"If a crazy serial killer who believes he is surrounded by Teletubbies argues that if you drop a ball, it'll fall to the ground, because gravity will pull the ball towards the Earth, is he wrong? Do the arguments become less valid because you think there's something wrong with the person behind the arguments? Will the ball start falling upwards from now on?"
Refuting an argument by attacking some aspect of the person making it, rather than addressing the content of the argument itself. It can consist of an attack on the person making the argument; the source of their information; their circumstances; their previous position; or a discrepancy between their actions and their argument.
Ad hominem is very often mistakenly claimed in cases where an argument's opponent attacks its proponent in addition to presenting a valid counterargument
. "You're stupid, therefore your argument is invalid" is an ad hominem
; "your argument is invalid, therefore you're stupid" (or "Your argument is invalid and
you're stupid") is not. Similarly, some people seem to think that Ad Hominem is necessarily abusive, which it isn't. "You've used the 'Four Terms' fallacy, you stupid idiot, therefore you're using faulty logic" is not Ad Hominem (although it might be Fallacy Fallacy
if done badly). "Mike has clearly put a lot of thought into whether we should buy a pool, but he is
a convicted felon" is.
Types of Ad Hominem:
- Direct — an attack directly on the person making the argument themself.
- Circumstantial — the attack is on the circumstances surrounding the person making the argument.
- Poisoning the Well — The attack on the person is intended to call into question everything they say.
- Tu Quoque — the attack is that the person making the argument does the same thing they're arguing against themselves, or that they, at some previous time, held a different opinion.
Closely related to Ad Hominem:
- Style Over Substance — the attack is not on the person making the argument, but on the manner in which they presented it.
Direct ad hominem:
The attack is made directly on the person making the argument. Here's a standard hypothetical example:
: This is an irresponsible fiscal policy because the budget deficit is too great.
While Hitler certainly wasn't a nice person, that in itself is unrelated to the logical validity of any arguments he makes
. This extends to a degree in situations where the ad hominem attack itself is related
to the argument; if the supposition comes from a source that is known for fallibility or may have a reason to be biased, it should be treated with healthy skepticism, but not assumed to be false.
It would be quite logically sound to say "why should we take their word for it; they're unreliable and biased!" It is not sound, however, to say that the above statement must
be false, because despite the fact that the Weekly World News was noted for being full of made-up stories, George Washington was
the first President of the United States - and this was common knowledge long before Weekly World News
Looks like this fallacy but is not:
- When the rebuttal is insulting but relevant and true: "You can't be a member of Mensa as you claim, because your IQ tests indicate that your IQ is 70".
- When an insult is present but is not used as a component of a logical argument. Simply saying "You are an idiot, because your logic is fallacious" is not polite, but unless there's a "therefore" step to a conclusion, it is not a fallacy. On the other hand, "Your logic is fallacious, because you are an idiot" is.
- When it is in response to an explicit or implicit appeal to the authority of the speaker:
"I studied law at Harvard, and I can see that this law is clearly unconstitutional."
"You studied law at Harvard, but you never got a degree."
- The validity of this counterargument can be summarized thusly: "your credentials aren't as impressive as you say, so you're going to have to prove that rather than tell us to take your word for it."
Dr. Smith: "Procainamide is clearly indicated in this patient."
Dr. Jones: "Nonsense, he should receive amiodarone."
Patient: "With all due respect, Doctor Smith, you hold a PHD
in biochemistry, and Doctor Jones, you are a gastroenterologist. I'm waiting for my cardiologist."
Circumstantial ad hominem:
When the circumstances of the arguer are held to affect the truth of the argument. It's frequently rolled out against people who have any kind of motive for making their argument (the "he would
say that, wouldn't he?" defense), often intended to imply that "he" is an incredibly selfish/malicious person for even looking at the idea with an open mind (or, alternatively, that his mind isn't as open as "he" claims it is). In reality, it's more unreasonable to expect someone to have no
reason to hold their viewpoint; their vested interest does not automatically invalidate their criticism.
Impugning motives is a common form of this. A speaker resorting to impugning motives attacks the speaker's personal reasons for supporting a position rather than their arguments in favor of supporting the position. Of course, the underlying motives of a person making an argument do not affect the truth or validity of their argument. Furthermore, it's not necessary to impugn a speaker's actual motives - a person using this type of ad hominem often ascribes motives to their opponent and then impugns them.
Bob: "This bill will be expensive and will not work, therefore you should vote against it."
Alice: "Bob is employed by a company which stands to lose money from this bill, therefore Bob will lose money and perhaps his job if this bill passes. Of course he would oppose it."
