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The OCR Glossary

Ad Hominem Argument

Sergei A. Samoilenko

Argumentum ad hominem (“argument directed at the man”) is a logical fallacy that involves irrelevant responses directed at the personality of an opponent instead of the content of his or her claim. An ad hominem attack is intended to steer attention away from the issue under debate and toward the debater or the person addressing the issue. Attacks may include derogatory statements about personal traits or characteristics, condemnation of the person’s behavior, or speculation about the individual’s motives or special interests. This entry discusses ad hominem attacks and related fallacies, plus their impact on corporate reputation since most smear campaigns in modern politics and business follow this kind of pattern.

Ad hominem criticism is innately deceptive as it defies the principle of an ethical argument as an attempt to offer legitimate evidence against someone’s position and elicit determination of the truth. These attacks employ irrelevant reasoning, which is a part of Ralph H. Johnson and J. Anthony Blair’s taxonomy of basic fallacies. For example, the statement “You’re a blonde-haired speaker, and everyone knows blondes are ignorant” is irrelevant to the claim because a person’s hair color has nothing to do with the soundness of his or her argument. After all, it is the content that presents evidence for a claim and not the personal characteristics of the individual making the claim. A less blatant ad hominem casts doubts on a proposition asserted by a proponent. Thus, a prosecutor may ask the judge not to admit the testimony of a burglar because criminals are not trustworthy.

Abusive ad hominem (also known as argumentum ad personam) usually involves an individual attacking an opponent’s traits in an adversarial context as a means to invalidate his or her arguments. This involves the exacerbated insulting or belittling of the opponent, pointing out damning character flaws, or maliciously referencing other irrelevant personal qualities, such as appearance. Frequently, abusive ad hominem occurs in the form of a preemptive assault on someone’s position or defending oneself from another person’s attack. It can be manifested in the form of outrageous name-calling, ridiculing, or demonizing, using inflammatory language to shock and overwhelm the targeted victim. This tactic is frequently employed in politics to address an argument through appealing to emotions (pathos) rather than by logical means (logos)—for example, “You claim that atheists can be moral, yet I happen to know that you abandoned your wife and children.”

In adversarial situations, it is common to distract opponents by ignoring the disputed issue altogether and using a red herring technique. This technique introduces a new, irrelevant topic to divert attention away from the original issue. The use of a red herring is often effective because the opponent’s attention is diverted away from the issue and the person feels compelled to defend himself or herself—for example, “We admit that this measure is popular. But we also urge you to note that there are so many additional bond issues placed on this ballot that the whole thing is getting ridiculous.”

Poisoning the well is another abusive attempt to discredit a person in advance, usually by presenting unfavorable information about the person’s personality or motives. The individual making such an attack is hoping that such admonitory information will bias listeners against the other person so that they then will reject any claims he or she might make—for example, “Before turning the floor over to my opponent, I ask you to remember that those who oppose my plans do not have your best intentions at heart.”

Circumstantial ad hominem constitutes an attack on the bias of a source by referring to personal circumstances as the only explanation for the individual’s position. Thus, a critic may claim that an arguer’s statements are inconsistent with his or her own convictions, commitments, personal situations, or practices. Similarly, a movie aficionado pans the latest Tom Cruise flick because the actor is a Scientologist. This fallacy is often introduced by phrases such as “Of course, that’s what you’d expect him to say!”—which then might be followed up by a statement such as “He asserts that we need more military spending, but that is false, since he is only saying it because he is a Republican.”

Ad hominem tu quoque (“you also”) refers to an attempt to discredit a person’s claims because the person has failed to follow his or her own advice. This is an appeal to hypocrisy and implies that an individual’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with previous statements or actions. Thus, a TV show panelist may object to a protest against corporate greed because of the protesters’ apparent hypocrisy, by pointing out that while they appear to be against capitalism, they continue to use smartphones and buy coffee. This fallacy is often introduced by phrases such as “How about we … ?”—for example, “How about we talk about the fat bonus you took home last year despite half your company being downsized?” At the same time, a person’s inconsistency with prior actions does not prove that her or his claims are false. For example, it is unfair to refute an overweight doctor prescribing weight loss simply because the doctor has not managed to heed his or her own advice.

Guilt by association, a similar fallacy, occurs when the argument attacks a person because of the similarity between the views of the arguer and those of other proponents of the same issue. This fallacy involves transferring alleged guilt to a person for an association with a supposedly discreditable or socially demonized individual, group, or doctrine. This tactic may be employed to force someone to choose between renouncing an opinion and admitting membership in a group. The fallacy draws its power from the fact that people do not like to be associated with socially undesirable groups or affiliations—for example, “You aren’t really calling for a change of the health care system, are you? Communists say the same thing. You’re not a communist, are you? Is that the sort of person we would want to vote for?”

Guilt by association can be used together with reductio ad absurdum, also known as reducing to absurdity. This fallacy is committed by simply ignoring a person’s actual position and creating a caricature (“a straw man”) or distorted representation of that position to address. A distorted version of the original argument is usually more absurd than the actual claim, thus luring a person toward debating the more ridiculous argument rather than the original one. For example, by creating such a distortion, a critic can easily link conservatives with Adolf Hitler when he or she argues that conservatives are against abortion and Hitler was also against abortion, so therefore conservatives are Hitlers-in-training.

Sometimes called “playing the Nazi card,” reductio ad Hitlerum is another type of ad hominem often used to derail arguments and distract and anger the opponent. This tactic was originally introduced by Leo Strauss in the early 1950s and refers to both guilt by association and reductio ad absurdum. It occurs when someone compares an opponent’s views with those advocated or implemented by Hitler or the Third Reich. This fallacy of irrelevance is used by linking an alleged cause to wholly unrelated consequences—for example, Hitler was fond of children, but to argue that affection for children is wrong on this basis is not persuasive.

In the 1990s, American attorney and author Mike Godwin introduced a memetic tool that applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparison to the Nazis. Godwin’s law was originally used as an experiment intended to reduce the incidence of inappropriate hyperbolic comparisons among users of online forums. According to this adage, as an online discussion grows longer, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. Reductio ad Hitlerum is often introduced by asking a question in the form of “You know who else … ?”—thus implying that Hitler held that idea or performed such an action. A variation of the fallacy, reductio ad Stalinum, is commonly used in political discourse to compare politicians with Josef Stalin and other communist dictators in history: “Therefore we should close down the church? Hitler and Stalin would have agreed with you.”

There are times when it is prudent to be suspicious of a person’s claims, such as when it is evident that the claims are influenced or biased by the person’s interests. As suggested by Walton, an ad hominem is valid when the claims made about a person’s character or actions are relevant to the conclusions being drawn. A supporter might argue that a politician’s private life is not directly relevant to his or her ability to govern. At the same time, a politician’s inability to adhere to the truth when answering questions about his or her personal life could call into question the veracity of his or her statements on other subjects. In other cases, even when someone’s bias or questionable history may reduce his or her credibility as a witness, it may not be pertinent to the soundness of the argument as even repugnant individuals still make true claims.

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Walton, D. N. (1987). The ad hominem argument as an informal fallacy. Argumentation, 1, 317–331.

Walton, D. N. (2000). Case study of the use of a circumstantial ad hominem in political argumentation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 33(2), 101–115.

See Also

Character Assassination; Defamation; Facework; Framing Theory; Naming and Shaming; Rhetorical Theory; Rumor and Gossip; Slander

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