Ad hominem

A distraction which takes on the other person, rather than the argument itself. The Latin name for it, [Argumentum] ad hominem (or ad personam if this is seen as less gender-specific) is used because there is no short equivalent in English: “personal attack” is often suitable but not always. Here we have a distraction in which the argument is unheard; the discussion slips into politics: who is talking? who is paying them? who influences them? how to deal with them? It is on the basis of arguments such as these that, for instance, the science of climate change is dismissed by the accusation that the scientists are bribed to reach their dire conclusions by the promise of research grants.A9

The distraction is effective: avoid the argument; concentrate on the person. Once he is on the defensive it can be hard to recover: nothing he says can be taken as true. Aristotle objected to this in 330 BC, and it was still giving trouble 2,000 years later when John Locke described it as one of three devious means of reducing your opponent to silence:

1. cite the eminence or expertise of people who disagree with him;

2. insist that no mere argument is enough—he needs to provide proof; and

3. the straightforward ad hominem attack on the man and his principles, rather than his argument.A10

 

The most usual application of ad hominem attack is the accusation of hypocrisy:

STOTHARD: (speaking of the BBC): [There is a] duty to correct a mistake you may have made.

TOYNBEE: I think the BBC should be a little cautious before it takes advice from the Murdoch Press on honesty and truth, light and beauty. . . . It really is quite astonishing the lessons the BBC is getting from an extremely disreputable British press.A11

 

The charge of hypocrisy is efficient, popular, and turns up everywhere. But it is flawed, for what matters is not the arguer, but the argument. Though my lifestyle may be regrettable, that does not mean that my arguments are wrong; on the contrary, it could mean that I am acutely aware of values that are better than the ones I achieve myself. If I lived an impeccable life, I could be lost in admiration for myself as an ethical ideal; failings may keep me modest and raise my sights.

But ad hominem keeps things simple. It enables the crowd to speak with one voice, so that it can actually change things. Unfortunately, that change is quite likely to involve finding someone to blame—a witch-hunt which takes people’s minds off the real problem. Here is the mindset summarised with approval by Karl Marx: the job of philosophy, he shouts, is not to understand the world but to change it: “[History’s] essential emotion is indignation; its essential task is denunciation.”A12

Accusation makes it clear what to do. It shrugs off the need to tangle with the difficulties of actual policy; instead, the victim can be gleefully demonised and swept away. He may have made the mistake of being associated with an interest, class or party taken to be disreputable. Or he may have a private life that does not bear inspection.

Some private lives deserve this treatment, and yet awful private lives have coexisted with outstanding artistic and public judgment—and vice versa. Among history’s famous men with immaculate private lives we have the members of Joseph Stalin’s Politburo. Georgy Malenkov, just one of your ordinary killer-bureaucrats, was happily married and a wonderful, poetry-reading father to his children. Nikolai Yezhov was tender with his adopted daughter and played with her on his return from work. As the historian Amy Knight comments, “Let us hope that Yezhov, who liked to engage directly in the killing and torture of the NKVD victims, washed the blood off his hands first.”A13

And closely related to the charge of hypocrisy is the variant which discounts what a person says on the grounds that she has not experienced it personally: you cannot know anything about education unless you are a teacher; about poverty unless you have come from a poor background; you cannot know which horse won a horse-race unless you are another horse . . . On the other hand, if you do have the relevant experience, the inverse applies—“He would say that, wouldn’t he?”

And yet, in spite of all this, there are some forms of ad hominem that are appropriate. For example, a person may be justified in being critical of the other person, and in allowing this to reduce the credibility of their argument. This can happen, for instance, in an oppressive regime. In Communist Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, intellectuals who had secured their own position by going along with what the regime wanted—e.g., by denouncing opposition movements such as Charter 77—inevitably contaminated their own case in all other arguments: if he (who has sold out) asserts an argument to be true, then there must be something wrong with it; it has to be a trap. The response may be to attack the person, however plausible his argument, or it may be to come to terms with the intolerable life- and family-threatening position of intellectuals under a tyranny. Either way, attention in this morally-impoverished context is forced away from considerations of the subject itself, and towards the person. Sometimes, there is little room left for anything but ad hominem.A14

 

Related entries:

Genetic Fallacy, Interest, Cognitive Dissonance, Tu Quoque.

« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: