufo was the British Secretary of State for War at this time. He was accused of having an affair with a call girl and denied involvement in the affair. Mandy Rice-Davies, when testifying, said,
He would [say that], wouldn’t he?
Essentially, she claimed that Promufo would deny involvement, regardless of whether it was true or not, because he had a vested interest in the denial. This has no bearing on the logical truth of the assertion, but it is a powerful and compelling argument for an audience like a jury. It is a devaluation of the denial on the basis of a circumstantial ad hominem attack.
One of the first things to keep in mind is that the ad hominem argument can be seen as a compliment. If an opponent is casting aspersions on your character, it often means that they are unable to effectively refute your actual point. The ad hominem attack is an attack on an opponent’s character instead of an attempt to refute their argument. You may, for example, call a person’s history into question. You might speak about their affiliations or their religion. You may even speak about their habits or other forms of hypocrisy. Or, an opponent may do the same with you. In either case, it’s a classic form of misdirection. Attention is being drawn away from the subject at hand in order to sway public opinion and undercut the legitimacy of the argument.
One reason that ad hominem arguments are so common is because they are so effective. They may be considered logical fallacies, but they are an extremely persuasive form of argument. The audience is not actually being sold on the argument. Instead, they are being sold on the person that presents the argument. If you are able to derail the person themselves, then you avoid the need to address the argument because you go to the very center of the real issue, aside from all logical considerations. Human interactions are not based solely in logic. Most of the time, logic is a thin layer over emotional reasoning. So, the ad hominem argument bypasses the formal rules of logic to address the fundamental reasoning process, a process largely emotional in nature.