Many people, if not most, have at least heard of the ad hominem fallacy. And, not for nothing: it is one of the most common type of logical fallacy – an error in reasoning that weakens an argument or trick of thought used as a debate tactic.
Although the name “ad hominem” is widely recognized, the fallacy behind it is perhaps not as well understood. For instance, it is often not mentioned that there are in fact several different types of ad hominem fallacies. Each of them works quite differently, however, they are all based on attacks against the person making an argument, instead of criticizing the argument itself.
Ad hominem, in all its forms, is an extremely common offender almost everywhere – from disagreements among friends to debates between state leaders. Keeping this in mind, as well as that it often occurs due to a lack of argumentation skills, it is clearly important to understand it; learning about the ad hominem makes you better able to identify and counter it, as well as avoid committing it yourself.
In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about this reasoning flaw.
What Is Ad Hominem?
Ad hominem, short for argumentum ad hominem, is a logical fallacy that is based on personal and irrelevant attacks against the source of an argument, instead of addressing the argument itself.
In other words, the attacker takes aim at their opponent’s supposed failings, that are unrelated to the issue at hand, rather than focusing on the validity of the argument or position they support.
The attacks can be directed towards someone’s character, background, past actions, intelligence, morals, physical appearance, or credentials. As such, this fallacy tends to appeal to people’s emotions and prejudices instead of intellect.
One ad hominem example would be:
- Carly: “I think that climate change is the most important issue of our time and everyone should acknowledge that.”
- Jamie: “You didn’t even go to college so obviously you have no idea what you are talking about.”
Here, Jamie’s response is not only insulting but also unrelated to Carly’s claim: pointing out that she didn’t go to college proves nothing about the truthfulness of her words. In other words, rather than address Carly’s argument, he simply dismisses it with an offending comment. This is an example of abusive ad hominem.
There are a number of different types of ad hominems, the abusive and the circumstantial being the most usual types. And, as mentioned earlier, although they are all based on criticism of the individual behind a claim, each of them does it in a different way.
It belongs to the broad category of informal fallacies and falls into their subgroup of relevance fallacies. And, even more precisely, it’s also a type of genetic fallacy.
- Informal fallacies refer to arguments containing irrelevant or invalid evidence that renders the conclusion incorrect. They stem from an error in reasoning rather than an error in the argument’s logical structure.
- Fallacies of relevance occur when the evidence for an argument is not relevant to the conclusion, and thus doesn’t provide adequate reasons to believe that the conclusion is valid.
- Genetic fallacy refers to attacks directed towards the source of an argument instead of addressing the argument itself.
Use of Ad Hominems
This logical fallacy is commonplace in a wide variety of discussions and situations. It is often committed out of desperation when one doesn’t have a decent counter-argument, or when one wants to avoid the topic at hand.
In the political arena, its use is also referred to as “mudslinging”, and it’s often the meat and potatoes of political campaigns. For instance, calling your opponent offending nicknames, such as “lyin’ Hillary and “crooked Hillary”, can be seen as fallacious ad hominems when they are used in an attempt to discredit the opponent’s arguments.
In many cases, criticizing your adversary personally is a powerful (although unethical) strategy if your goal is to pull focus off the real issue. Personal insults tend to have an emotional appeal, which can be effective in manipulating the audience’s opinion and possibly damaging the credibility of the opposing side.
Ad Hominem Fallacies
There are five main types of ad hominems: abusive, circumstantial, tu quoque, guilt by association, and poisoning the well.
Ad hominem abusive is probably the most frequently occurring type. It occurs when someone makes an abusive attack towards someone by criticizing their attributes such as character, background, morals, physical appearance, or hobbies. In other words, it’s an attempt to discredit an argument by insulting the arguer.
It is also known as “name-calling” and “damning the source”.
Its logical form goes as:
- Person A makes argument X.
- Person A is an idiot.
- Therefore, argument X is false.
- Mike: “There are so many Earth-like planets out there that I think there must be life on some of them.”
- Jenny: “What could you possibly know about this, you are a moron who spends his nights watching Netflix.”
Circumstantial ad hominem, also known as “appeal to motive”, arises when someone says that since a certain claim must be predisposed by the arguer’s personal circumstances, it is therefore invalid.
This is logically fallacious specifically because it asserts that an argument must be false if there is such a connection between a person’s circumstances and their claim that could possibly affect their decision-making. In reality, however, it doesn’t disprove the logic or validity of the claim; a car salesman may really believe that the car he is selling is an excellent vehicle.
As such, its logical form is:
- Person 1 makes an argument X.
- Person 1 has a personal interest in X to be true.
- Therefore, X is false.
However, note that if there is strong evidence for a conflict of interest and enough reasons to believe that the individual’s position is indeed biased, it is reasonable to call them out on it.
- Kate: “Since our student council currently consists mostly of boys, I think it would be good if we get more girls in it and make it more balanced.”
- Jim: “You only say that because you are a girl yourself, so your opinion doesn’t matter.”
- A politician argues that the country would be better off if it were to increase spending on education. His opponent, however, points out that this words should be dismissed entirely since the politician would benefit personally from such an increase.
Also called the appeal to hypocrisy, tu quoque (Latin for “you too”) is based on the claim that a person’s argument must be invalid because their past actions or words are not consistent with it.