Looks like this fallacy, but is not:
- If an individual is supposed to be in a position that requires them to be objective, such as a judge or a journalist, pointing out a conflict of interest is a valid argument, especially if they haven't properly disclosed their affiliation.
- When used to argue that a person may deserve a higher degree of suspicion than others due to some relevant circumstance. For example, I cannot logically conclude someone who's been accused of embezzlement is a bad person to hire for my bank, but it's obviously relevant when I'm making a decision under uncertainty about who to hire.
- Pointing out that a person is too emotionally invested in something to be objective.
Colonel Mustard: "It couldn't have been Miss Scarlet!"
Professor Plum: "You would say that because you love her, but face facts. She had the revolver which has been fired, she hated Boddy, she was seen entering the Ballroom where Boddy was shot, and there are bloody footprints of high heels matching her shoes next to the corpse."
- All instances of "What they don't want you to know..." have at least a tacit form of the impugning motives form of an ad hominem. For example, "What doctors don't want you to know..." tacitly assumes all physicians have a vested interest in keeping you from learning about some miracle cure and are willing to ignore their Hippocratic Oaths to do so. Even if this were true, which it is not, it would be up to the "Miracle Cure Salesman" to prove his or her All-Natural Snake Oil actually works better than the standard science-based alternative.
- This commonly comes up in any discussion of police or the military overstepping their boundaries, especially in any highly-charged case. If an investigation turns up nothing, regardless of whatever internal investigations were done, there will be cries of, "They just want to cover for each other and hush it up!" Of course, the Fallacy Fallacy also applies - it may indeed be true that there was a cover-up. Real life examples should probably be left to the reader's imagination.
- The Daily Show had a great example of one on their March 31st, 2014 episode. Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey as of the time of writing (April 2014), was embattled in a scandal regarding blocking a bridge out of spite. Governor Christie announced the result of an inquiry done by his own hand-picked legal team. The report exonerated Christie. Jon Stewart dismissed the report just on the grounds that it came from Christie's office. That is a clear case of this fallacy. However, it would be a case of the Fallacy Fallacy to say that Jon's ad hominem proves Governor Christie is in the clear.
- Advertisers have a vested interest in convincing you their product is what you want. It is poor logic to dismiss a claim on the grounds that, "They want to sell me something," which is not to say that in the real world that can't raise one's suspicion. There's a difference between deception and bad logic.
Poisoning the Well:
This fallacy can be one of two types, either discrediting the opponent before they even begin to make their argument, usually by a direct ad hominem against them — "And might I just remind the audience before Alice speaks that she is a convicted felon?" — or by calling the validity of their sources or standing into question after they have made their argument. More or less the converse of Appeal To Authority
; here, the attempt is to make an audience reject a claim because of the speaker's alleged lack of authority.
"You'll find Bob talks about law an awful lot for a guy who got his degree from Eastern Iowa State University."
The attempt here is to preemptively discredit Bob's standing as a lawyer not on the basis of what he's actually saying, but on where he was schooled.
The most pernicious manifestation is where entire groups are potentially shut out of the discussion:
- Men can't talk about abortion because they don't get pregnant.
- American whites can't talk about slavery because they never experienced it.
This seems like an example, but is actually a different problem of logic:
"You cited the Encyclopedia Britannica. A recent study found that Encyclopedia Britannica had 123 errors of fact — in only 42 articles."
As a reply to "This fact is true because the Encyclopedia Britannica states as much," this has a sound logical basis; because the cited reason to believe the statement is the credibility of the encyclopedia, an attack on its credibility is relevant and therefore not
an ad hominem. What it is
, in fact, is a misleading citation of statistics; these factual errors could be minor misspellings of titles that all occurred in one mistranslated article, for example.
- Most accusations of White Knighting are intended to discredit the accused by making it seem as if they have a self-interested reason to hold their stated position. While this may be true, it does not make said position any less valid.
- Reefer Madness The Musical features a propagandist who uses this when a parent objects to the propagandist's absurd story about marijuana abuse. He starts by using an Appeal To Wealth and Appeal To Authority to point out that William Randolph Hearst agrees with his position, then demands to know where the man matriculated. When the man doesn't know the word matriculate, the propagandist goes in for the kill and makes the man admit he never went to college. The propagandist then dismisses the man entirely. Later, he takes it a step further by claiming the man's views are "extreme" and "unAmerican."
