Logical Fallacies: Argumentum ad Hominem

Ad Hominem is one of the most familiar logical fallacies. Hominem means “human being” so this means “arguing to the person.”

An ad Hominem FALLACY is an argument that says, “You’re a jerk, so your ideas must be wrong.” This argument is a fallacy, because a person’s character has no bearing on the truth or falsity of his ideas.

If someone tells you the time of day, the fact that you know he lies a lot has no bearing on whether he’s told you the correct time. However, whether you decide to believe him without corroborating evidence is another story.

Not all ad Hominem arguments qualify as logical fallacies. As with believing our liar about the time, sometimes the character of the person is the point of the argument.

We can see a great example of these distinctions in the spate of women accusing Herman Cain of various improprieties. The Left may not care much if a man cheats on his wife, but the Right certainly does, so the question of Cain’s fitness for office vis-à-vis his history of marital fidelity is a valid issue.

But what about the truth of those accusations? Does the “bimbo!” response constitute an ad Hominem fallacy?

  • Yes, in so far as we claim that their morally-challenged past behaviors prove Cain did nothing wrong.
  • No, in so far as we claim that we choose not to take their words for anything Cain said or did.

Why are ad Hominem arguments so common?

They are common, because they are effective at diverting an audience’s attention from the facts and logic of the argument itself. For the Left, which cannot otherwise defend its ineffective and destructive policies, ad Hominem is a potent tool.

For example: We argue that nationalized health care is bad for society. They scream, “You want poor people to die!”

This works, because the none-too-bright sheeple who do not want to poke their heads up above any crowd and get noticed by the powerful keepers of of political correctness knee jerk with, “I care about poor people! I support ObamaCare!”

How can we fight this?

I think we’ve seen how to do it with Global Warming.

“An Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006. Gore and his ilk used their political chops to get it mandated as school curriculum. It was shown in my church, for crying out loud. And for a while, the majority were on board the “We have to stop Global Warming” train.

Today, just five years later, Gore complains:

Chrissy’s Site Bites: http://news.webshots.com/photo/2327641290056011884eGpZds

What happened to sway public opinion so far and so fast?

Good arguments were presented over and over, in person, on film, in radio and blogs and books. Smart people listened and became convinced. Then they, being recognized leaders in their communities, swayed the go-alongers who are more concerned with being in the right group than in being right.

How do we recognize and respond successfully to ad Hominem attacks?

  • Ad Hominem arguments succeed when the accused feels compelled to defend himself.
  • Ad Hominem arguments fail when the accused exposes the logical fallacy behind the accusation.

The keys are to stay calm, point out the flaws in our opponents’ arguments, make sure our arguments are based on facts and good logic, and wait.

Why wait? Because our target audience is neither the loud, potty-mouthed, camera hogs nor the go-alongers. Our target audience is the small group of local leaders. These are the quiet people in an audience who listen, rather than shout or sneer, who recognize and value logical argument as a path to truth, and who are known and respected by their loved ones and peers because they are intelligent, thoughtful and honest.

These are the people who get watched by those who care more about being in the right crowd than about being right. Have you ever seen how, when someone in a group tells a joke, there are two kinds of responders? The first responders laugh or roll their eyes at the joke itself. The second responders look at those first responders and copy them. Our target audience is those first responders. We convince them and the go-alongers will follow.

Ad Hominem arguments usually fall into one of these categories:

One: Character assault

E.g., If you disagree with Obama, you’re a RAAACIST. Successful comeback:

Two: Circumstances assault

E.g., You’re a man, so your opinion about abortion should be disregarded. Possible comeback: “My gender has nothing to do with whether or not abortion violates the civil rights of unborn human beings.”

Three: Tu quoque assault

Tu quoque means “you too”; this is the “You did it too, hypocrite!” fallacy. Possible comeback: A. “He lied.” B. “You lied too, so you can’t accuse him.” A. “If and when I lied, it was wrong of me to do so. But we’re not talking about my alleged lies now. We’re talking about his.”

I saw a brilliant ad Hominem comeback once at a Pro-Life lecture I attended at a liberal university during the Gulf War.

A man in the audience asked the speaker, “Do you support the war?”

The speaker said he had given it a lot of thought and decided that he did.

The man sneered and said that the speaker was a hypocrite to be opposed to abortion, while supporting a war.

The speaker correctly identified the tu quoque fallacy and called the guy out on it, saying, “I may be as hypocritical as you say I am, but that does not make me wrong about abortion.”

It was a beautiful moment. But it got even better when the speaker proceeded to take the guy down by using his own tu quoque argument against him!

First he asked, “I’m guessing you oppose the war?”

The man in the (liberal) audience visibly preened and announced, “Yes, I am!”

The speaker then said, “Yet you support abortion?”

At this, the man positively wilted, mumbled, “Yeah, I guess I do.” And sat down.

If the man in the audience had paid attention to how the speaker turned his club into a wet noodle, he would have responded, “I may be a hypocrite, too. But that doesn’t make me wrong.” Instead, he accepted the charge of hypocrisy as a valid argument against his position on abortion, which it wasn’t.