In essence, rather than trying to refute the logic or evidence the person is using, one responds by pointing out that he or she has acted in the same manner themselves.
It’s considered to be a flawed line of reasoning because, even though it may show the opponent’s hypocrisy, it doesn’t really address the actual substance of an argument.
The logical form a tu quoque is:
- Person 1 makes an argument X.
- Person 2 points out that X is also true about person 1.
- Therefore, X is false.
- Mary: “You should quit smoking, it has been proved many times how dangerous it is.”
- Elise: “Well you smoke yourself, so you can’t actually believe that.”
- Jim: “I believe that striving to reduce our carbon footprints on an individual level would have a positive effect on the climate.”
- Ken: “You shouldn’t be preaching about the climate and carbon footprints; you drive an SUV!”
Guilt by Association
Guilt by association is a type of ad hominem fallacy in which someone is discredited due to their supposed association with something negative; since the characteristics of something negative, such as a bad person or an evil idea, and the characteristics of the person that it’s associated with are said to be the same, the person is therefore viewed as “guilty” too.
The typical form for this argument is:
- Person 1 supports position X.
- Person 2, who is evil, also supports X.
- Therefore, person 1 is evil too.
When this type of fallacious connection is made in a positive context, it’s called honor by association. The reasoning behind it is the same, only the person or a group is associated with something that is seen as positive.
- Jonah: “I’m a vegetarian because vegetarianism has been proven to have many health benefits over diets containing meat.”
- Anna: “Didn’t you know that Hitler was a vegetarian too? You must be like him.”
- “Stalin was an atheist and an evil man. Therefore, all atheists must be evil.”
Poisoning the Well
Poisoning the well is a fallacy that arises when negative information about someone is presented preemptively in order to discredit or ridicule following claims made by that person.
It is also known as smear tactic; rather than having to counter a claim in legitimate ways, one resorts to smearing their opponent’s reputation and thus making their words less credible.
- Carol: “I’m going on a date tonight with Jack.”
- Katherine: “Really? I heard a rumor that he might be a pathological liar; you shouldn’t believe anything he says.”
- “My opponent is incompetent as a politician and, quite frankly, as a man. Therefore, we have all the reasons to simply dismiss the arguments he will make today.”
Ad feminam (Latin for “to the woman”), is also a specific form of ad hominem argument, albeit a lesser-known one.
It uses female stereotypes to attack a woman’s position. For example, suggesting that someone’s (who is a female) claim must be false or irrational because of pregnancy or menstruation hormones.
Not an Ad Hominem
Not every insult or criticism of a person is an ad hominem, or fallacious for that matter. Essentially, the distinctive factor is that, in every fallacious personal attack the criticism is irrelevant to the actual issue under discussion.
An argument against a person is not fallacious when it’s clearly relevant to the discussion, i.e. when a person’s characteristics, credentials, skills, or such are directly related to the topic.
For example, if someone who is in a position to enforce the law has acted against the law, then pointing it out would be relevant. This, of course, also applies in a case where the actual topic is about someone’s personal attributes.
Conflict of Interest
As noted earlier, it is also relevant when to point out a clear conflict of interest; if there is reasonable evidence to believe that the arguer is predisposed to take a certain position, calling them out on it may not be fallacious.
A Simple Insult
If the attack is not being used as evidence to support the counter-argument, then it’s simply an insult, not a fallacy.
For example, if someone makes a sound counter-argument and simultaneously throws an insult at the other person, it wouldn’t be seen as fallacious (even though it would be rude and unproductive).
How to Counter
Ad hominem arguments are often committed emotionally because one lacks the skills and knowledge to legitimately refute opposing claims. As such, it can be difficult to prevent people from using them; we can’t have too much control over other people and how they will behave. However, despite this, you still may be able to lower the risk to some degree – and, as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure.
In order to achieve this, try to make your point politely and with consideration to your opponent’s point of view. When you come out as respectful and non-judgmental, the odds of your opponent wanting to offend you are lower, even if they disagree with your viewpoints. This applies especially when you are about to criticize something that the other side has a strong interest in.
Now, in a case where your opponent has already launched an ad hominem at you, you have a few different ways to approach the situation:
Don’t Get Emotionally Involved
Avoid getting emotionally involved yourself, and instead, keep the conversation polite and constructive (at least from your part) and never respond to an insult with an insult. Also, keep in mind that when someone resorts to personal attacks, they often do it out of desperation, which may be a sign of the strength of your argument.
Point Out the Fallacy
A good approach in most situations is to point out the use of ad hominem, highlight its irrelevance to your claim, and then steer the attention back to the original issue.
In particular, when the fallacy touches on your intentions to hold a certain position or is meant to hurt your credibility otherwise, it’s important to call attention to it. If you decide not to acknowledge it, it may inevitably seem as if you agree with it.
However, if it’s purely an irrelevant insult (“you are a jerk!”), you may choose to ignore it and move on.
Call Them Out
It may also be effective to make your opponent accountable for their use of the fallacy; challenge them to justify the personal attack, and how and why they think it’s relevant to the conversation.
Leave the Discussion
If continuing with constructive conversation seems to be out of the question, the best option may be to leave the discussion – or, at least, try to change the topic to a more suitable one.
The conversation is likely not helpful to anyone if one side chooses to argue irrationally, even after you have pointed out their erroneous reasoning.