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 example
Person 1: I think it is important to enforce minimum-wage legislation so that workers are not exploited.

Person 2: Nonsense. You only say that because you just can’t get a good job!

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.

Ad hominem fallacy

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.

Ad hominem example in the media
In the 2020 presidential election, both candidates resorted to ad hominem attacks during the presidential debate, their speeches, and on social media.

President Trump claimed Biden is “against God” and on the “wrong side of history,” while Democrats were attacked for viewing America as “a wicked nation that must be punished for its sins.”

On the other side, Joe Biden used a similar approach and claimed “the fact is this man has no idea what he’s talking about,” accusing his opponent of receiving payment from foreign countries.

Regardless of one’s political affiliations, ad hominem attacks are hollow arguments that communicate nothing and play to our emotions, biases, and prejudices. As a result, important issues often don’t get addressed, leading to increased political polarization.

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.

Ad hominem example in real life
A professor is presenting their latest research on quantum mechanics to a group of colleagues. At the end of the presentation, a person whispers to the other: “I don’t believe a word. I think it’s all made-up. Do you realize that this person has been cheating and lying to their partner for years?”

In this context, whether the professor cheated on their partner has no bearing on their ability as a researcher. Therefore, the ad hominem argument is fallacious. Had the professor falsified research data in the past, then it would have been fair to bring this up and cast doubt on the professor’s research ethic.

Other interesting articles

If you want to know more about fallacies, research bias, or AI tools, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

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.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, October 09). Ad Hominem Fallacy | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/fallacies/ad-hominem-fallacy/

Sources

Lillo-Unglaube, M., Canales-Johnson, A., Navarrete, G., & Bravo, C. (2014). Toward an experimental account of argumentation: the case of the slippery slope and the ad hominem arguments. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01420

Is this article helpful?
Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.