Monday, March 24, 2014

Fallacy Monday: The Ad Hominem Fallacy [Clinton Wilcox]

Last week I began a new series on logical fallacies. The first fallacy I would like to examine is a very common one in the abortion debate, the Ad Hominem fallacy.

Ad hominem is a Latin term that means "to the man." An argument that makes an ad hominem fallacy is an argument that dismisses someone's conclusion based on something about their character. You are attacking them rather than their argument. I often see the term "ad hominem" thrown around in an attempt to stop a debate, but we need to understand that a personal attack does not automatically mean someone's argument is fallacious. It may be unkind to call someone names, but it is not logically fallacious.

For example, if I were to say, "You're an idiot. Now let me show you how you're wrong..." you are not making a fallacious argument. You are definitely being unkind, but if you are going to show them how their argument fails (by responding to one of their premises, for example), then you have not committed a logical fallacy.

Now if I was to say, "You're a jerk, so I don't have to listen to anything you say," that is clearly fallacious. You are dismissing their argument based on the fact that they're just not a nice person. But even jerks can be right.

Additionally, like most fallacies, the Ad Hominem attack is not always fallacious; sometimes it is called for. Philosopher Ed Feser gives an example of a time at which attacking someone's character is appropriate: "For example, suppose what is at issue is whether a certain person is a reliable witness or an unbiased source of information, as in a court case. Then there is no fallacy whatsoever in showing that his track record reveals him to be a compulsive liar, or to have a bad memory or bad eyesight, or to have been drunk at the time of the events he claims to have witnessed, or to have a personal stake in the outcome of the case. These are ad hominem criticisms -- criticisms directed 'against the man' himself -- but there is no fallacy involved, because the credibility of the man himself is precisely what is at issue" (emphases his).

Here are a couple of examples of the ad hominem fallacy in use:

From the pro-life side, I commonly see the argument that pro-choice people hate babies. Clearly, some of them do. I have met some pro-choice people on-line who are quite open about it. But I take it that these people are in the minority. Most pro-choice people don't hate babies. But even if they do, how does that negate their argument that abortion is permissible because of bodily rights, or because the unborn is not a person? It doesn't, so whether or not a pro-choice person actually hates babies, their argument still needs to be engaged with.

From the pro-choice side, one of the most common arguments I see are that if you are a man, your argument is invalid because you can't get pregnant. Again, this is clearly fallacious thinking because my being a man does not refute my argument that the unborn are full human persons from fertilization and it should be illegal to kill innocent human children.

So as we strive to have better conversations, let's stop trying to dismiss peoples' arguments by throwing around claims of logical fallacies and really try to engage with the arguments. Only by doing so can we really hope to understand the reasons that someone takes a position on this issue.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Mariann. :) I'm glad you find it helpful.

  2. "From the pro-life side, I commonly see the argument that pro-choice people hate babies."

    But there is great deal of truth in that. On the pro-life side, we view women's pregnancies, childbearing, and child rearing as something good, natural, healthy, and normal for her. That is not the view of our opponents. We have to understand what is driving both sides. Generally speaking, if you can find the actual *reason* someone is making an argument, one can win.

    1. First, there's not truth to it. Many pro-choice people don't consider the unborn to be babies. Others believe that abortion is immoral but that it should be legally permitted. Just because someone is pro-choice doesn't automatically mean that they hate babies. I believe that we should love our neighbors as well as our ideological opponents, and part of loving your neighbor/ideological opponent is to truly understand them and not misrepresent their arguments or intentions.

      Second, again, even if it was true, you've missed the point. Whether or not they truly hate babies is irrelevant to the truth value of their arguments. The argument must be engaged with, not dismissed based on something we perceive as a defect in their character.


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