Another type of Ad Hominem, Tu Quoque refers to the attempt to deny an argument by asserting that the person presenting the argument either suffers from the same flaw (i.e. they do not practice what they preach) or has held an opposing view in the past. The fact that such a person is a hypocrite
if he criticizes others for bearing the same flaw he does in his personal life is actually not related to actual objective facts about said flaw or his line of reasoning in condemning that flaw.
Bob: "Smoking and alcoholism are well-known as risks for cancer."
Alice: "But you yourself smoke and drink a lot! You're wrong!"
The fact that Bob is a smoker and drinker doesn't mean that he is wrong about the effects of those habits. Still confused? A better rebuttal would be to accept the premise that alcohol and smoking really are cancer risks, but then ask why Bob continues to do them. Perhaps Bob knows full well about the dangers of such addictions, but he may or may not be a Hedonist with no sense of self preservation, or it's just because he cannot or is yet to break from his very own addiction, hence why he continues to do it. Or because he is consciously or unconsciously suicidal, which makes his self-harm a logical consequence. Or he could know that he shouldn't be smoking, but not have the willpower to resist the temptation to do it
Another example is how (former) drug addicts who have suffered for their drug usage can also be very well qualified in admonishing others to not get started in harmful, expensive, illegal, and addictive substances (sometimes even more so due to personal experience and physical proof of the damage incurred by the drug addiction).
Bob: "This bill will be expensive and will not work, therefore you should vote against it."
Alice: "But you supported the bill last month!"
Now, simply pointing out a contradiction in someone's arguments is not Ad Hominem Tu Quoque. AHTQ is when you claim the other person's argument is wrong because
they're contradicting something else they've said. Once again, his reasoning might be unsound, but that does not affect the truth value of his premises
. Bob's new argument is not invalidated by any previous position he may have held. A logically sound counterargument would be to restate the reasoning behind Bob's previous position to him and ask why he changed his mind from that line of thinking, which makes it acceptable.
A more valid counterattack would be to use the speaker's hypocrisy to bring up a valid
point about the speaker's credibility in itself, without denying any facts he says; you can use this to attempt to prove that the speaker is a Hypocrite or a lying Manipulative Bastard without
committing a fallacy. If the hypocrisy is logically connected to possibility of lying, then it is not AHTQ, but if hypocrisy is used to automatically mean discrediting any real-world facts he attempts to say
, then it is AHTQ.
- This is a favorite tactic of politicians and political dissidents who want to discredit an opponent; they usually call it "flip-flopping" or "waffling" and use it to imply that the opponent can't make up their mind.
- A German politician once said 'I don't care about the shit I said last week!'
- A common version used against complaints is for a debater to bring up a separate event which they feel their opponent should have had the same reaction to; the "where were you when..." argument is always invalid. Whether the opponent should have been equally outraged at another event has no effect on whether their outrage at this event is valid.
- A recent example of this was the controversy over Resident Evil 5's alleged racism. A common rebuttal was that those complaining about a white man shooting black people did not complain about the previous game where a white man was shooting Hispanic people, so a) their complaints were not valid, or b) shooting black people was somehow considered "worse" than shooting Hispanics.
- John Maynard Keynes's often-quoted response to such tactics:
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
- Used in an episode of Scrubs, when Eliot railed at the "hypocrisy" of Dr. Cox advising someone to calm down for the sake of his blood pressure, or Dr. Kelso telling a patient to stop smoking. When she herself got a patient who was fainting due to being slightly less underweight than she was, she initially tried to build her own weight in concert with the patient, but eventually realized "This is about you, not me."
- "A strong leader is expected to maintain steadfast resolve in his opinion even if the environment changes or he gets new information. In any other context, that would be considered the first sign of a brain tumor." ~ Scott Adams
- During an Australia vs. England Cricket match, Mike Atherton edged the ball to wicketkeeper Ian Healy, but was given "not out", prompting the following exchange:
Healy: You're a fucking cheat.
Atherton: When in Rome, dear boy...
- The ever-persistent "You criticize X, but you're using something provided by X!" argument.
- When fanfic writer pstibbons was called out for writing a fanfic whose only purpose was to have Hermione torture and humiliate Ron, he cited an earlier work of his, where Ron is brutally murdered by Harry, claiming that since people didn't raise a fuss back then, they are clearly sexist. note
- Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion illustrated a striking example used by a member of the Cult of John Frum, a real-world Cargo Cult. The cults have numerous forms, such as those that proclaim Frum is the King of America and that he will come in an apocalyptic cataclysm with deliverance and tons of material goods. A researcher asked a believer, "Isn't nineteen years a long time to wait for John Frum?" The believer replied, "If the white man can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ..."
