I. What is Ad Hominem?
Ad hominem is Latin for “against the man,” and refers to the logical fallacy (error) of arguing that someone is incorrect because they are unattractive, immoral, weird, or any other bad thing you could say about them as a person. This is a logical error (even though it may work) because a person’s character is irrelevant to whether they are correct or incorrect. A “logical fallacy” is an argumentative error and there are dozens of types.
II. Examples of Ad Hominem
A popular strategy in casual debates, where the topic being debated may not even be addressed at all. Let’s say Andy and Barbara are discussing whether or not aliens exist. Andy says, “Earth is only one of countless planets in the universe. Since many of those planets are similar to Earth, it’s almost ignorant to assume there are no alien races of significant advancement.” There is Andy’s argument. Barbara replies, “Didn’t you get a D in Astronomy?” Her defense ignores Andy’s logic completely. Instead, it casts doubt on Andy’s intelligence and knowledge. That might seem like a good point, since astronomy is related to his point, but it’s still an ad hominem error because the only thing that really matters logically is exactly what Andy said, not his grades.
III. Types of Ad Hominem
This variety of ad hominem is a direct “character assassination” of the opponent, undermining their credibility (believability) and status to the audience. Implying that the speaker is insane, immoral, or uneducated is common. The idea of course, is that if a person is insane, evil, stupid, or ignorant, it is sensible not to believe them. However, if you are going to argue against them, you need to address their arguments!
This type of ad hominem is similar, but it does not attack the integrity of the speaker. Instead, it focuses on the situation surrounding the subject in order to create doubt. For example, Megan wants to go eat at an expensive café for dinner, but Laura complains of the overpriced menu. A circumstantial argument from Megan would be: “Well, it’s not my fault that you’re broke.” Laura’s funds may give her a reason for the complaining, but they may not; Laura could be complaining that the food isn’t good enough to justify its prices, in which case, Megan is making an ad hominem circumstantial attack rather than arguing with Laura’s reasoning.
c. Tu quoque
Tu quoque is Latin for “You, too,” and is the equivalent of deflecting a point—or an ad hominem attack—back onto its source. When Laura complains of the overpriced item menus at the café, Megan could say, “You didn’t seem to mind charging me twenty bucks for those seashell earrings you made!” Rather than perhaps defending the quality of the ingredients or the rules for pricing, she attacks Laura for overcharging her for jewelry.
d. Poisoning the Well
This ad hominem attack involves saying something to make people prejudiced against your opponent’s position, without addressing the argument. Gerald and Mandy are discussing wedding reception venues; Gerald wants it to be at his aunt’s vineyard, and Mandy wants it to be on the beach. Mandy could say, “But this marriage isn’t for that bimbo,” which undermines the vineyard without addressing it. Likewise, Gerald could say, “Do you just want a big hippie party, instead of a real reception?” which insults the location of the beach by associating it with hippies.
IV. The Importance of Ad Hominem
Ad hominem is a logical fallacy which is used very often in the media, politics, and real life debate. You may be persuaded by ad hominem attacks, but if you look at them closely, you’ll realize that they are wrong. That’s why it’s important to know about ad hominem and other logical fallacies–so that you won’t be fooled by them and can deflect them away from yourself in debates. You can also use them, of course.
V. Example of Ad Hominem in Literature
Possibly the most popular literary work to illustrate this rhetorical device is the play The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, about the Salem witch-trials. In this play, several young girls accuse other members of the community of witchcraft. They use personal insults and irrelevant information about each other’s home lives to influence public opinion.
In this excerpt, a court official (Cheever) tells the judge, Danforth, that Proctor (who defends the accused townspeople) works on Sunday instead of attending church. The “Mr. Parris” they mention is the pastor of the church:
Proctor: I—I have no love for Mr. Parris. It is no secret. But God, surely, do I love.
Cheever: He plow on Sunday, sir.
Danforth: Plow on Sunday!
Cheever: I think it be evidence, John. I am an official of the court. I cannot keep it.
Proctor: I—I have once or twice plowed on Sunday. I have three children, sir, and until last year my land give little.
In this scene, the honesty of the character John Proctor is questioned not because his story was inconsistent, but because he plows on Sunday, casting a shadow of doubt on his Christian piety. Even though the judge continues to say that he “judges nothing,” he also goes on to disregard Proctor’s testimony and says that he has no reason to doubt the accusations being made by the girls. Of course, Cheever has used another tricky technique here at the same time, by making the Judge afraid that if he accepts Proctor’s testimony, he (the judge) might look like a bad Christian.
VI. Example of Ad Hominem in Pop Culture
Ad hominem appears on television all the time in politics, advertising, and debate. One example would be the famous line of testimony:
He would say that, wouldn’t he?
– witness Mandy Rice-Davies during the Profumo affair, a scandal involving a British politician and his relationship with a young girl.
She is implying that the politician is a habitual liar (ad hominem) so nothing he says should be believed. Although this might seem sensible, there’s a good reason that we’re not supposed to listen to fallacies in court; we can only know what’s true from logic and evidence.
This is the genetic fallacy is the subtype of logical fallacies to which ad hominem belongs. Genetic fallacy states that the source of the statement automatically disqualifies the statement from consideration.
Guilt by Association
This is sometimes a form of ad hominem, in which someone or argument is judged negatively because of others that share the same position. For example, if a politician campaigns for socialized healthcare or education, they will always be accused of Communism, which has such a bad name in America through being associated with totalitarian regimes in the U.S.S.R., China, and North Korea. Never mind that all of Europe has socialized healthcare and medicine.