Ad Hominem

Ad Hominem Definition

Ad hominem (Latin) means “against the man”. As the name suggests, it is a literary term that involves commenting on or against an opponent to undermine him instead of his arguments.

There are cases where consciously or unconsciously people start to question the opponent or his personal association rather than evaluating the soundness and validity of the argument that he presents. These types of arguments are usually mistaken for personal insults but they are somehow different in nature and the distinction is very subtle.

Arguers who are not familiar with the principles of making logical arguments commonly end up saying something that would draw the audience’s attention to the distasteful characteristics of the individual. Such people use this fallacy as a tool to deceive their audience. Making such a blatant personal comment against somebody makes it hard for people to believe it isn’t true. Typically, even the arguer himself believes that such personal traits or circumstances are not enough to dispose of an individual’s opinion or argument. However, if looked at rationally, such arguments even if true never provide a valid reason to disregard someone’s criticism.

Ad Hominem Examples

1. Just look at this common example.

“How can you argue your case for vegetarianism when you are enjoying your steak?”

This clearly shows how a person is attacked instead of being addressed for or against his argument.

2. A classic example of ad hominem fallacy is given below:

A: “All murderers are criminals, but a thief isn’t a murderer, and so can’t be a criminal.”
B: “Well, you’re a thief and a criminal, so there goes your argument.”

3. Another example of ad hominem fallacy is taken from Velonews: The Journal of Competitive Cycling. After an article about the retirement of Lance Armstrong, its webpage shared a post with its readers. A commenter posted a comment saying how great an athlete Armstrong was and that the people should be proud of his achievements.

Another commenter wrote in response to the first commenter:

He’s not a great athlete; he’s a fraud, a cheat and a liar. That’s why not everybody is “happy for Lance.”

The reasons given by the arguer may very well be true but he does not support his argument with reason and logic. He rather takes the disregarding approach. He does not say anything to prove that the premises it proposes are problematic, instead he goes on attacking the person who proposed them.

Functions of Ad Hominem

A writer’s background is considered to be a very important factor when it comes to judging his work. A book written on a particular subject in history will be perceived differently keeping in view the background of the author. Therefore, it is important to understand that a writer’s traits and circumstances have a pivotal role to play in his feelings, thinking and the construction of his arguments.

To put it simply, the considerations regarding the use of ad hominem can explain certain arguments and the motives behind them better. Nevertheless, such considerations are not enough on their own to evaluate an individual’s opinion and are certainly not sufficient to disregard them as false or invalid. The fact is that ad hominem is a kind of fallacy that leaves a great impression on the audience’s mind. It is an argumentative flaw that is hard to spot in our daily life. Although, the personal attack that has been made on the opponent might not even have a speck of truth in it, it somehow makes the audience biased. Ironically, despite being flawed, ad hominem has an amazing power of persuasion.

The worst thing about using ad hominem purposely is that an opponent insults you publicly. Whenever this happens to you, you must recover from the humiliation and then point out the false connection in the argument, which was used a trap for the audience. Moreover, the dilemma with ad hominem is that once it has been used against you it smears your reputation. Once somebody makes such a judgmental argument about you, the audience instead of evaluating it on logical grounds take it to be true.

11 comments for “Ad Hominem

  1. Tony
    December 4, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    In the Lance Armstrong case above to avoid an ad hominem attack the responder should have stated that he is likely not as great an athlete as is thought because his accomplishments were achieved using performance enhancing methods. Is this correct?

    • mandy
      December 18, 2015 at 10:52 am

      correct!

  2. Fawzi
    January 3, 2016 at 8:39 pm

    I find the lance example very perplexing. To me, the argument seems very clear. His accomplishments should be disregarded because he is a fraud and cheat. If someone cheats, their accomplishments are not so significant, is that not so? How is this an Ad hominem?

    • TheMessenger
      January 12, 2016 at 7:37 am

      I believe this is not an ad hominem attack, and you are correct to be perplexed. He is a great athlete is being contested by the reason that he is a fraud and a cheat. The reason he is a dumped to be a great athlete is his past performance, which has recently been called into question. If he said he is not a great athlete because he is a racist, or because he beats his wife, or because he only has one testicle – that is more clearly an ad hominem attack. I do hope that I am not incorrect in this assumption – but I think it is fair to say that fact that he cheated gave him victories that without them we would not consider him to be great. In additiin, a great athlete has integrity, which he apparently did not exhibit. Since greatness is subjective, the attack is not ad hominem.

    • Cassie
      January 13, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      But him cheating does not make him a terrible athelete. It makes him a cheater. The two are not necessarily one in the same. A cheater can be a great athelete. Just because he cheats does not mean he lacks the ability.

      • J. E. Brayshaw
        February 18, 2016 at 7:49 pm

        The problem is how you define “great”. Good NFL running back beats his wife. Limits him from being ‘great’ anything, except a THuG. If he had been on performance enhancing drugs, it impacts on considering his athletic achievement. I personally consider the total individual. Walter Payton nominees rank higher with me than average showboat pro bowl selected. Same for Academic All-American.

  3. Chris Porter
    January 13, 2016 at 11:01 am

    I agree with the Armstrong questioning; even the vegetarian example, although accurate as far as what ad hominem means, is, in my opinion, not an invalid form of ending debate. How can a vegetarian have any credibility (if they are indeed chewing on a steak while discussing the merits of vegetarianism) to further debate the issue of its legitimacy? To point this out is scorned on by the literary world? No wonder everyone thinks academics are elitists.

  4. Cassie
    January 13, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    … And I apparently cannot spell athlete.

  5. L Boggs
    February 14, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    One can present the merits of any argument without being a participant in what the argument advocates. The argument should be able to stand on its own if it is a strong one. Truth is independent of its delivery. How could anyone advocate for societal change otherwise? They are not yet members of the kind of society they hope to achieve. A drug addict can argue persuasively that drugs are destructive because strong reasons support that. The meat lover could use their own health consequences as convincing evidence for the merits of vegetarianism. I might disagree with him, but I can still respect the merits of his argument.

  6. Bill
    February 25, 2016 at 12:00 am

    Example 2 is NOT an Ad Hominem fallacy.

    It’s a logic reversal; “Affirming The Consequent” fallacy.

    A correct statement of the form “if P then Q” gets turned into “Q therefore P”.

    For example,

    “All cats die; Socrates died; therefore Socrates was a cat.”

    Ad Hominem attacks do not address the
    facts, it just says, the person is a creep (whatever)

  7. Jason
    February 27, 2016 at 8:02 am

    Thanks for the article and in fact, for a very useful website indeed.
    This device is used too often nowadays. But sometimes, I think, it is a valid way to counter the arguments as in the example about vegetarianism.

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