- This was a favorite propaganda technique of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the West, it was nicknamed "whataboutism" since such arguments often began with the words "what about". In Russian Humour, this was parodied with the Stock Phrase "and you lynch blacks" ("а у вас негров линчуют"), which was sarcastically used as a catch-all to dismiss criticism of the Soviet Union in situations where American race relations were not relevant to the issue.
Looks like this fallacy but is not:
- Double Think. At first, ignoring the speaker's hypocrisy seems to mean accepting any contradictory actions he performs. However, accepting Tu Quoque as a fallacy does not mean accepting all Double Think spewed out by hypocrites and abusers of Screw the Rules, I Make Them! as logically valid. Tu Quoque is when the speaker's hypocrisy is used to discredit any objective real-world facts he says, but Doublethink means accepting all logically fallacious contradictions he says.
- About the earlier "You criticize X, but you're using something by X" argument: If this is used to discredit any facts he says, then it is wrong (for example, you support human rights but continue to use Apple products that you know were made through Chinese slave labor. That does not mean you are automatically wrong about your human rights opinions). If this is used to point out that the speaker's recommendations should not yet be trusted, then it isn't AHTQ. (For example, it is not a fallacy if you ask first why Luddites keep using computers instead of living an all-natural example. If the conclusion is that "this hypocrite can't be trusted", then it can bring up a valid question. If this is used to mean "Luddites are completely wrong about everything", then it is AHTQ).
- When the value of the speaker's word is being considered in order to evaluate his statements as testimony. It is not fallacious for a court to consider the reliability of a witness doubtful if they find he has a history of committing perjury or has accepted money in exchange for his testimony; it is only fallacious if his testimony is discarded out of hand on this basis, regardless of what it actually is.
- When the speaker is arguing that the opponent is treating something as uniquely wrong, yet has done the same thing themselves. For example, if a boy is sent to his room for being the only person in his house to ever raid the biscuit tin, it would not be fallacious for him to point out that he did it because he saw his father doing it, therefore it is hypocritical to punish him on that basis.
Style Over Substance
- If You Can't Say Something Nice
- Appeal To Brevity
- Too long; Didn't read (tl;dr or "teal deer")
- Grammar Nazi
- Sock Puppet
A closely-related fallacy to Ad Hominem, the "style over substance" fallacy is where the manner in which an argument is presented is held to affect the validity of that argument.
A common version is to dismiss an entire argument if the person making it uses bad language or insults, or sounds "too angry" — in essence, claiming that since their opponent cannot conduct themselves "politely," they obviously have nothing worthwhile to add to the discussion. Throwing someone out for breaking rules of conduct is not fallacious, but throwing their arguments
out on this basis certainly is. For example, Alice argues passionately and angrily against the prejudice against women at her job, which results in her and the other female workers being paid less than their male coworkers. Bob tries to dismiss her arguments by saying she is "just angry", but her anger does not invalidate her arguments. This is sometimes called a "tone" argument. When brought up on message boards, it's often called "tone trolling" if the post only complains of some other poster's "tone" without adding to a discussion.
Another common variant is to disregard an argument presented in an allegedly incorrect manner; for example, because it is too long, too short, badly-spelled, badly punctuated, or uses poor grammar. Not making the effort to make a coherent, concise reply is certainly rude, but being rude is not the same as being wrong. This fallacy is quite common in internet discussions, and boils down to "You didn't present your argument the way I like, therefore it is wrong."
Note that saying "Your argument is presented poorly, therefore I will not read/ listen to it," is not
a logical fallacy, unless you also state that the argument they were making is false because of its poor presentation. Also, someone can actually be
a Sock Puppet
, but one needs to be careful of who is labeled and why, as this has become a rather popular way on internet forums to discredit dissenting beliefs and vetting attempts.
Looks like this fallacy but is not:
- When the presentation is so unclear that it is genuinely impossible to follow the reasoning.
- When the errors are pointed out simply for the sake of pointing out the errors, rather than as evidence that the arguer is wrong.
- When the opponent is using a fallacious Proof by Verbosity (aka the Gish Gallop); firing so many weak points off that it is impossible to respond to them within the format of the debate. In essence, the opponent may have nothing but mud to sell, but by piling it up so thick so quickly they hope to pass it off as rock solid. One example here, from Duane Gish. The Proof by Verbosity is an informal fallacy.
A good discussion of the ad hominem
fallacy on the Internet may be found on the website of one Stephen Bond
. See also Logical Fallacies
and Hitler Ate Sugar