Ad Hominem: When People Use Personal Attacks in Arguments

Ad Hominem Fallacy

 

An ad hominem argument is a personal attack against the source of an opposing argument, rather than against the opposing argument itself. Essentially, this means that ad hominem arguments are used to attack an opposing view indirectly, by attacking the individual or group that supports it.

Ad hominem arguments can take many forms, from basic name-calling to more complex rhetoric. For example, an ad hominem argument can involve simply insulting a person instead of properly replying to a point that they raised, or it can involve questioning their motives and after they criticized the current state of things.

Ad hominem arguments are common in both formal and informal discussions on various topics, so it’s important to understand them. As such, in the following article you will learn more about ad hominem arguments, see what types of them exist, and understand what you can do to respond to them successfully.

 

Fallacious and reasonable ad hominem arguments

In everyday language, the term ‘ad hominem argument’ is primarily used to refer to a fallacious personal attack against the source of an argument, that is unsound from a logical perspective.

This type of argument can be fallacious for a number of reasons, including, most notably, the following:

  • The ad hominem attack is fallacious of it’s irrelevant to the discussion, or has not been properly justified.
  • The ad hominem attack is fallacious if it’s used as primarily as a diversion tactic, either to unjustifiably shift the burden of proof to someone else in the discussion or to change the topic.
  • The ad hominem attack is fallacious if it involves the faulty premise that an attack against the source of an opposing argument necessarily constitutes a refutation of that argument.

However, ad hominem arguments—or arguments against the source of an opposing argument—are not always fallacious, since they are not inherently flawed from a logical perspective. This is because arguments against the source of an opposing argument can be reasonable, as long as they’re relevant to the discussion and involve no faulty reasoning or application.

Because of the different ways that ad hominem arguments can be used, and the different forms that they can take, there have been many philosophical debates on the nature and classification of such arguments. Nevertheless, from a practical perspective, the minor distinctions discussed in these debates are not important. Rather, what is important is to recognize that personal attacks can be fallacious, but whether or not they are fallacious depends on the argument, the way the argument was presented, and the context in which it was used.

Overall, in everyday language the term ‘ad hominem argument’ is primarily used to refer to a fallacious personal attack against the source of an argument, when that attack is flawed for some reason, such as because it’s irrelevant to the discussion. However, the term ‘ad hominem argument’ can also sometimes be used to refer to a general attack against the source of an argument, that is not necessarily fallacious.

Note: the concept of ad hominem arguments is sometimes referred to as argumentum ad hominem, and, when viewed as a fallacy, it is sometimes referred to as the ad hominem fallacy or the personal attack fallacy. Furthermore, when viewed as a fallacy, it can be categorized in various ways, including as a fallacy of relevance, since it contains information that is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand, and as a genetic fallacy, since it involves an attack against the source of an argument.

 

Examples of ad hominem arguments

A basic example of an ad hominem argument is a person telling someone “you’re stupid, so I don’t care what you have to say”, in response to hearing them present a well-thought position. This is the simplest type of fallacious ad hominem argument, which is nothing more than an abusive personal attack, and which has little to do with the topic being discussed.

An example of a more complex ad hominem argument appears in the following dialogue:

Alex: I think that we should reconsider the way that the government distributes the federal budget.

Bob: if you can’t be loyal and support the way your government chooses to use taxes, then you should just leave the country and move somewhere else.

In this example, Bob is using a fallacious ad hominem argument, since he simply dismisses Alex’s claim with a personal attack, instead of discussing what Alex said or presenting a valid stance of his own.

Similarly, another example of a different type of fallacious ad hominem argument appears in the following discussion:

Alex: I just saw a new study that explicitly claims that this theory is wrong.

Bob: well, you don’t know anything about this field, so why should anyone listen to you?

This ad hominem attack is fallacious for a number of reasons, including, most notably, the fact that it attacks the person mentioning the study in question, rather than attacking the study itself.

However, a similar type of ad hominem argument, that is phrased better, could be reasonable under different circumstances. Consider, for example, the following discussion:

Alex: I read a lot about this theory, and I think that it’s definitely wrong.

Bob: how much expertise do you have with this field, though? As far as I know, you have no formal credentials, which makes me wary about trusting your opinion as opposed to the opinion of the experts who proposed this theory.

Unlike the previous example, this ad hominem argument is reasonable, rather than fallacious, since the person using the ad hominem argument targets it at the actual source of the opposing argument, and phrases the ad hominem argument in a way that clearly demonstrates why it’s relevant to the discussion.

Note: a rhetorical technique that is often used in conjunction with ad hominem arguments is the appeal to the stone, which is a logical fallacy that occurs when a person dismisses their opponent’s argument as absurd, without actually addressing it, or without providing sufficient evidence in order to prove its absurdity.

 

Types of ad hominem arguments

There are various types of ad hominem arguments, each of which involves a different way to attack the source of an opposing argument. These include, most notably, poisoning the well, the credentials fallacy, the appeal to motive, the appeal to hypocrisytone policing, the traitorous critic fallacy, the association fallacy, and the abusive fallacy.