Check how well you understood the lesson!

I found this fun example of what is and what is not an ad Hominem argument @ http://plover.net/~bonds/adhominem.html:

A: “All rodents are mammals, but a weasel isn’t a rodent, so it can’t be a mammal.”

B: “That does not logically follow.”

A: “*Sigh* Do I have to spell it out for you? All rodents are mammals, right, but a weasel isn’t a rodent, so it can’t be a mammal! What’s so hard to understand???!?”

B: “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Look at it logically. If p implies q, then it does not follow that not-p implies not-q.”

A: “I don’t care about so-called logic and Ps and Qs and that stuff, I’m talking COMMON SENSE. A weasel ISN’T a mammal.”

B: “Okay, this guy’s an idiot. Ignore this one, folks.”

A: “AD HOMINEM!!!! I WIN!!!!!

Although B is the one who uses insulting language, it is actually A who is guilty of using an ad Hominem argument. In fact, I think he does it two times in this short exchange.

First, he suggests to the audience with his sighing and “What’s so hard to understand???!?” that B is dumber than dirt, so he must be wrong about weasels. But B’s IQ has nothing to do with the taxonomy of weasels.

Second, he claims that B’s “idiot” insult means he (A) wins the argument. But winning an argument means you’ve proven your case, which A definitely did not do.

Moreover, when B says that A is an idiot, he is not using an ad Hominem fallacy. His “idiot” insult does not refer to weasels; B had already proven logically that A’s argument about weasels was false.

B’s “idiot” insult refers to the fact that A had started his argument with a logical syllogism, but then – having been defeated by the rules of logic –  has declared he doesn’t care about logic, which is idiotic.

A never proves that weasels are not mammals; however, he does manage to confirm that he is an idiot when he declares that B’s allegedly breaking a rule of logic makes A and his “weasels are not mammals” the winner in the logic game he dismissed as stupid two seconds before!


Filed under Abortion, Al Gore, Climate, Logical Fallacies, Newt Gingrich

5 responses to “Logical Fallacies: Argumentum ad Hominem

  1. Back when I used to do a lot of media work for Wisconsin Right to Life, I had to deal with ad hominem attacks all the time. You know, the usual claptrap: Anti-abortionists don’t care about poor people / are pro-war / are anti-women / only care about babies until they’re born, and once they’re born they couldn’t care less about them …. and so on ad infinitum. It got so predictable and tiresome after a while. All of the accusations were false, as I care very much about poor people (but don’t think government programs that encourage dependency are the best way to help them), I am not pro-war (but I’m not a pacifist either, and think that when we are attacked we have an obligation to defend ourselves), etc. — but even if the accusations were all true, it would not make killing unborn babies right.


    • chrissythehyphenated

      Excellent point. My motives, gender, morality, yada yada yada have nothing to do with the basic issue, which is whose human rights are being protected under our laws.

      By giving adult human beings the absolute right to murder unborn human beings for any reason whasoever – as SCOTUS dictated in 1973 – we have chosen “Might Makes Right” over “Equal Protection Under the Law.”

      What makes the unborn so much less worthy of human rights than any other human being? They’re human and they’re alive by every legal definition of “life” before most women are even aware they’re pregnant. Ues, they’re inconvenient, expensive and useless. But so are hundreds of thousands of other people whose rights are protected including, but not limited to the homeless, the mentally ill, the disabled, the elderly, criminals serving life sentences, Barack Obama, the Occupiers … the list goes on and on.

      We used to define slaves as less than human; we used to grant women fewer rights under the law than men. Upgrading slaves and women to full “person-hood under the law” are rightly counted as a moral achievements in our national history.

      The unborn used to be persons under the law. How does anyone count it a “civil rights achievement” that SCOTUS downgraded them from persons to property under the law?

      In one sense, the unborn now have even less legal protection than animals. After all, it’s illegal to torture an animal to death. Yet it’s not only legal, but common practice in this country to destroy unborn humans by slicing them up, wrenching their arms and legs off, and stabbing, squashing or sucking their brains out of their skulls.


  2. Ting

    This has been an interesting series. More to come?


    • chrissythehyphenated

      LOTS, Ting. LOTS.

      I’ve got an entire directory stuffed with outlines on all the logical fallacies I could find. There doesn’t seem to be any comprehensive list anywhere, but I compiled a bunch of different lists and am working on understanding the material so I can create my own categories and talk about each one in my own words with fun, helpful illustrations and examples from things we talk about here.

      My goals are to help us all learn how to: one, identify and counter these ploys in real life; two, become better at thinking and debating logically so we can get our ideas across more effectively; and three, understand our audiences and how to best target our messages to them.

      I really want to get each one right before publishing. This one article took me four days of solid work and I ran it past Mafia Rose and Dearest for feedback before I published. I’m thinking one a week would be as much as I can produce. Plus it’s a lot of material to absorb, so best to space them out so all y’all don’t get whelmed.

      Anyway, rest assured, I am working on this as often as my little gray cells can handle it! 🙂


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