Problem

You’re watching your little cousins play, making sure they don’t get into too much trouble. Nikki, a feisty six-year-old, cries out, “The floor is lava!” and scrambles onto the couch. Four-year-old Max isn’t as fast though – getting up on furniture is still a process for him.

“You’re dead,” Nikki shrieks.

 “Nuh uh,” Max replies, “I’ve got anti-burning boots, so the lava can’t eat me!”

“But this is special lava,” Nikki insists, “and it burns through everything.” 

“You’re just being mean!” 

“Nuh uh!”

“Yeah huh!”

Before the argument gets out of hand, you distract them with the suggestion of playing outside. Lava is quickly forgotten in favor of space adventures and things stay civil, at least for a while.

Explanation

During the children’s argument, Max ends up attacking Nikki rather than her logic. Instead of addressing the flaws in her argument, he attacks the flaws in her character by stating that she’s being mean.

Ad Hominem Argument 

An ad hominem argument is one that is directed against the opposing person rather than the position they’re maintaining. It can be a clear direct attack against their character or more subtly cast doubt on their personal motives. An ad hominem argument is often used so that one can undermine their opposition’s case without having to directly confront and dispute it. Normally facts are ignored in favor of appealing to emotions and prejudices. 

The History

The term “ad hominem” is a Latin phrase meaning “to or against the person.” It was first used in the late sixteenth century in the logic and philosophy spheres to refer to any argument or critique that was aimed at the disputer rather than the position they were arguing. 

How It Works/Applying It

The ad hominem argument can be broken down into several subcategories. They can be abusive like our very first example. Abusive ad hominems are direct insults to the disputer’s character, like Max calling Nikki mean. These kinds of arguments are never helpful since they distract from actual productive conversation in favor of heightening hostilities. Luckily, since they’re such direct negative attacks, they’re easier to spot.

Circumstantial ad hominems aim to show that the speaker is predisposed to a particular stance on the issue, and thus their argument is inherently invalid. This argument can be more than just a logical fallacy. Conflicts of interest can be relevant to a dispute, but be wary of treating possible biases as irrefutable explanations for an opponent’s stance. Just because a person has something to gain from a situation doesn’t mean they’re lying about everything. When used properly, circumstantial ad hominems can be very ethical and useful.

One can also try to use an ad hominem to link a speaker to an individual or group already viewed negatively. This guilt by association tactic is more often than not just fear mongering, but if a causal link can be shown between the two, it’s a viable debate strategy.

Ad hominem of the tu quoque variety point out that the disputer doesn’t follow the ideas or morals they claim should be followed, so their argument can’t be true. While this type of argument can seem irrefutable, it’s far from it. Tu quoque arguments usually result from over simplifications of personal situations. Even if they don’t, they don’t automatically prove that the speaker is lying about their platform.

These are the more common types of ad hominem arguments you’ll find used in every kind of debate from everyday arguments to political debates. It’s important to recognize them since they’re generally logical fallacies. 

An ad hominem argument is so often just a non sequitur masquerading as important facts. However, it can be viable and logical to attack your opponent directly rather than their argument, provided that you have relevant facts at your disposal. Personal biases abound and it’s good to keep them in mind. If you find yourself being the target of faulty ad hominem arguments, keep a cool head and point out their irrelevance or an outright flaw in their attack. It can be a slippery slope when employing an ad hominem into your debate, so be sure to have other evidence to back up your claims when you use one.

    Learn More

    1. Brinton, Alan. “A rhetorical view of the ad hominem.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol 63, issue 1, 1985, pp 50-63. Doi: 10.1080/00048408512341681.
    2. Eemeren, Frans H. vans, Bart Garssen & Bert Meuffels. “The disguised abusive ad hominem empirically investigated: Strategic manoeuvring with direct personal attacks.” Thinking & Reasoning, vol 18, issue 3, 2012, pp 344-364. Doi: 10.1080/13546783.2012.678666.
    3. Hinman, Lawrence M. “The case for ad hominem arguments.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol 60, issue 4, 1982, pp 338-345. Doi: 10.1080/00048408212340741.
    4. Walton, D. N. “Argumentation Schemes and Historical Origins of the Circumstantial Ad Hominem Argument.”  Argumentation, vol 18, issue 3, Sept 2004, pp 359-368. Doi: 10.1023/B:ARGU.0000046706.45919.83.
    5. Walton, Douglas. Ad Hominem Arguments. The University of Alabama Press, 1998. ISBN: 08 1 7309225.

    Think Further

    1. Think of a time when you used an ad hominem argument. Was it relevant to the debate or a logical fallacy?
    2. What are some situations in which using an ad hominem argument would be a good idea?
    3. Find an example of an ad hominem argument in the news, literature, a song or a film. What kind of ad hominem is it? Is it used correctly or is it a logical fallacy?

    Teacher Resources

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