Each of these arguments can be implemented in different ways, though some types of arguments tend to be more likely to be implemented in a fallacious manner than others. For example, though both the appeal to motive and the abusive fallacy can be implemented in various ways, and though both can be fallacious, ad hominem arguments focusing on the motives on the of an opponent are more likely to be reasonable than those that simply abuse the opponent.

In the sub-sections below, you will learn more about each of these types of ad hominem arguments, and see examples of their use.

 

Credentials fallacy

The credentials fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone dismisses an argument and attacks its source directly, by stating that the person who made that argument doesn’t have sufficient credentials in the field being discussed.

An example of the credentials fallacy is the following:

Alex: studies have overwhelmingly shown that we should increase the federal spending on education.

Bob: you’re not an economics professor, so there’s not reason for me to listen to you.

 

Poisoning the well

Poisoning the well is a rhetorical technique where someone presents irrelevant negative information about their opponent, with the goal of discrediting their opponent’s argument.

An example of poisoning the well is the following:

Alex: 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 is the following:

Alex: 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 is the following:

Alex: 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.

 

Association fallacy

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

An example of an association fallacy is the following:

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

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

 

Traitorous critic fallacy (argumentum ergo decedo)

The traitorous critic fallacy (also known as argumentum ergo decedo) is a logical fallacy that 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 the traitorous critic fallacy is the following:

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

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

 

Tone policing

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

An example of tone policing is the following:

Alex: 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.

Alex: But what do you think about the situation?

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

 

Abusive fallacy (abusive ad hominem)

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

An example of the abusive fallacy is the following:

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

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

 

Other types of ad hominem arguments

Though the types of ad hominem arguments listed above represent the most common types of ad hominem arguments, ad hominem arguments can potentially also take other forms.

Essentially, any argument that targets the source of an opposing argument, rather than addressing the opposing argument itself, is an ad hominem argument, regardless of its exact structure.

From a practical perspective, the exact categorization of the different types of ad hominem arguments usually isn’t important. That is, it doesn’t matter whether a certain argument is a case of poisoning the well or of the abusive fallacy. Rather, what is important is to identify the fact that the argument in question is an ad hominem argument, and to determine whether it’s fallacious or not.

 

How to counter ad hominem arguments

How you counter an ad hominem argument depends, first and foremost, on whether the argument is reasonable or fallacious.

When an ad hominem argument is reasonable, it should be treated like any other reasonable argument, and addressed properly. For example, if an ad hominem argument raises a reasonable concern against the source of some information, the proper response to it should be to address that concern.

Conversely, when responding to fallacious ad hominem arguments, there are several viable approaches you can use:

  • Point out the irrelevance of the 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 fallacious reasoning. 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 directly. 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 simply abusive or has absolutely 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”.

These approaches revolve around the fact that fallacious ad hominem arguments focus on information that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, but that they present this information in a manner that could nevertheless influence the discussion in favor of the person using the ad hominem attack.

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, it’s important to avoid using fallacious reasoning while doing this, not only because of the general desire to avoid fallacious reasoning, but also because 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 significantly reduce the chances that your discussion will be productive.

One situation where it can potentially be acceptable to respond to a fallacious ad hominem attack with a similar attack is if you want to show illustrate the issues involved with such an attack. For example:

Alex: 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.

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

Note that, when doing this, you should generally make sure to explain the reasoning behind your use of such argument, in order to reduce the potential issues associated with using fallacious reasoning in general, and fallacious ad hominem arguments in particular.

Finally, when dealing with ad hominem attacks, it’s important to remember that while such attacks are personal, they 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 do 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.

Overall, you should respond to reasonable ad hominem arguments by addressing them properly, and to fallacious ad hominem arguments by either pointing out their irrelevance, responding to them directly, ignoring them, or acknowledging them and moving on. You can also respond to an ad hominem argument with a similar attack of your own, though you should make sure to avoid using fallacious reasoning when you do so.

Note: when responding to ad hominem arguments, there are two useful principles that you should keep in mind. The first is the principle of charity, which denotes that, when interpreting someone’s statement, you should assume that the best possible interpretation of that statement is the one that the speaker meant to convey. The second is Hanlon’s razor, which suggests that when someone does something that leads to a negative outcome, you should avoid assuming that they acted out of an intentional desire to cause harm, as long as there is a different plausible explanation for their behavior.

 

How to avoid using fallacious 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.

Overall, to make sure that you avoid using fallacious ad hominem arguments yourself, you should be wary before attacking the source of an opposing argument, and ensure that any such attack is both relevant to the discussion and properly justified.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • An ad hominem argument is a personal attack against the source of an opposing argument, rather than against the opposing argument itself.
  • In everyday language, the term ‘ad hominem argument’ is primarily used to refer to a fallacious personal attack against the source of an argument, when that attack is flawed for some reason, such as because it’s irrelevant to the discussion.
  • However, the term ‘ad hominem argument’ can also sometimes be used to refer to a general attack against the source of an argument, that is not necessarily fallacious.
  • 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, by telling them to stay away from the issue if they disagree with the current state of things, or by simply insulting them in an abusive manner.
  • You should respond to reasonable ad hominem arguments by addressing them properly, and to fallacious ad hominem arguments by either pointing out their irrelevance, responding to them directly, ignoring them, or acknowledging them and moving on.