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January 6, 2009

By Rady Ananda

We’ve all done it.  We’re all guilty of it.  The best way to avoid it is if we understand what exactly constitutes argumentum ad hominem (argument directed at the person).  The short and sweet answer is:

The relevant question is not who makes the argument, but whether the argument is valid.1

Most debates on the internet are of “very low quality.”2  They fail logically.  They often devolve into abusive rants.  This deters members from posting comments or articles.  It destroys community.  It also defeats the beauty of debate and dissent.  As this forum encourages debate, we want our comments to be “above the fray.”  The ideas presented below are a small sampling of the discussion on ad hominem attacks that can be found on the web. 

“An [ad hominem] argument is based on the failings of an adversary rather than on the merits of the case; [it is] a logical fallacy that involves a personal attack.”3

“An argument that is ad hominem is one that has deviated from the claims being made and has instead focused on the person making the claims.”4

“The abusive ad hominem is not just a case of directing abusive language toward another person. . . . The fallacy is committed when one engages in a personal attack as a means of ignoring, discrediting, or blunting the force of another’s argument.

“Although some faulty arguers may call attention to distasteful features of their opponents in order to manipulate the responses of their audience, most abusers apparently believe that such characteristics actually provide good reasons for ignoring or discrediting the arguments of those who have them. Logically, of course, the fact that any of these characteristics might fit an opponent provides no reason to ignore or discredit his or her arguments or criticisms.” 5

People’s motives, their intelligence, their race, party affiliation, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, employer, etc. is irrelevant to the debate.  Commenting on someone’s features – whether true or not – misdirects the audience through potent insults in an illogical attempt to discredit the ideas put forth.  Just because someone is “stupid” does not mean the argument has no merit.  That’s a logical fallacy.  By hurling insults, questioning the person’s motives, or employer, you engage in ad hominem attacks. 

But, this is only the most obvious form of ad hominem attacks. They can be subtle, too.

“[Another] manifestation of argumentum ad hominem is attacking a source of information — for example, responding to a quotation from Richard Nixon on the subject of free trade with China by saying, “We all know Nixon was a liar and a cheat, so why should we believe anything he says?”

“Argumentum ad hominem also occurs when someone’s arguments are discounted merely because they stand to benefit from the policy they advocate — such as Bill Gates arguing against antitrust, rich people arguing for lower taxes, white people arguing against affirmative action, minorities arguing for affirmative action, etc. In all of these cases, the relevant question is not who makes the argument, but whether the argument is valid.”6

Keeping the bolded part in mind makes it easy to recognize whether a comment is ad hominem or valid.  Here are some more forms of argumentum ad hominem:

When you try to “persuade someone to accept a statement you make, by referring to that person’s particular circumstances. For example:

‘It is perfectly acceptable to kill animals for food. I hope you won’t argue otherwise, given that you’re quite happy to wear leather shoes.’

“This is known as circumstantial argumentum ad hominem. The fallacy can also be used as an excuse to reject a particular conclusion. For example:

‘Of course you’d argue that positive discrimination is a bad thing. You’re white.’

“This particular form of Argumentum ad Hominem, when you allege that someone is rationalizing a conclusion for selfish reasons, is also known as “poisoning the well. It’s not always invalid to refer to the circumstances of an individual who is making a claim. If someone is a known perjurer or liar, that fact will reduce their credibility as a witness.  It won’t, however, prove that their testimony is false in this case.  It also won’t alter the soundness of any logical arguments they may make.”7

Watch when making “you” statements.  ‘You’ or ‘your’ is a tip-off you’re about to personalize something.

“[T]he truth of an assertion doesn’t depend on the virtues of the person asserting it.”8

San Jose State University characterizes the most frequent ad hominem appeals as attacks on:

  • personality, traits, or identity:
    • “Are you going to agree with what that racist pig is saying?”
    • “Of course she’s in favor of affirmative action. What do you expect from a black woman?”
  • affiliation, profession, or situation:
    • “What’s the point of asking students whether they support raising tuition? They’re always against any increase.”
    • “Oh yeah, prison reform sounds great–until you realize that the man proposing it is himself an ex-con.”
  • inconsistent actions, statements, or beliefs:
    • “How can you follow a doctor’s advice if she doesn’t follow it herself?”
    • “Sure, he says that today, but yesterday he said just the opposite.”
  • source or association for ideas or support:
    • “Don’t vote for that new initiative–it was written by the insurance lobby!”
    • “You can’t possibly accept the findings of that study on smoking–it was paid for by the tobacco industry.”

“The point is that each argument must be evaluated in its own right.  Information or suspicions about vested interests, hidden agendas, predilections, or prejudices should, at most, make you more vigilant in your scrutiny of that argument–but they should not be allowed to influence its evaluation.

“Only in the case of opinions, expert and otherwise, where you must rely not on the argument or evidence being presented but on the judgment of someone else, may personal or background information be used to evaluate the ideas expressed. If, for example, a used car vendor tries to prove to you that the car in question is being offered at lower than the average or ‘blue book’ price, you must ignore the fact that the vendor will profit from the sale, and evaluate the proof. If, on the other hand, that used car vendor says, ‘Trust me, this is a good deal,’ without further proofs or arguments, you are entitled to take into account the profit motive, the shady reputation of the profession, and anything else you deem to be relevant as a condition of ‘trust.’” 9

Writers are often people of great intelligence and creativity.  The tough thing for those with a brain (or any talent, really) is to recognize how incredibly hurtful we can be when we show impatience at others who aren’t as smart or talented, or who simply don’t think the way we do.  All of us have different worldviews.  The level of intolerance we sometimes show each other is remarkably similar to religious fundamentalists. 

We need to think and write critically.  We need to use diplomacy, tact and grace.  Keep our judgments about other people’s ideas off the table.  Stick to the facts and conclusions.  Debate the facts and/or conclusions.  Keep our emotions out of it. 

We’re not sitting around in some bar or in our private homes having these discussions.  We’re writing this stuff in public, on a popular website that gets over 700,000 unique visitors a month.  We are diplomats of progressive ideals and Leftist thought.  We have to act accordingly. 


1 Glen Whitman. Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate. California State University Northridge, 2001.

2 mathew, Logic & Fallacies: Constructing a Logical Argument, Infidels.org, 1997.

3 Richard Nordquist, ad hominem.

4 N.S. Gill, Ad Hominem.

5 T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 4th ed., Wadsworth, 2001, as cited by Richard Nordquist, ibid.

6 Whitman, ibid.

7 mathew, ibid.

8 mathew, ibid.

9 San Jose State University, Mission: Critical

Also see Ad Hominem Fallacies of Relevance.