Ad Hominem Fallacy | Definition & Examples
Ad hominem fallacy (or ad hominem) is an attempt to discredit someone’s argument by personally attacking them. Instead of discussing the argument itself, criticism is directed toward the opponent’s character, which is irrelevant to the discussion.
Ad hominem fallacy is often used as a diversion tactic to shift attention to an unrelated point like a person’s character or motives and avoid addressing the actual issue. It is common in both formal and informal contexts, ranging from political debates to online discussions.
What is the ad hominem fallacy?
Ad hominem fallacy is a group of argumentation strategies that focus on the person making an argument rather than their viewpoint. This involves an attack on any aspect of the opponent’s personality, like their intelligence, reputation, or group affiliations. The attack can be subtle, such as casting doubt on a person’s character, or overt, like insulting someone.
The ad hominem fallacy is a logical fallacy, specifically a fallacy of relevance, i.e, the argument raised is irrelevant to the discussion. An ad hominem fallacy appeals to our emotions and prejudices rather than facts.
Ad hominem literally means “to the person” as in being “directed at the person.” An ad hominem argument is therefore an attack directed against the person who makes a statement rather than the validity of their statement. In everyday language, this is known as a personal attack.
The goal of an ad hominem argument or ad hominem attack is to refute an opposing view indirectly, without ever engaging with it. The target of the attack usually feels the need to defend themself and thus digress from the discussion topic, which shows just how powerful ad hominem arguments are.
When is an ad hominem argument valid?
An ad hominem argument is not always fallacious. Because ad hominem arguments have been associated with dirty tricks and name-calling, they are usually considered as hits below the belt that do not advance a healthy debate.
However, an ad hominem argument can sometimes be used as a legitimate rhetorical strategy. When the claims made about a person’s character are relevant to the discussion or the conclusions being drawn, and they are properly justified, the ad hominem argument is valid.
For example, attacks on a person who has cheated on their partner are irrelevant to the quality of their mathematical reasoning, but they are relevant to deciding whether this person should be the leader of an association that emphasizes family values.
Different types of ad hominem arguments
Ad hominem arguments can take various forms. In some cases, they are almost always a fallacy, while in other cases they can be valid depending on how they are used. Here are the most common types of ad hominem arguments:
- Abusive ad hominem is a direct attack on the other person’s character, targeting their age, character, gender identity, appearance, etc. Abusive ad hominem arguments are usually fallacious because the attack is irrelevant to the discussion. For example, “who is going to vote for a person looking like this?” is a fallacy because appearance has nothing to do with one’s leadership abilities.
- Circumstantial ad hominem (or appeal to motive) argues that a person’s circumstances, such as their job, political affiliation, or other vested interests, motivate their argument and thus it must be biased and false. For example, a salesperson may tell you that the pair of jeans you’re trying on looks good on you, and you may half-jokingly point out that of course they think so since they want to make a sale.
- Tu quoque (“you too”) ad hominem is an attempt to refute an argument by attacking its proponent and accusing them of hypocrisy (i.e , pointing to a contradiction between their words and their deeds). For example, a doctor suggests that a patient should lose weight, and the patient dismisses the advice on the grounds that the doctor has a few extra pounds too.
- Guilt by association ad hominem is a variant in which someone is attacked because of their alleged connection with a person or group that has an unfavorable reputation. For example, “Stalin was evil and against religion. All people against religion are evil.”
- Poisoning the well is a type of ad hominem where (irrelevant) negative information is preemptively presented to an audience to discredit whatever the opponent is about to say. For example, “before you listen to her, I should remind you that she has been charged with embezzlement.”
Ad hominem examples
The ad hominem argument or personal attack is very common in public discourse, especially in the run-up to elections.
An argument contains an ad hominem fallacy when you make an irrelevant attack on a person and suggest that this attack proves that what the person says cannot be trusted.
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Frequently asked questions about the ad hominem fallacy
- What happens in an ad hominem persuasive technique?
Ad hominem is a persuasive technique where someone tries to undermine the opponent’s argument by personally attacking them.
In this way, one can redirect the discussion away from the main topic and to the opponent’s personality without engaging with their viewpoint. When the opponent’s personality is irrelevant to the discussion, we call it an ad hominem fallacy.
- What is ad hominem tu quoque?
Ad hominem tu quoque (‘you too”) is an attempt to rebut a claim by attacking its proponent on the grounds that they uphold a double standard or that they don’t practice what they preach. For example, someone is telling you that you should drive slowly otherwise you’ll get a speeding ticket one of these days, and you reply “but you used to get them all the time!”
- What is argumentum ad hominem?
Argumentum ad hominem means “argument to the person” in Latin and it is commonly referred to as ad hominem argument or personal attack. Ad hominem arguments are used in debates to refute an argument by attacking the character of the person making it, instead of the logic or premise of the argument itself.
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