Word of the Day: Ad Hominem

ad ho·mi·nem

adjective \ (ˈ)ad-ˈhä-mə-ˌnem, -nəm\

Definition of AD HOMINEM

1:  appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect
2:  marked by or being an attack on an opponent’s character rather than by an answer to the contentions made

Origin of AD HOMINEM

New Latin, literally, to the person

First Known Use: 1598

Definition of Ad Hominem

Ad hominem (Latin) means “against the man”. As the name suggests, it is a literary term that involves commenting on or against an opponent to undermine him instead of his arguments.

There are cases where consciously or unconsciously people start to question the opponent or his personal association rather than evaluating the soundness and validity of the argument that he presents. These types of arguments are usually mistaken for personal insults but they are somehow different in nature and the distinction is very subtle.

Arguers who are not familiar with the principles of making logical arguments commonly end up saying something that would draw the audience’s attention to the distasteful characteristics of the individual. Such people use this fallacy as a tool to deceive their audience. Making such a blatant personal comment against somebody makes it hard for people to believe it isn’t true. Typically, even the arguer himself believes that such personal traits or circumstances are not enough to dispose of an individual’s opinion or argument. However, if looked at rationally, such arguments even if true never provide a valid reason to disregard someone’s criticism.

Examples of Ad Hominem

1. Just look at this common example.

“How can you argue your case for vegetarianism when you are enjoying your steak?”

This clearly shows how a person is attacked instead of being addressed for or against his argument.

2. A classic example of ad hominem fallacy is given below:

A: “All murderers are criminals, but a thief isn’t a murderer, and so can’t be a criminal.”
B: “Well, you’re a thief and a criminal, so there goes your argument.”

3. Another example of ad hominem fallacy is taken from Velonews: The Journal of Competitive Cycling. After an article about the retirement of Lance Armstrong, its webpage shared a post with its readers. A commenter posted a comment saying how great an athlete Armstrong was and that the people should be proud of his achievements.

Another commenter wrote in response to the first commenter:

He’s not a great athlete; he’s a fraud, a cheat and a liar. That’s why not everybody is “happy for Lance.”

The reasons given by the arguer may very well be true but he does not support his argument with reason and logic. He rather takes the disregarding approach. He does not say anything to prove that the premises it proposes are problematic, instead he goes on attacking the person who proposed them.

Functions of Ad Hominem

A writer’s background is considered to be a very important factor when it comes to judging his work. A book written on a particular subject in history will be perceived differently keeping in view the background of the author. Therefore, it is important to understand that a writer’s traits and circumstances have a pivotal role to play in his feelings, thinking and the construction of his arguments.

To put it simply, the considerations regarding the use of ad hominem can explain certain arguments and the motives behind them better. Nevertheless, such considerations are not enough on their own to evaluate an individual’s opinion and are certainly not sufficient to disregard them as false or invalid. The fact is that ad hominem is a kind of fallacy that leaves a great impression on the audience’s mind. It is an argumentative flaw that is hard to spot in our daily life. Although, the personal attack that has been made on the opponent might not even have a speck of truth in it, it somehow makes the audience biased. Ironically, despite being flawed, ad hominem has an amazing power of persuasion.

The worst thing about using ad hominem purposely is that an opponent insults you publicly. Whenever this happens to you, you must recover from the humiliation and then point out the false connection in the argument, which was used a trap for the audience. Moreover, the dilemma with ad hominem is that once it has been used against you it smears your reputation. Once somebody makes such a judgmental argument about you, the audience instead of evaluating it on logical grounds take it to be true.



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