Logically Delicious is part of a continuing series within Thinking About Thinking. I’m hunting Bad Takes in The Wild, and exposing the logical fallacies that fester within.
THE FALLACY: Ad-Hominem
An “ad-hominem” is an argument that attacks a person rather than that person’s argument. It is translated as “Against the man,” although it should go without saying that this is using outdated terminology and this fallacy applies to all genders.
WHAT IT IS NOT: An insult.
If there are two formal fallacies which are cited and abused more frequently than any others, they are definitely ad-hominem and the strawman fallacy. (Stay tuned for another post on the latter!) Contrary to popular belief, “ad-hominem” is NOT just a fancy word for “insult.” An insult may be rude, but not necessarily fallacious. It might even be true! If, for example, someone calls you a “scammer,” you’re likely to feel insulted by that – but if you’re sending e-mails to people claiming to be Nigerian royalty and promising them a great fortune if they only send you $25 via money order to cover legal fees, well…
An insult does not become an ad-hominem attack until it is used in lieu of attacking another person’s argument. You could call someone every name in the book, but so long as you actually counter their central claims while doing so, you have not committed an ad-hominem attack. See the helpful diagram below.
WHY IT’S WRONG
The ad-hominem argument is wrong because it’s not an argument at all. Someone may be a horrible person. The worst! But that doesn’t automatically make any point they make invalid, as Clickhole has aptly demonstrated with an iconic piece of satire. Unless their character flaws are directly related to the argument – which is almost never the case – an ad-hominem is nothing more than a deflection from addressing anything of substance.
While ad-hominem is an often misdiagnosed fallacy, the genuine article is still quite easy to spot in the wild. Just watch any “team politics” political argument play out and you’re almost guaranteed to spot several! A hypothetical example I’m sure you’ve seen in the past few years:
Now of course, beauty, tact, and even taste are all subjective choices – they are in the eye of the beholder. You may agree with one or more of the statements made above. But none of them are arguments! Not one of them address central arguments made by these figures. Trump has small hands? OK, let’s assume that’s objectively true – what does it matter? How does this address his policies in any way? Ocasio-Cortez has expensive taste? Again, let’s assume this is objectively true – it says nothing about the idea of wealth redistribution as a political policy.
These non-arguments roll off the tongue so easily because they feel cathartic to the person making them. It feels good to get under your opponent’s skin. But even if you make your opponent angry, that doesn’t mean you’ve actually proven anything.
HOW TO CONFRONT THE FALLACY
This one is pretty easy and straightforward to confront. All one has to do is redirect the argument to the matter at hand. If you’re feeling cheeky, rather than act insulted, simply say “Yes, and? What does that have to do with [argument]?”
That wraps up this week’s installment of Logically Delicious. Stay tuned next week for more bad arguments, and keep following Thinking About Thinking for meta-commentary on patterns of mind!