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 argument, rather than against the argument itself. Essentially, this means that ad hominem arguments are used to attack opposing views indirectly, by attacking the individuals or groups that support these views.

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 in response to their criticism of 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 properly.

 

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 irrelevant to the discussion.
  • The ad hominem attack is 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 involves the faulty premise that an attack against the source of an argument necessarily constitutes a successful refutation of that argument.

However, attacks against the source of an argument are not always fallacious, since they are not inherently flawed from a logical perspective. As such, attacks against the source of an argument can be reasonable, as long as they’re relevant to the discussion, properly justified, and involve no faulty reasoning.

For example, consider a situation where a scientist presents an argument about the effectiveness of a new medical treatment. In general, in such situation, an ad hominem argument attacking the scientist’s physical looks will be fallacious, since this isn’t relevant to the discussion, while an ad hominem argument attacking the scientist’s source of funding will be reasonable, since this is relevant to the discussion.

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. However, from a practical perspective, the distinctions discussed in these debates aren’t 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 used primarily to refer to a fallacious attack, that is flawed for some reason, such as because it’s irrelevant to the discussion, but ad hominem arguments can also be reasonable and logically sound.

Note: the concept of ad hominem arguments is sometimes referred to as argumentum ad hominem, and, when viewed as a fallacy, it’s 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 presenting a valid stance of his own or discussing what Alex said.

Similarly, another example of a 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 addressing the study itself.

However, a similar, better-phrased ad hominem argument could be reasonable under similar 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 in the first place.

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 of attacking 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.

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 arguments.

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 someone 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. What do you think?

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.

Some of these arguments are almost always fallacious, while others can be reasonable, depending on how they’re used. For example, abusive ad hominems are almost always fallacious, while appeals to motive can be reasonable in some cases, if they’re relevant to the discussion and presented properly.

Note that it can often be difficult to decide which specific category an ad hominem argument belongs to, and certain ad hominem arguments may fit in more than one of the above category, or in none of them.

However, from a practical perspective, the exact categorization of the different types of ad hominem arguments isn’t important in most cases. That is, if someone is using an ad hominem argument to attack you in a debate, it usually doesn’t matter whether that 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, to determine whether it’s fallacious or not, and to find the best way to respond to it, based on its structure and on the circumstances at hand.

 

How to counter ad hominem arguments

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

If an ad hominem argument is reasonable, then you should respond to it properly, as you would to any other type of reasonable argument. For example, if an ad hominem argument raises a reasonable concern with regard to the motivation behind your stance, the proper response should be to address that concern.

However, if an ad hominem argument is fallacious, there are various ways you can respond to it, including, most notably, the following:

  • Point out the irrelevance of the attack. You can do this by pointing out that the personal attack has nothing to do with the discussion 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 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 fallacious, because it could affect the outcome of the discussion in some way. You can do this by responding to the attack as you would to a reasonable ad hominem argument, or in a similar manner.
  • 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 hurt you in some way, even if the attack itself is entirely fallacious and irrelevant to the discussion.
  • Acknowledge the attack and move on. This is similar to ignoring the ad hominem attack, except that you first acknowledge it explicitly 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”.

Different options will work better in different situations, and you can choose your preferred approach based on factors such as the nature of the ad hominem attack, the context in which it was used, and your goals for the discussion in which it was used.

In some cases, you can counterattack an ad hominem argument with a personal attack of your own. However, it’s important to avoid using fallacious reasoning when 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 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.

The main 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 show support for 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 responding to ad hominem arguments, it’s important to remember that while such attacks are personal, you should do your best to avoid letting them get to you. Though this can be difficult, it will help you to respond to the argument more effectively, and will negate one of the main reasons why people use such attacks in the first place.

Overall, you should respond to reasonable ad hominem arguments by addressing them properly, and counter fallacious ad hominem arguments by 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, primarily in order to demonstrate the issues with such arguments, 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

To avoid using fallacious ad hominem arguments yourself, you should make sure to avoid attacking the source of an argument instead of attacking the argument itself, unless you can properly justify the relevance of such an attack. Furthermore, you will often benefit from explicitly justifying your use of the ad hominem argument, since doing so can help you ensure that its use is reasonable, and can help others understand the rationale behind it.

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 a personal attack against the source of an argument, rather than against the argument itself.
  • In everyday language, the term ‘ad hominem argument’ is used primarily to refer to a fallacious attack, that is flawed for some reason, such as because it’s irrelevant to the discussion, but ad hominem arguments can also be reasonable and logically sound.
  • 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 an 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 counter fallacious ad hominem arguments by pointing out their irrelevance, responding to them directly, ignoring them, or acknowledging them and moving on.
  • To avoid using fallacious ad hominem arguments yourself, you should make sure to avoid attacking the source of an argument instead of attacking the argument itself, unless you can properly justify the relevance of such an attack.