Of all the fallacies tossed around today, the abusive ad hominem is the most malevolent. I know in my last Fighting Fallacies post I said that the straw man fallacy is the most prevalent today, but this one really gives it a run for it’s dishonest money. The abusive ad hominem fallacy is another informal fallacy, and like the straw man, it’s also a fallacy of relevance. The phrase itself is Latin for “to the man” or “against the person”. This fallacy is deployed as a personal attack against an opponent in order to draw attention away from their argument. It fits nicely under the category “fallacy of relevance” because the attack on the person is irrelevant (when it’s irrelevant) to the person’s argument.
“Ok, hang on Park. Why’d you slip that ‘when it’s irrelevant’ in there?” Well, the abusive ad hominem fallacy is irrelevant name calling, it has nothing to do with an opponents argument, but there is an appropriate and relevant use of an ad hominem argument. Fallacies are so common because they mimic the truth. As Vern Poythress says in His book on logic, “[the abusive ad hominem] counterfeits the truth that in some situations the character of the person is relevant to evaluating his arguments” (Poythress, Logic, pg.128). there is a legitimate use of an ad hominem argument in debate that is not fallacious.
A quote from philosopher Gordon H. Clark will help us understand the difference, “[the abusive ad hominem] is an informal logical fallacy in which irrelevancies of character are used as reason for rejecting a position. Example: proposition X cannot be true, because Y, who believers X is a drunkard… [An ad hominem argument] is a form of argument that accepts a proposition espoused by another for the purpose of deducing from it contradictory propositions that would be rejected by the other person. Ad hominem should be distinguish from the informal fallacy abusive ad hominem.” (Gordon H. Clark, Logic, pg. 126).
So, we see that when a person’s character is irrelevant to the conclusions of their argument, attacking that person’s character is meant to detract from the force of said argument, thus it’s fallacious. You’ve left the argument itself unscathed when you ought to have, well, scathed it! But, there are certainty times when an opponents character is relevant to their arguments. Theologian, K. Scott Oliphint explains, “An ad hominem argument that is not fallacious is one in which a person’s position is challenged based on what that person claims. It is an ad hominem argument because it goes to the challenger’s own beliefs; it seeks to question the consistency of what some one believes, argues, or maintains in light of other beliefs or arguments that he claims to hold… in an ad hominem argument, the comparison is between a person’s basic claims or commitments, on the one hand, and that same person’s behavior, complaints, assertions, on the other. The problems detected are that the person’s basic commitments cannot be consistent with his other claims or complaints. This serves, in part, to provide significant pressure on the truthfulness or applicability of one’s basic commitments.” (K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, pg. 73-74). An example of a non-fallacious ad hominem argument would be to call out a Congressman who vehemently supports Obama Care, yet who gave himself or his own state an exemption from it. The argument could go, “you think Obama Care is so great, so wonderful.. yet you don’t like it enough to include yourself in it, it must not be that great, huh?”.
So far we’ve seen that there is an appropriate way to use an ad hominem attack and a fallacious way to use it. The fallacious way comes in several forms, the two main one’s being the abusive ad hominem and the circumstantial ad hominem. For sake of brevity I’ve decided to save the latter for another post because we still have a bit more to cover concerning the former.
The abusive ad hominem can be expressed in many ways, including the “guilt by association” and the “to quoque” (literally, “you too”, or “you’re another”).
The tu quoque is especially childish. Philosopher Peter Kreeft explains that this form of the fallacy “consists of accusing your critic of the same thing your critic accuses you of, rather than defending yourself against the criticism. “I’ve proved that you’re a liar. Refute my argument.” “Well, you’re just as much a liar as I am.” Perhaps he is, but that does not refute his argument.” (Kreeft, Socratic Logic, pg. 129). Do you see how ridiculous this line of thought is? Unfortunately, I’ve been ignorant enough to use this fallacy a lot… BUT SO HAVE YOU! Hopefully, never again, though.
Let’s review the genealogy of the abusive ad hominem once more. There are two types of fallacies, formal, which results from faulty reasoning in the logical progression of an argument, and informal, which results from the language used in an argument. The abusive ad hominem is an informal fallacy. Once inside the umbrella of informal fallacies, we can categorize this fallacy in the sub-group, “fallacy of relevance”, because it’s targeted at the person behind the argument instead of the argument itself.
Today, you’ll hear proponents of this fallacy tossing around phrases like, “Racist-sexist-bigot-homophobes” and “snowflake-libtards”, but do your best to measure the quality of your opponents arguments, take issue with their conclusions and show their reasoning to be faulty rather than engage in faulty reasoning of your own. Yes, there’s an appropriate time to bring up issues of character, but make sure you’re doing so to diffuse an argument rather than skirt the issue.
The abusive ad hominem fallacy is an exercise in mud slinging, and as apologist Ravi Zacharias often says, “When you throw mud at someone else, you not only get your hands dirty, you lose ground”. If we’re going to claim to be reasonable, let’s actually be reasonable.