Logical Fallacy: Ad Hominem Part 1
The Abusive Ad Hominem is a very common logical fallacy. In essence, it is committed when someone wrongly argues that a personal fault or failing rebuts what an individual is saying. In other words, you are directing your argument against the person’s character instead of against their actual position.
It is fallacious to argue that a personal fault of someone defeats their argument when that is not the case. In the event that the personal character of someone actually does invalidate their argument, you have not committed this fallacy. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: Person A asks, “What do you think about Mr. X’s beliefs regarding the economy?” Person B replies, “Mr. X is a liberal, pro-choice idiot. I wouldn’t listen to anything he has to say.”
The problem with this is that Person B is obviously dismissing Mr. X’s position on the basis of his perception of Mr. X’s character. However, Mr. X can say true things despite his support for abortion. What if Mr. X said that “The President of the United States is Barack Obama.” This is in fact a true statement; however, Person B’s argument is wrong because he assumed that a perceived character flaw in Mr. X makes him unreliable in everything he says. As you can see, Person B has substituted an insult for a good argument. Likewise, he presented no argument against Mr. X’s beliefs. He did not even demonstrate that he understood what those beliefs were.
Example 2: Person A states, “I believe that all those who support position Y are racists. Therefore, position Y is wrong.”
There are multiple fallacies with this statement, but let’s focus only on the Ad Hominem aspect of it. The problem with this example is threefold:
- First, Person A has not explained why people who believe in position Y are racists. He has simply asserted it as fact.
- Secondly, the assumption that a group’s moral deficiency invalidates everything they believe is a mistake. This is easily seen if you make position Y the belief that the earth is round.
- Thirdly, Person A gave no argument against position Y whatsoever. Rather, he used an insult to dismiss position Y, thereby delivering him from having to give an argument against the position.
Let us now consider an example that is not an Ad Hominem fallacy:
Example 3: Person A states, “Mr. X stated that he is a very honest man who can be trusted with the job. This is an outright lie. Mr. X is a habitual liar. He even spent five months in jail for perjury. Therefore, it would be a mistake to trust him with the job.”
If Person A is telling the truth about Mr. X’s character and actions, then it certainly would be a mistake to trust him. When the moral deficiency does rebut an individual’s claim or argument, the Ad Hominem fallacy has not been committed.
A moral deficiency or character flaw (real or perceived) in someone or some group does not necessarily make everything that they say or do false. Usually these sorts of Ad Hominems are used to win arguments without having to provide a good basis for one’s position. Unfortunately, they are often very successful, partially due to the fact that many people are not schooled in logic and critical thinking and are easily led astray by bad arguments.
If your position is indeed correct, it can (and should) withstand the most intense scrutiny and testing. Therefore, let it be tested—tested with good arguments as opposed to bad ones.
One final thought…
Insulting someone, rather than discussing the issues, is often an easier way to win an argument. However, once you know what to look for, it becomes very easy to spot Ad Hominem arguments. When you do notice them, recognize them for what they are, and politely point out that you have not been given a good reason for rejecting someone’s position.