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.