Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Logic in an Age of Persuasive Imagery, Part Two: Ad Hominem
“How ‘confident’ could a person be if they are wearing ten pounds of makeup?”
Ad Hominem: a fallacy that occurs when an arguer is guilty "of attacking his opponent rather than his opponent's evidence and arguments."1
An ad hominem attack is a way for one debater to discredit another debater’s attempt to argue for a position. It attacks the person’s character and motivation, rather than attacking the actual argument itself. The expected outcome is that the hearers will no longer give an ear to the discredited debater’s position due to their ill-will against him/her personally. Since this argument fails to address the actual issue(s) being debated, it is an error in reasoning.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, “According to Van Eemeren and Grootendorst , an instance of ad hominem is a violation of the first rule for critical discussion, which maintains that ‘Parties [to a dispute] must not prevent each other from advancing standpoints or casting doubts on arguments.’ Different kinds of ad hominem (abusive, tu quoque, and circumstantial ad hominem) are different violations of this rule. In this case, it suffices to say that the debater's attack on his opponent can be seen as an illegitimate attempt to deny him his right to make a case for his position.”2
A personal example: A couple years ago, a person posting in one of my forums commented on my use of makeup. His comment was something like, “How ‘confident’ could a person be if they are wearing ten pounds of makeup?” So the goal was to discredit my arguments by commenting on my personality or character. The reader was supposed to think that because I wore make-up in my picture, my arguments were not valid. This is a clear example of ad hominem; attacking the person instead of addressing their arguments. (I did break down his ad hominem argument…”Exactly how much make-up, would you say, constitutes a person’s lack of evidence for an argument? I suppose if you are addressing my grooming habits instead of the evidence presented for the resurrection, you must not have anything to say against my arguments.”)
A political campaign version: It is not my intention here to promote one candidate over another in this use of an example from the last senatorial race. However, the example was so evidently ad hominem that I thought it would be another good real-life illustration.
Jack Conway ran a commercial against Rand Paul that started with these words, “Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a hoax; that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ [the image shows this as during his college years]? Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol, and say his god was Aqua Buddha? Why does Rand Paul now want to end faith based initiatives and deductions for charities? Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?”3 The viewer was supposed to react with a strong distrust concerning Rand Paul’s character and consequently pay no attention to his arguments for his platform. They were also supposed to insinuate Paul’s motivation for his proposal with regard to faith-based initiatives and deductions for charities as based in a suggested dislike of Christianity. This was a clear-cut example of attacking the man rather than his stated arguments or position.
Throughout the presidential campaigns, look for instances of ad hominem and notice how campaign marketers hope to manipulate voters through emotions rather than to earn votes through their candidate’s position on the actual issues.
 “Informal Logic.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-informal/#One. Accessed on May 13, 2011.