The Ad Hominem Fallacy: How People Use Personal Attacks to Win Arguments

Ad Hominem Fallacy

 

An ad hominem argument is an argument that attacks a person directly, rather than addressing the point that the person is trying to make.  This rhetoric technique appears frequently in discussions, so it’s important to understand it. In the following article, you will learn about the various types of ad hominem attacks, and about what you can do to counter them.

 

What are ad hominem arguments

Ad hominem arguments (argumentum ad hominem) are a type of an informal logical fallacy, meaning that there is an issue with their premise. Specifically, by attacking the person making an argument rather than the argument itself, the person using the ad hominem attack fails to address the stance that they are arguing against.

As such, ad hominem arguments are categorized as a subtype of the fallacy of irrelevance, since they contain information that is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand. More specifically, ad hominem arguments are a subtype of the genetic fallacy, since the person using them is arguing against a certain stance indirectly, by attacking its source.

Note that in some cases, arguments against the source of the information can be relevant to the discussion. As long as they are relevant, and as long as the person using them explains why they are relevant, the use of such arguments isn’t logically fallacious. As such, an argument directed at a person becomes a fallacious ad hominem attack only when it is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand.

In the next section, you will learn about the various types of ad hominem arguments. Then, you will learn the basic strategy for countering and defeating this sort of argument.

 

Types of ad hominem arguments

There are several different types of ad hominem arguments. What they all have in common is that the person using these arguments is attacking their opponent by focusing on something personal that is irrelevant to the discussion, instead of addressing the point that their opponent is trying to make.

As such, the difference between the different types of ad hominem arguments lies in the way in which the personal attack occurs, and each type of ad hominem argument attacks people in a different way.

 

Poisoning the well

Poisoning the well is a rhetoric technique where someone presents unrelated negative information about their opponent, with the goal of discrediting everything that their target says.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: You’re a fascist, so clearly we shouldn’t listen to what you have to say about education.

 

Appeal to motive (circumstantial ad hominem)

An appeal to motive (the main type of circumstantial ad hominem) is an argument that dismisses an idea by questioning the motives of the person who proposed it.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: You’re only saying that because you want to show support for the president that you voted for.

 

Appeal to hypocrisy (tu quoque)

An appeal to hypocrisy (also known as tu quoque), is an argument that attempts to discredit a person, by suggesting that their argument is inconsistent with their previous acts.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: You clearly don’t even care about public education, since you sent your own kids to a private school.

 

Tone policing

Tone policing is an argument technique that focuses on the manner in which a person makes an argument, rather than on the argument itself.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education. The current situation is unacceptable in many of the poorer areas of the country, and children are suffering because of it.

B: Okay, okay, no need to get so worked up over these things.

A: But what do you think about the situation?

B: I think that you shouldn’t be so emotional about it.

 

Traitorous critic fallacy (argumentum ergo decedo)

The traitorous critic fallacy (also known as argumentum ergo decedo), involves personally attacking a person for criticising something, and suggesting that they should stay away from whatever it is they are criticising if they don’t approve of the current situation.

For example:

A: I think that as a country, we’re not spending enough on universal healthcare.

B: Well if you don’t like it here, then you should just leave and go somewhere where they have the kind of healthcare that you want.

 

Association fallacy

The association fallacy occurs when someone is attacked based on their association with something that is unrelated to the discussion at hand.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: Well, the Nazis also thought that, so you’re like the Nazis.

 

Abusive fallacy

The abusive fallacy occurs when an argument simply verbally abuses the opponent instead of attacking their proposed argument.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: I think that you’re a moron and that nobody cares about your opinion.

 

How to counter ad hominem arguments

The basic logical flaw in ad hominem arguments is that they focus on information that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. As such, you have several options when countering these arguments:

  • Point out the irrelevance of the argument- you do this by pointing out that the personal attack has nothing to do with the argument at hand, and by calling out your opponent on their use of this fallacy. Usually, it’s best to not become defensive when doing this, but to go on the offense and ask your opponent to justify why their personal attack on you is relevant to the discussion.
  • Ignore the personal attack- you can choose to keep the discussion going, while refusing to engage with the personal attack that your opponent made. This can work in some cases, and especially when ignoring the personal attacks makes you seem like you are not stooping down to your opponent’s level. However, in some cases this isn’t a viable option, and especially when you feel that not responding will imply that you agree with whatever is said against you, even if it’s not related to the discussion.
  • Go with it- this is similar to ignoring the attack, except that you first acknowledge it and show that you don’t care, before moving on with the discussion. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with the attack; rather, it means that you have to show that you’re aware of it, which might look better than ignoring it entirely. To do this, you can use language such as “I get it that you think that I’m X, but that doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re discussing here”.

Keep in mind that in some cases, you can choose to counterattack with personal attacks of your own when your opponent uses an ad hominem attack against you. However, this means that you are resorting to logically fallacious arguments, so think carefully before you choose to do this.

The one way in which this can be relatively acceptable is if you use a similar form of the attack that was used against you, in order to show that such an attack presents information that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: You’re only saying that because you want to support the president that you voted for.

A: Not really, just as I hope you’re not arguing against it only because you want to support the president that you voted for.

Most importantly, remember that ad hominem attacks are personal, but shouldn’t be taken as such. Whichever approach you choose to use in order to counter these arguments, make sure to remain calm, and to not let this type of attack get to you, since that’s one of the main reasons why people will use it against you in the first place.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • An ad hominem argument is an argument that attacks a person directly, instead of addressing the point that the person is trying to make.
  • These arguments are logically fallacious, since they consist of presenting irrelevant information in order to discredit a stance by attacking its source.
  • Questioning the source of information can be valid in some cases; this type of argument is fallacious only in cases where the attack has nothing to do with the discussion at hand.
  • There are various types of ad hominem arguments, and each of them attacks people in a different way, such as by calling them hypocrites, by questioning their motives, or by telling them to stay away from the issue if they disagree with the current state of things.
  • To counter ad hominem arguments, you can either point out the logical flaw in the argument, briefly acknowledge it and move on, or refuse to engage with it entirely. In some cases, you can also counterattack with a similar personal argument, in order to show that such an attack is irrelevant to the discussion.