Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Distinguishing ad hominem from all the other stuff

There are people who have trouble distinguishing ad hominem arguments from those that are genuine. What these objections frequently amount to is often little more than an unwillingness to make firm judgements, a willingness to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and a visceral objection to name-calling. But what if the label and the estimation of someone is accurate? Is it then okay to call them, for argument's sake, 'a creep'? Is that ad hominem?

Let's have a look. To cite one dictionary of logical fallacies, ad hominem arguments are those in which "the person presenting an argument is attacked instead of the argument itself."

Note the use of the word "instead." An ad hominem argument is one in which "the person presenting an argument is attacked instead of the argument itself." [Emphasis mine.] This means that is if one just baldy calls someone else an idiot without any valid argument for that judgement, then one is guilty of ad hominem. On the other hand, if one were to call Stalin, for example, a blood-soaked murdering swine then one would not be guilty of ad hominem -- one would simply be doing justice to the evidence and to Stalin's victims. Not to do so would be unjust, if not downright evasive.

The difference lies in whether or not an argument is proffered. Attacking a person instead of providing an argument takes out the man instead of the ball, which as any student of logic can tell you leaves the ball, ie., the argument, still in play. However, attacking a person on the basis of sound reasons to do so tackles both man and ball, something every good mid-field tackler these days aspires to do.

Whining that one has been attacked in such a fashion, or whining that one's friends have been attacked that way, is not an appeal to logic but nothing more than humbug. There is nothing wrong with judging someone -- in fact, speaking ethically, reality demands that we constantly judge others. As Ayn Rand explains, "Judge not that ye be not judged" may be the wet Cristian mantra on the subject; "judge, and be prepared to be judged" is a much sounder basis for evaluation of those one deals with:
"Judge not, that ye be not judged"... is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself. There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accesory to the torture and murder of his victims. The moral principle to adopt... is: "Judge, and be prepared to be judged."
LINKS: Attacking the Person (argumentum ad hominem) - Stephen's guide to the logical fallacies

TAGS: Philosophy, Objectivism


  1. No offence intended.. but I believe you've missed part of the definition. Specifically; It reads:
    "the person presenting an argument is attacked instead of the argument itself."

    I agree the emphasis should be on "instead" but in addition I believe there should be emphasis on "the argument itself". For example; an imaginary argument about 'motorobikes' involving Stalin and myself:

    [Stalin] I think the [bike1] motorbike is better than the [bike2] because of it's [facts/figures] and [facts/figures]
    [Me] You're a blood-soaked murdering swine, you [evidence] and [evidence], what do you know about motorbikes.

    Here, I am commiting ad-hominem. The reason it is ad-hominem is not based on whether I give argument or evidence to support my statement. It doesn't even matter whether my statement is true or false. It is ad-hominem because it attacks Stalin and not his argument about motorbikes AKA "the argument itself".

    Your link given is broken but a quick google results in:

    In fact, I already had an older version of that page bookmarked ;)

    Notice here that fallacy "Attacking the Person" is a sub-category of "Changing the subject". Notice also that the proof for ad-hominem reads:
    "Identify the attack and show that the character or circumstances of the person has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the proposition being defended."

    To me this indicates that the deciding factors are:
    1. What is the subject of the attack? is the subject the person? or the persons argument?
    2. If the subject is the person; do the character or circumstances of the person have any relevance to their argument?

    In my example above; The subject of my attack was Stalin. I cannot imagine how him being a "blood-soaked murdering swine" has any relevance to his argument about motorbikes AKA "the argument itself".

    Another link which I think is worth everybody reading is:

    specifically the defintion/description of a "deductive argument".

  2. [Thanks for the advice about the links.]

    Anonymous, you suggest that the fallacy of ad hominem suggests Stalin being a blood-soaked murdering swine should not discredit his argements about motorbikes. Strictly speaking this is true, although intellectual hygiene might suggest that one should take any arguments from such a man with at least a pinch of salt, and one certainly shouldn't turn your back when considering his arguments. Good logic means never dropping the full context.

    The greater point is that while your argument may be strictly true for the case you raise, the case you raise is not the one I argued.

    I was not talking about 'someone talking about motorbikes' but about judging a person's character. That is the argument's subject: character, and what do someone's arguments and behaviour show about their character.

    Specifically, what I was pointing out was that abuse per se is not ad hominem when the abuse is justified -- a point far too widely misunderstood.

    And frankly, evaluating people as, for example, trolls, evasive creeps, off-the-wall conspiracy theorists, or just boring apologists for the above is not just excellent intellectual hygiene, but the precursor for the necessary evasive actions.

  3. I think you both miss the point a bit -- argumentum ad hominem is when you attempt to argue from a fact about the person, rather than addressing their argument itself. This does not have to be an "attack":

    A: "I think abortion is wrong, because it's the murder of an innocent human being."

    B: "Yeah, but you're a priest -- of course you'd say that."

    That's an ad hominem argument, but it's not an attack.

    A: "I think abortion is wrong, because it's the murder of an innocent human being."

    B: "It's debatable that an undeveloped foetus counts as a human being, and if you weren't such a moron, you might see that."

    That's an attack, but it's not ad hominem. (I'm defining an attack as personal abuse here -- if you class simply arguing against someone's position as an attack, then those examples are both attacks and both arguments, but only one's ad hominem.)

    Calling Stalin a blood-soaked murdering swine is an attack, but it's not any sort of an argument -- it's just a statement. Arguing that because Stalin is a blood-soaked murdering swine, what he says about X is wrong is an ad hominem argument. As an objectivist, you must know that facts are true or false independently of who says them.

    It's not often that you can attack a person's character and their argument at the same time (questioning a witness's motivations for offering their testimony is one case) -- in most cases, any fact about a person's character has no bearing on whether or not what they say is true or valid.

    Now, if we're just talking about a rule of thumb, where you want to know if there's any point in listening to what someone's saying without having to take the time to properly analyse their arugments, then OK, their character and how much you trust them will matter. That's not argumentation, though.

  4. Josh, the point I'm making (and that you've overlooked) is that there is a distinction between the fallacy of ad hominem, which guards only against using someone's character as a mean of ruling out their argument, and judgement of someone's character on the basis of their actions and characteristic methods of arguments -- which we ar quite entitled to do.

    The distinction is nowhere near as obtuse as your comments suggest.

  5. In that case, I agree. We are indeed quite entitled to make judgements about other people's character. To do so is very rarely an argument in itself is what I'm saying.

    I think I'm mostly quibbling over terms here -- there seems to be a bit of equivocation between the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem and what appears to be a more colloquial use of "ad hominem" to mean any sort of a personal attack or insult in the context of an argument.

    In a comment above, you say "abuse per se is not ad hominem when the abuse is justified" -- whether or not the abuse is justified has nothing to do with whether or not it consitutes argumentum ad hominem, although that statment may be true if we're using "ad hominem" in the colloquial sense.

  6. Thanks Josh. You said,
    "There seems to be a bit of equivocation between the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem and what appears to be a more colloquial use of "ad hominem" to mean any sort of a personal attack or insult in the context of an argument."

    Which is preciely the distinction I'm tryign to clear up. The fomer is ad hominem, and a logical fallacy. The latter is not. It may be impolite, it may be ill-mannered -- and it may of course be entirely correct to boot -- but it is not ad hominem.

  7. Josh -- My use of the word attack was as simply arguing against someone's position. It appears we are in agreement.

    PC -- You say we should judge a persons character. I agree. The distinction you're after is; Using those judgements as a means to discredit their argument is ad-hominem. The key factor is in the relevance of the comments to the argument. If you comment has no bearing on their argument, yet you try to state or imply it does, you are commiting ad-hominem. Anything else is just abuse, whether justified or not.