Ad Hominem Fallacies
At times during a discourse episode where arguments are being advanced, a participant
will adduce considerations about the person advancing the argument (e.g., their character,
habits, appearance, etc.). This argumentative move is known as the ad hominem.
This move is dangerous because it often introduces considerations that are irrelevant to
the argument advanced by the speaker, and so is at best misleading and at worst
disruptive. However, as with many of the argument forms we considered in Chapter 10, this
one can be used to positive effect as well. Here is a classification of ad hominem moves:
- Ad Hominem Attack: if in response to a contribution made by speaker A to
an argument, speaker B questions A's character, motives, or right to speak, then B makes
an ad hominem attack. (Note that the attack is not directed at the argument A advances,
but only surrounding conditions.) These can be justified or unjustified; whether these are
justified or not depends on whether they are relevant to the argument advanced.
- If you question a person's motives and it turns out that they are in fact driven to
speak by questionable motives, your attack is justified.
- If they are driven by other, more selfless motives, then your attack is not justified.
If you attack their right to speak and they have none, you are justified; if they do have
the right, your attack is unjustified.
- Ad Hominem Argument: if B calls into question A's person as a way of
attacking the argument that A is advancing, then B makes an ad hominem argument. These can
also be justified or unjustified.
- If B's argument raises questions about the soundness of A's arguments, then the ad
hominem argument is justified. For example, if A is noted for stretching the truth and B
points this out, that would be relevant given that we would wish to evaluate A's claims
- If B advances an ad hominem argument that does not give us any reason to question the
truth of A's claims or the soundness of A's argument, the B's argument will be unjustified
and will be what we call an ad hominem fallacy. Many ad hominem arguments are
fallacious, primarily because the argument advanced does not usually depend for its
legitimacy on the person advancing it.