Critical Thinking 8: Ad hominem

Ad hominem is a Latin phrase meaning ‘to the man’, and it is the label for a particular kind of fallacy in Critical Thinking. Sometimes this is known as “playing the man, not the ball”. It consists in an irrelevant appeal to the nature of a person to either support or dismiss their argument (usually to dismiss it). The following video gives some different types and examples:

The following video gives a great example from a US election campaign.

Here the argument is against Dan Quayle, comparing him unfavourably to Jack Kennedy even though he never claimed to be like Jack Kennedy, but merely compared his degree of experience to that of Kennedy. This is a kind of reversed guilt by association, dismissing Quayle’s argument about his suitability to stand in for the president through an irrelevant personal comparison.Sniper

However, there are some circumstances where it is relevant and appropriate to judge an argument by the character of the arguer. This is obviously the case if that person’s character is the subject of the discussion. So, if, for example, someone boasted in a job interview that they would make a good manager because they used to captain their school football team, it would not be ad hominem to respond that their criminal record undermined this claim by showing other characteristics that would not fit being a good manager. On the other hand, if someone said “The Scots won’t vote for independence: I saw a poll showing the majority were still against it” it would be an irrelevant personal observation to say “You’ve got a criminal record, so I don’t think you can offer any acceptable view of political matters.”

A person’s character may affect their credibility (which I discussed in Critical Thinking 7), but credibility gives an argument incrementally more or less weight. It never justifies the absolute acceptance or dismissal of an argument on the grounds of character. So, to spot an ad hominem, look out for sweeping dismissals (or occasionally, sweeping acceptances) without any incremental engagement with the complex inter-relationship between character and argument.


Are the following fallacious ad hominems, or reasonable and relevant comments on character, or somewhere in between?

1. Harriet Harman has recently been in dispute with the Daily Mail over allegations that her past involvement with the National Council for Civil Liberties, at a time when the Paedophile Information Exchange was an affiliate of NCCL, meant that she was an “apologist for paedophilia”. Harman posted a tweet, in which she included a picture from Mail Online showing three bikini-clad girls (all under 18), and asked: “When it comes to decency and sexualisation of children, would you take lessons from the Daily Mail?”

2. ‘Gentlemen of the jury, because I have justice on my side, I am sure you will not be influenced by this gentleman’s pretended knowledge of the law. Why. he doesn’t even know which side of his shirt ought to be in front!’  Abraham Lincoln

3. David Cameron was elected promising “the greenest government ever”, but the number of international flights taken by the Prime Minister with his entourage is just as high as the number taken by his predecessors.

4. The baby boomer generation, who have benefitted massively from rising property prices without lifting a finger, have no right to tell younger people that they will have to work hard for a decent living.

5. George Osborne has a 2:1 in Modern History from Oxford. That hardly equips him to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post that obviously requires a profound grasp of Economics.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

5 thoughts on “Critical Thinking 8: Ad hominem

  1. 1. Harman’s riposte has something of ‘tu quoque’ to it, and does little to elevate the level of debate about the possible exploitation of childrens’ notional sexuality, which I think is rather of the essence here. Whatever might be the Mail’s motives for raising the issue of Harman’s alleged support for PIE, it’s a legitimate journalistic pursuit, so I think Harman’s response is weak, lacks relevance and perhaps proportionality, and might be described as the pot calling the kettle black.

    2. Lincoln uses undisguised ridicule to diminish his legal adversary, suggesting that he is so disorganised that he can’t dress himself properly, let alone hold a brief. This is a brutal but possibly very effective ad hominem assault. I can ruefully admire Lincoln’s balls, but he rather loses my respect.

    3. Cameron’s use of airplanes may in the long run bear some relevance to his ‘green credentials’, but a valid comparison with his predecessor’s record is not supported by any evidence to justify what seems to be a claim that he has reneged on a promise.

    4. The argument advanced here about the fortunes of baby-boomers uses hyperbolic and overblown terms (“massive benefits; without lifting a finger”) as if to disqualify a generation of elders from offering reasonable advice to their young on the current state of affairs. But the value of any such advice must necessarily be mitigated by the rather better living conditions enjoyed by a majority of older people during their lifetimes.

    5. George Osborne’s Oxford degree is only one of a number of possible recommendations to his appointment to an office of state: his undergraduate degree may well have led to higher academic qualifications and further significant experience relevant to a Chancellor’s remit. By not taking wider account of his career and in-post performance, this comment seems partial and small-minded, thus an ‘ad hominen’ criticism.

  2. 1.
    Daily Mail accuses H. Harman of guilt by association, an ad hominen fallacy. H. H. used a irrelevant appeal to the nature of the Daily Mail writers in order to dismiss their attack.
    ‘I have justice on my side’ is hypocracy, not a relevant form of argument, a form of ad hominen.
    The personal attack is a logical fallacy.
    MP ‘ the greenest government ever’ is an ad hominem argument – a sweeping statement trying to sway the voters.
    The baby boomers are using an irrelvent argument by accusing the young generation of guilt by association when they may not have done well from their parents wealth, it is an irrelevent argument, so is an ad hominem fallacy.
    Here is a personal attack on George Osborne, one type of ad hominem which is not a valid argument. It may of course be true but that is irrelevent, would that be a circumstantial form of ad hominem?

  3. 1. There’s possibly an element of ‘guilt by association’ or a smear campaign in the Mail’s pursuit of this story. Nevertheless it appears a topic to be worth investigating. Harman’s ‘tu quoque’ response is weak.
    2. A fairly crude, blatant ad hominem attack.
    3. Another example of ‘tu quoque’. Although he’s potentially being somewhat hypocritical, it doesn’t address whether he’s kept his promise or not.
    4. A ‘guilt by association’ sweeping ad hominem that shouldn’t disqualify this generation from giving advice. The young could understandably feel hard done by though.
    5. This ignores the probability that Osborne has a wide range of skills, qualifications and attributes that make him suitable for the job. A weak ad hominem.

  4. Thanks for the responses, and sorry about the delay in getting back to you this time. Here would be my answers:
    1. I agree with everyone here that Harman’s response is ad hominem (also tu quoque, yes). The Mail’s original article could also be seen as ad hominem, but two ad hominems don’t make a justified argument!
    2. Ad hominem. Not made any less so by the fact that it is Abraham Lincoln!
    3. I agree with everyone that this is largely ad hominem. The number of international flights is at best a very small part of the potential greenness or otherwise of the government.
    4. Again, agreed with everyone – this is ad ad hominem and also tu quoque
    5. Here I’d disagree, as I think this statement is OK if you interpret it carefully. It doesn’t deny that Osborne may have other qualifications for being Chancellor of the Exchequer, just states relevantly that a history degree is hardly sufficient qualification.

  5. Yes, this reply to 5. has helped me understand that I should examine the statement, rather than conjecture about the apparent thought (or apparent lack of thought) in the mind of the one who made it.

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