Ad hominem is an Internet jackass

October 12, 2015 § 11 Comments

To commit the informal fallacy of ad hominem is to infer something about the validity of a specific argument from the fact that a particular man is making that specific argument. For example “Bob is a statist, so his contention that fiat dollars are a sovereign-issued option against tax liabilities is wrong,” is an ad hominem. It may well be true that Bob believes incorrect things because he is a statist; but the most that suggests is that this particular claim might possibly be one of the things he gets wrong, and stipulating that he gets lots of things wrong doesn’t actually address the specific claim at all. It ironically suggests that we should treat Bob as a reliable truth machine by adopting the opposite of every position he holds.

I’ve pointed out before that this works in reverse too. That Bob is a really smart guy, or is “one of us” or what have you might be true enough, but that doesn’t address whatever it is that he is specifically contending. Perhaps the specific thing in contention is one of the things he gets wrong. Loaded dice are still dice. Bowing out of a contest because life is short is fine, but insisting that everyone bow out ‘because Bob’ is the old “shut up”, he explained: I’ve decided to stop talking about this, and I think you should too.  But agreeing to shut up doesn’t actually resolve the objective truth of any actual issue in contention.

As with begging the question, it seems like most folks who use the term “ad hominem” don’t actually have any idea what it means. An ad hominem isn’t an insult directed at the person advancing an argument. It is an insult to the reader’s intelligence.

So if I say “Bob is an idiot because he believes that bankers accept fiat dollars as payment for no reason other than that the sovereign says they must”, that isn’t an ad hominem. It isn’t a characterization of an argument at all: it is a characterization of Bob, based on the things Bob believes. (It may or may not be an accurate characterization; but it isn’t an ad hominem).

This begs the question of why everyone seems to think that ad hominem is synonymous with insult.

§ 11 Responses to Ad hominem is an Internet jackass

  • William Luse says:

    – So if I say “Bob is an idiot because he believes that bankers accept fiat dollars as payment for no reason other than that the sovereign says they must”, that isn’t an ad hominem. It isn’t a characterization of an argument at all: it is a characterization of Bob, based on the things Bob believes. –

    It still sounds as though we’re trying to invalidate Bob’s belief by insulting his intelligence. Isn’t that classic ad hominem, drawing an equivalence between character and argument?

    (I do believe there are situations where this is necessary to moral clarity, but I’m obviously missing something in your example.)

  • Max says:

    “It still sounds as though we’re trying to invalidate Bob’s belief by insulting his intelligence. Isn’t that classic ad hominem, drawing an equivalence between character and argument?”

    Actually, we’re trying to invalidate Bob’s intelligence by insulting his belief. See the difference?

  • Zippy says:

    The difference is:

    “Bob has stupid belief X. Therefore Bob is stupid.” (not ad hominem).

    “Bob is stupid. Bob believes X. Therefore X is stupid.” (ad hominem).

  • William Luse says:

    Yes, I retract the question. Just read an article about it at Plato.

    Here’s a line from a student paper arguing for the death penalty:

    “And for proven killers, the death sentence is a permanent method of preventing them from ever killing again.”

    Which fallacy does that embody?

  • Ian says:

    This begs the question of why everyone seems to think that ad hominem is synonymous with insult.

    Nice.

  • Craig N. says:

    Obviously, it’s an instance of the more general problem the natural tendency toward imprecision in language — the same sort of thing that has made “beg the question” into a synonym for “raise the question” in general usage, leaving us without a convenient phrase for the former.

  • CJ says:

    Obviously, it’s an instance of the more general problem the natural tendency toward imprecision in language

    We have literally opened the floodgates.

  • King Richard says:

    Simple: people attempt to use the term ad hominem to silence people. I have seen similar instances with the term Appeal to Authority
    Note: an appeal to authority is not a logical fallacy. An appeal to *false* authority can be a logical fallacy.

  • Mike T says:

    This begs the question of why everyone seems to think that ad hominem is synonymous with insult.

    I think has to do with a difficulty in distinguishing the insult as an attempt to insult them versus an attempt to attack their argument. A lot of people simply cannot grasp that you can debate them like this “logic, logic, logic, personal attack, personal attack, logic, logic, personal attack, logic.”

    Note: an appeal to authority is not a logical fallacy. An appeal to *false* authority can be a logical fallacy.

    It depends on what you mean by “false authority.” Would you consider appealing to experts to be one? I would call that a good example of the fallacy. People often take the approach of arguing that if you aren’t a recognized expert and the recognized experts disagree with you, then whatever you say must be scrutinized in light of their arguments, not considered objectively.

  • Zippy says:

    Ian for the win.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Ad hominem is an Internet jackass at Zippy Catholic.

meta

%d bloggers like this: