It seems as though, in pretty much every argument I’ve ever had, at some point or another someone mistakes what an “ad hominem attack” or the “ad hominem fallacy” really is. It’s a pretty easy way to score rhetorical points, shouting about your opponents using ad hominems when really they’re just insulting you, usually in parallel to making an argument. It’s less easy to score said rhetorical points when someone else in the conversation actually knows the difference and is willing to point that difference out. This post is intended to be a go-to reference any time someone makes this mistake, so please, by all means, link it whenever necessary.
The term “ad hominem” is Latin, meaning “to the man”. It indicates that your argument is directed at the person making it, rather than at the argument proper. Most of the time, it refers to insults, as with the following cases.
An ad hominem fallacy is constructed something like this.
Premise 1: You are an idiot. (Unstated premise 2: Idiots cannot argue worth a damn, and are always wrong.)
Conclusion: Therefore, your argument about X is incorrect.
A “mere insult” packaged in with an argument is constructed something like this:
Premise 1: Your argument X is incorrect and fails on such-and-such grounds if fact Y is true.
Premise 2: Fact Y is common knowledge, easily demonstrated, and/or has copious proof as to its truth.
Conclusion: Therefore, you are wrong about argument X (and also, you are an idiot).
As you can see, merely insulting someone does not rise to the level of an ad hominem attack or fallacy. One must make the insult as a PREMISE of the argument, rather than as part of the CONCLUSION.
Another formulation of the “mere insult” runs something like:
Premise 1: Your argument X is not true if the argument itself is nonsensical.
Premise 1a: If you are making an argument that is nonsensical, you are an idiot for making it
Premise 2: Argument X is nonsensical — it does not comport with laws of logic, grammar, or depends on verbal legerdemain rather than facts.
Conclusion: Therefore, argument X can be dismissed. Sub-conclusion: premise 1a holds true because premise 1 holds true.
In this construction, premise 1a can be cut right out without damaging the core of the argument. It is not a premise attempting to prove the stated conclusion, it is attempting to prove the sub-conclusion.
As Randomfactor points out in the comments below, there is another type of ad hominem attack, which does not involve insults but rather aspersions as to the motivations or ability of the person to make the argument. It also can be coupled with legitimate argumentation, but often isn’t. This is also often referred to as “poisoning the well/water”, as Ryan Dunlop states in the comments. It goes something like:
Premise 1: Only people in X group can argue about Y topic.
Premise 2: You are not in X group.
Conclusion: Therefore, your arguments have no merit.
There are some cases where such an argument is actually worth making — for instance, climate change denialists might offer alternative theories that attempt to explain the current warming trends the Earth is experiencing, but since they do not have the benefit of any experience in the field of climatology, their arguments are woefully uninformed. Such an argument might serve as a good indicator that the person involved does not have a thorough understanding of the topic they’re bloviating about, and their argument does not actually rise to the level of overturning any of the peer-reviewed research they are in the process of gainsaying. As an argument against a person, this type of ad hominem fails only if the arguments made by the target do not actually raise any significant questions among those who are demonstrably knowledgeable about the topic at hand. For instance, someone merely claiming CO2 concentration in the atmosphere does not act as a heat forcing, without accompanying evidence, can be dismissed out of hand with a mere “you’re not a climate scientist”. Someone actually demonstrating that CO2 does not block infrared radiation in the ways that we’ve understood for the past 150 years, on the other hand, might have something to their argument.
In other words, such ad hominems are acceptable in cases where a person provides specious or no evidence for their assertions, where the balance of evidence from all peer-reviewed science suggests the exact opposite of their assertions. In those cases, feel free to also call them an idiot.
Because it’s so easy to mistake an insult for an ad hominem attack, I’ve seen so many arguments devolve into premature victory laps based only on the arguer having psychologically manipulated their opponent into losing their cool first. Just because a person argues passionately, does not mean they are engaging in a logical fallacy, nor does it mean they have forfeited the rest of the argument made in a particular comment, much less forfeited the overall discussion.
All of this is not to say that rudeness itself is acceptable in every discourse — in some, being tactful will win you more points. In others, belittling your opponent is the correct course of action, when they’re making arguments with little or no grounding in reality. I personally have a tendency of ratcheting up the rudeness in direct correlation to how civilly my opponent presents their arguments — if you’re willing to be congenial and make an honest effort to argue your point without resorting to insults (no matter how clever or subtle you think they are), then I’m generally willing to do the same. If I’m in a particularly crotchety mood, I’ll throw out a few belittling barbs about a particular idea or group of ideas in my initial address, but once those are out of the way, then I’ll try to undertake arguing the ideas on their merit without resorting to name-calling of the people who attempt to defend them.
I can’t say I’m always successful at maintaining my composure, especially when others mistake my barbs about an idea for barbs about the people who hold that idea and start launching outright attacks. When people don’t understand that my insulting, say, Catholicism for being a polytheistic religion derived from Christianity designed to give cover to wide-scale abuses of the general populace, I’m not also insulting the general populace who happens to adhere to that particular faith. It generally saddens me when people assume that’s the case.
I hope this primer is useful in your discussions. Remember, folks, always formulate your arguments such that the idiocy of your opponent isn’t a premise in the core of your argument! Their idiocy should, by rights, go either in the conclusion or in a parallel argument.
To easily link this post, cut and paste the following into your comments:
Here's <a href="http://freethoughtblogs.com/lousycanuck/2011/09/15/what-is-an-ad-hominem-what-isnt/">the difference between an insult and an ad hominem</a>. You're welcome!