[Today's guest post by Nate Sheets in the third of a series. The next post in the series will arrive sometime next week.]
Like the Straw Man last week, this week’s logical fallacy is one of the more commonly-known logical fallacies: the ad hominem.
An ad hominem fallacy occurs when we attack our opponent for their character, actions, worldview, or other factor, and use that attack as a reason to dismiss their argument. It is very easy for everyone to engage in this fallacy, because our brains seem to say, “There's no reason to listen to this argument because this person’s a jerk!” And our brains seem to like being reassured in this way. Our predilection toward this type of strong thinking is so strong, it seems, that if you turn on any political cable news program, you're likely to find conversations consisting on little-else than ad hominem, with a little Straw Man thrown in occasionally.
However, a person’s character has no basis in whether or not what they are saying is true. If someone is known to lie, we can only take that piece of information into account and apply other logical steps; but, we cannot dismiss the argument they are currently making based upon this alone.
Ad Hominem is Easy, Good Arguments are Hard
If you look at any Facebook thread, you’re likely to see ad hominem arguments abound. People who utilize the fallacy—intentionally or unintentionally—often seem blissfully unconcerned about the “meat” of whatever issue is being discussed, and focus instead on an irrelevant trait of the author or another person in the thread in order to dismiss their entire position. Even if other people are trying to have a good conversation, these sporadic comments often succeed in derailing everyone.
Ad Hominem Attacks vs. the Ad Hominem Fallacy
For the purposes of this article, let’s differentiate between ad hominem attacks and the ad hominem fallacy. We know that with the fallacy, we ignore the point a person is trying to make and focus on a factor about the person. But does information about a person ever matter? Yes, of course.
Let’s say Kelsey Hazzard, president of Secular Pro-Life, was a known compulsive liar. (She is not, of course!) Let’s say that in her dealings online, she continually lied, was continually called out on it, and never directly addressed the accusations of lying. Perhaps Kelsey also is being investigated for tax fraud. Perhaps she bans everyone on her page who disagrees with her. Perhaps she attacks other pro-life advocates for the purposes of her own self-promotion. And let’s say she kills kittens.
The fictitious Kelsey Hazzard described above would not be a person that I would want to work with, nor would I want to believe a single word she says. This is relevant for me as far as figuring out, to what degree, I want to engage with her and consider what she has to say.
But—and this is the big “but”—none of these factors would have anything to do with whether or not any of Kelsey’s arguments about abortion are sound or not. I may not want to listen to her, but that, again, does not mean anything in regards to if her argument is true or logical. You must address her arguments, not her character, if you are to conclude that she is wrong. Of course, with such a sordid history as our fictitious Kelsey has, one might say, “I’m not going to bother.”
|Fallacy||Why It's A Fallacy|
|"Of course pro-lifers want clinic regulations! They hate women and will do anything they can to control what people do in their own lives."||Assuming that pro-lifers did indeed hate women (spoiler: we don't), that does not have any bearing on the specific arguments presented for clinic regulations.|
|"Your scientific evidence doesn't matter, because you're not a biologist."||Dismissing evidence put forth due to the credentials (or lack of credentials) is a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy.|
|Fallacy||Why It's A Fallacy|
|"What do pro-choicers know about equality? They support abortion, which disproportionately affects minorities."||Supporting abortion does not mean that any point a pro-choicer is making about race is invalid. You must focus on the argument itself.|
|"Senator Smith is pro-choice, so I don't care what she has to say about equal pay laws."||A person's position on abortion does not have an impact on the validity of their arguments.|
Keep this question in mind: "Am I focusing on the validity of the argument and not the person?" If you're focusing on anything else about the person presenting the argument, you may very well be committing a logical fallacy. In general, attacking a person derails otherwise-productive conversations about an issue, and if we are to truly understand and appreciate the pro-choice perspective, we need to hone our skills in sticking to arguments.