In an effort to become a better writer, I’m trying to think critically about the way I construct my arguments. Ultimately the stronger argument will not always win; sophistry often wins out over logic. Still I want to write and speak with integrity and let the chips fall where they may in terms of the outcome. I’m trying to catch myself in the act as I write an article, a sermon, or a blog post, and force myself to always play fair. One of the ways I’m doing this is to learn more about logic and how I abuse it constantly.
So, in that spirit, here is today’s logical fallacy of the day: the ad hominem argument
Ad hominem literally means “against the man.” The ad hominem argument is when you attack your interlocutor personally instead of engaging the argument itself. The ad hominem argument tries to discredit the source of the argument without having to deal with the actual elements of what they are saying. Here’s how it works:
JOHN: People like to demonize oil companies, but these corporations do an awful lot of good in our society.
MARY: Of course you are going to say that, you are being paid by the oil companies to say it.
CROWD: (Cheers) Mary! Mary! Mary! Mary!
Mary’s statement, while possibly true, doesn’t mean that what John is saying is somehow wrong. John may well be paid by the oil companies to make the argument he is making, but Mary has not engaged John’s argument, she’s argued against the man (John). If Mary wants to make a legitimate argument she should have to say that oil companies do a lot of bad in the following ways. Facts and data are your friend when you are making an argument. Mary might win the slug-fest, but it’s not a legitimate win.
Ad hominem is used all the time in politics, and a surprising amount in theology, especially in the blogosphere. It’s easy to get caught up in this kind of an argument. I see it happen often around gender issues, issues of sexuality, and especially morality and ethics. It’s usually something like “You are being mean, therefore I reject everything you are saying,” or maybe, “you are part of a group that is wrong and therefore everything you say is wrong.”
One of the keys to spotting the ad hominem argument is to listen carefully to how the other side presents their argument. What data are they using to make their case? If you are engaged in a conversation and someone is putting forth an argument based in facts, logic, or reason, your best response will typically take the same form. If they put forth data, you need to refute it with data. If they are making a logical argument, you must engage it logically, and so on.
Where ad hominem gets hard to spot is when people put forth an opinion. For instance, Sarah Palin famously ripped President Obama’s nuclear policy stating her opinion that it was like laying down to a playground bully. Obama responded by saying that Palin is not an expert on nuclear policy so he wouldn’t entertain her argument. This is actually a legitimate argument. When somebody purports to be an expert in a certain area and shares their opinions as an expert, it is a valid part of a logical refutation to call into question their credentials as an expert (this is allowed in courtrooms all the time). This is actually not an ad hominem argument. However, in questioning their opinion as an expert, the interlocutor should still engage with facts, logic, or data.
What about ad hominem and story? This is pretty tough as well. I usually think that stories are somewhat resistant to the ad hominem fallacy – which is part of what makes them so powerful.
Here’s a clip from the movie Idiocracy – Warning, it’s pretty crass. This demonstrates the ad hominem approach and how absurd it is… let’s hope that this is not a look at our future.