If I suggested you read this, it is because you used “ad hominem” wrong

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The term “ad hominem” means directed against a person.

If you are a racist, and I say you are a racist, then my statement is ad hominem. Note that the statement may be technically correct. I’m saying something about you, and you really are a racist, so my statement is correct. On the other hand, if you are not a racist, and I say you are a racist, that is an incorrect ad hominem statement. My statement is incorrect. Either way, I have not committed an “ad hominem fallacy.” I’ve simply made a statement about you, that may or may not have been correct.

So, what the heck is the meaning of the term “ad hominem fallacy” you may ask? (Note that the term “ad hominem” itself, or “ad hom” for short, has come to imply “ad hominem fallacy.”) In the above example, you might think that if I call you a racist and you are, that I have not committed a fallacy, but if you are a racist, I’ve not. In neither of the above examples, have I committed the ad hominem fallacy.

If I sent you to this post to read it, it is more likely because I think you’ve committed the fallacy of the ad hominem fallacy. This is a meta-fallacy. You have claimed that an ad hominem fallacy has occurred because someone has called someone a racist (or some other nasty thing, I’m using “racist” as an example here, obviously) whether the accusation is right or wrong. But your reference to the ad hominem fallacy is in fact a fallacy because none of that relates to what an ad hominem fallacy actually is.

An ad hominem fallacy is when you are arguing over an issue, like are cats better than dogs, and you go after the person you are arguing with and attack them as a person as part of your argument. That is not the same as the question of whether the person is in fact worthy of this attack.

Let me give you an example.

Me: Cats are better than dogs.

Hitler: No, dogs are better than cats.

Me: No. You are, in fact, Hitler, and Hitler is a total jerk, so therefore, cats are better than dogs.

Here, I am wrong in two ways. First, you can’t say that cats are better than dogs. Or visa versa. Second, I’m arguing that the other guy in this argument is wrong because he is a jerk. I was committing an ad hominem fallacy.

However, I am right about one thing. Hitler is a jerk. So, let’s play it out again from a slightly different angle.

Me: Cats are better than dogs.

Hitler: No, dogs are better than cats.

Me: Hitler, you are a complete jerk, did you know that?

Hitler: So I’ve been told.

Me: In any event, you are wrong. Cats are better than dogs.

Hitler: Really, you can’t say one is better than the other.

Me: You know, you are right about that. You are still a jerk.

Hitler: So I’ve been told.

Hitler is still bad.
Here, our discussion about cats vs. dogs actually came to a reasonable conclusion and, indeed, a consensus. Who knew both Hitler and I could be so reasonable? Also, I made an ad hominem attack on Hitler. I called him a jerk. In so doing, I did not commit an ad hominem fallacy. I made a statement of belief about Hitler’s jerkiness, and very likely, I was right. I did not use Hitler’s jerkiness as part of my argument about cats vs. dogs. Even if I was wrong, and Hitler is a nice guy with a bad reputation, my statement was still not an ad hominem fallacy. It might have been wrong, but it was not an ad hominem fallacy. It was about him, so technically, it was “ad hominem” but not a fallacy.

An ad hominem fallacy is when you use a personal attack on a person in order to devalue or dismiss an argument they are making. It is NOT when you make a statement about the person, which may or may not be a personal attack, in and of itself. I maintain Hitler is a jerk, and I don’t care about cats vs dogs. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but while that is an attack on the man, it is not a logical fallacy. If I say his opinion about dogs vs cats is wrong because he is a jerk, THAT is an ad hominem fallacy.

I sent you here because I think you got that wrong, and I wrote this post because I’m weary of that common fallacy, about a fallacy, being toted out in the middle of arguments.

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4 thoughts on “If I suggested you read this, it is because you used “ad hominem” wrong

  1. Re: “ad hominem”
    Interesting, I’ve never thought about that particular point and when I looked “ad hominem” up in my old dictionary,* after giving the Latin literal meaning, it had only the following definition: “appealing to one’s prejudices rather than to reason, as by attacking one’s opponent rather than debating the issue”.

    At least in that dictionary context is apparently important. An “ad hominem” comment is out of bounds — i.e., a kind of fallacy** — in what is supposed to be a scientific argument or a debate, which is the usage which I’ve seen the most.

    It could be just a case of long-continued usage becoming the meaning of a word or phrase rather than its original but now seldom-used meaning, or its plain meaning in the original language from which it was adopted or derived.

    * Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition (1984).
    ** One of that dictionary’s definitions of “fallacy” is, in part, “flaw or defect in argument”.

    In future, I intend to avoid use of the term and just say what I mean in plain English.

  2. I want to speak up in favor of the ad hominem argument. It’s often a handy heuristic, an intellectual labor-saving device. In an environment of discourse in which the Dunning-Kruger effect is demonstrated in every other comment, it’s not out of bounds to say that someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Daniel Davies has famously stipulated that known liars are not due the benefit of the doubt.

    The strong ad hominem argument, that because you’re a jerk you’re wrong, is obviously false. However, it’s reasonable to ignore purported facts put forward by known liars, the racist theories of notorious racists, or more generally the notions of the ill-informed. They’re not worthy of our limited attention.

  3. I find it difficult to accept an argument from someone who uses “visa versa” in place of vice versa. Since I haven’t called him a name, am I using ad hominem logic?

    1. You are addressing his ability to recognize and use proper terminology, rather than the substance of his argument. So — pending my finding through a search that “visa versa” is in fact a valid alternative to “vice versa” — I would say it’s an ad hominem but not a case of the ad hominem fallacy.

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