Ad Hominem: How People Use Personal Attacks to Win Arguments

Ad Hominem Fallacy

 

An ad hominem argument is an argument that attacks a person directly, instead of addressing the point that they are trying to make.

This rhetorical technique is frequently used in discussions on various topics, so it’s important to understand it. In the following article, you will learn more about ad hominem arguments, see what types of them exist, and understand what you can do in order to counter them successfully.

 

What is an ad hominem argument

An ad hominem argument (argumentum ad hominem) is an argument that attacks a person or a group directly, instead of addressing the point that they are trying to make.

An example of an ad hominem argument is the following:

Alice: I think that we should reconsider the way that we distribute the federal budget.

Bob: I think that you shouldn’t talk about the federal budget, since you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about.

In this example, Bob simply dismisses Alice’s claim with a personal insult, instead of discussing what she said or presenting a valid stance of his own.

Accordingly, ad hominem arguments are a type of an informal logical fallacy, meaning that there is an issue with their premise, that renders them unsound from a logical perspective. Specifically, the issue with ad hominem arguments is that they are based on the faulty premise that an attack against the source of an opposing arguments constitutes as a valid attack against the opposing argument itself.

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 in an indirect manner, by attacking its source.

Note that in some cases, arguments against the source of information can be relevant to the discussion. As long as they are relevant, and as long as the person who’s 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, or when the person who’s using it fails to demonstrate why it’s relevant.

In the next section, you will learn about the various types of ad hominem arguments. Then, you will learn the basic techniques that you can use to counter and defeat this sort of arguments.

 

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 directly, by using information that is irrelevant to the discussion, instead of addressing the point that their opponent is trying to make.

As such, the difference between the various types of ad hominem arguments is that each of them attacks the source of the opposing argument in a different way. Some of these attacks are relatively sophisticated, and can even be rendered reasonable using a few modifications, while others are simply crude and abusive, and should never appear in proper discourse.

 

Poisoning the well

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

An example of a ‘poisoning the well’ argument is the following:

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

Bob: 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 a certain stance, by questioning the motives of the person who supports it.

An example of an ‘appeal to motive’ argument is the following:

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

Bob: 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.

An example of an ‘appeal to hypocrisy’ argument is the following:

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

Bob: 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 attack that focuses only on the manner in which a person makes an argument, instead of addressing the argument itself.

An example of a ‘tone policing’ argument is the following:

Alice: 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.

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

Alice: But what do you think about the situation?

Bob: 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) is a logical fallacy which involves telling a person who criticized something that they should stay away from whatever it is they are criticizing, if they don’t approve of the current situation.

An example of a ‘traitorous critic’ argument is the following:

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

Bob: 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 is a logical fallacy which occurs when someone is attacked based on their supposed connection to something which is unrelated to the discussion at hand.

An example of an ‘association fallacy’ argument is the following:

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

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

 

Abusive fallacy

The abusive fallacy is a logical fallacy which occurs when an argument simply attacks a person in a direct and abusive manner, instead of addressing the point that they are trying to make.

An example of an ‘abusive fallacy’ argument is the following:

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

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

 

How to counter ad hominem arguments

The main issue with ad hominem arguments is that they focus on information that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, but that they also present this information in a manner which could nevertheless influence the result of the discussion.

As such, you have several options to choose from when it comes to countering ad hominem arguments:

  • Point out the irrelevance of the ad hominem attack. You can 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. It’s best to not become defensive when doing this, and if necessary, you should go on the offense and ask your opponent to justify why their personal attack on you is relevant to the discussion.
  • Respond to the attack. In some cases, you might want to fully address the ad hominem attack, even if it’s not directly relevant to the discussion at hand. This is a reasonable course of action when the attack has to do with factors such as your motives, which might be relevant to the discussion somehow, but it’s generally not recommended in cases when the attack is strictly personal or abusive, and has nothing to do with the discussion.
  • Ignore the 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 appear more credible, by showing that you refuse to stoop 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 was said against you, even if it’s not relevant to the discussion.
  • Acknowledge the attack and move on. This is similar to ignoring the ad hominem attack, except that you first acknowledge the attack in order to show that you don’t care about it, 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, so I’m not going to address it”.

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.

Furthermore, stooping to your opponent’s level and responding to personal attacks against you with personal attacks of your own can reflect badly on you in the eyes of others, and generally destroys any chance of engaging in a productive dialogue.

The one way in which it can be relatively acceptable to respond to an ad hominem attack with an attack of your own is to 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:

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

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

Alice: 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. 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.

 

How to avoid using ad hominem arguments yourself

As we saw so far, ad hominem arguments are arguments that are fallacious because instead of addressing the opposing arguments, they attack the source of those arguments, in a way that is irrelevant to the discussion.

As such, to avoid using ad hominem arguments yourself, you should avoid using arguments that attack your opponent directly, unless you can do so in a proper manner, using information that is directly relevant to the discussion, and whose relevance you can justify.

Doing this will strengthen your case, and will ensure that you only bring up issues with the source of the opposing argument when it is appropriate and reasonable to do so.

For example, consider a situation where you are debating a scientist whose stance might be biased due to the source of his funding.

Simply calling the scientist a “greedy liar” is an abusive ad hominem attack, and doesn’t contribute to the discussion, which is why it should be avoided.

Conversely, pointing out the conflict of interest that the scientist has, while also providing examples of how such conflicts of interest affected people in the past, and explaining how this conflict of interest could be affecting the scientist’s opinion in the present, can be a perfectly reasonable argument to include in the discussion.

 

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, because they rely on presenting irrelevant information, in an attempt to discredit a certain argument by attacking its source.
  • Though questioning the source of information can certainly be valid in some cases, this type of argument is fallacious in cases where the attack has nothing to do with the discussion at hand, or in cases where the person using it fails to demonstrate how it relates to the discussion.
  • 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, respond to the attack, ignore the attack entirely, or briefly acknowledge the attack and then move on. 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 at hand.