We’ve looked at the Abusive ad hominem fallacy already in an earlier post, but there are plenty of close relatives in the ad hominem family that need further explanation. You’ll remember that an ad hominem fallacy is an informal fallacy because it has to do with the language of the argument and not with the logical form or structure of the argument. It is a fallacy of relevance because this attack has nothing to do with the conclusions of your interlocutor’s argument, it’s simply irrelevant. This fallacy is a counterfeit argument because it plays on the fact that in some circumstances a persons background is in fact relevant. In this post we are going to consider four or so versions of ad hominem arguments: positive circumstantial ad hominem, negative circumstantial ad hominem, the genetic fallacy, and Bulverism.
Irving M, Cohen and Carl Cohen give us a concise explanation of a Circumstantial ad hominem argument in their book, Introduction to Logic, that will help orient us for the rest of the post, “Circumstantial ad hominem arguments are sometimes used to suggest that the opponents’ conclusion should be rejected because their judgment is warped, dictated by their special situation rather than by reasoning or evidence. However, an argument that is favorable to some group deserves discussion on its merits; it is fallacious to attack it simply on the ground that it is presented by a member of that group and is therefore self-serving.” (Pg.130).
Positive Circumstantial Ad Hominem: “The positive circumstantial ad hominem argument urges the hearer to believe a proposition because of his special circumstances.” -John Frame (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pg. 284). Today this argument has been used to berate women who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, “You’re a woman! How could you not vote for a woman!”. This is fallacious because it assumes that all women have an obligation to vote for Hillary Clinton, there is no demonstration or argumentation, just assertion based on sex. John Frame explains why this is so wrong headed, “In some ways, this type of argument is degrading because it views the audience as members of a group who vote or believe blindly, according to what the group believes. It is “groupthink” in its worst sense. And even as a plea to consider group self-interest, it is often very superficial. There are great difference among women, among the rich, among blacks, among Presbyterians, and among “modern men”.” (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pg. 285).
Frame goes on to explain that this argument does have some value when holding someone to their proposed views. For example,“You say you’re a member of group x, yet you believe y, which group x stands against, how do you explain this inconsistency?”. If someone says they are a member of the Black Panthers, yet they support white nationalism, we would be justified in holding their feet to the fire and exposing the inconsistency.
Negative Circumstantial Ad Hominem: “The negative circumstantial ad hominem argument says that someone’s view is false (or at least that he has no right to hold it) because of his special circumstances.” -John Frame, (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pg. 286). This fallacy is thrown around today by people who say “no uterus, no opinion” and by proponents of “ethnic Gnosticism” who say if you don’t belong to a certain ethnic minority group you have no right to speak about them. It seeks to discredit the person based on their exclusion from a specific group rather than addressing the person’s argument. You could be an expert on Chinese history without being Chinese.
Genetic Fallacy: the genetic fallacy “consists in substituting… a personal motive for a logical reason.” – Peter Kreeft (Socratic Logic, pg. 81). This fallacy seeks to address the origin of the argument or the arguer rather than dealing with the argument itself. “You only believe in Christianity because you were born in the west.” This argument is incredibly offensive and short sighted. Those that would wield the genetic fallacy fail to realize that it’s a double edged sword that cuts both ways. We’ll discuss this more in detail in the next section.
Bulverism: Bulverism is a term coined by C.S. Lewis to describe a kind of blend between a circular argument (x is wrong because x is wrong) and the genetic fallacy. Today the genetic fallacy is used more broadly to include Bulverism. Lewis had seen this fallacy pop up so often in his day that he came up with a fictional origin, Ezekiel Bulver. Followers of Bulver would argue that “thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source” or ‘thoughts are ideologically tainted’ at the source.” Men who voted for Hillary Clinton just did so because they have mommy issues and the capitalists only propose capitalism because they are rich and it keeps them high above the lower classes.
Lewis proposed two questions to ask the Bulverist or the proponent of the modern genetic fallacy:
Question 1: “are all thoughts thus tainted at the source?”
Question 2: “does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?”
If all thoughts are tainted at the source then both the theist and the atheist are merely speaking out of their genetic predispositions and the conversation is meaningless. Neither the capitalist nor the communist is any more closer to the truth, neither project is more useful or noble. If the so called “taint” ruins the thought then all thoughts are ruined at the source, if not then we are back to judging arguments based on their logical consistency and truthfulness rather than analyzing their origins.
As Lewis says, “… you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.” (C.S. Lewis, Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, pg. 588).
Ad hominem arguments have become so diffused in our lives today that many of us don’t even acknowledge them as fallacies. But if we want to come to the truth and expose falsity, then we can’t sink to the level of using falsity to fight for the truth.