Ad Hominem Fallacies
What is an Ad Hominem Fallacy?
An ad hominem fallacy is when someone argues by attacking the person who made a point, instead of addressing the point itself. Imagine that two kids are talking, and one says, “Your idea won’t work because you’re always lying.” They’re not talking about the idea; they’re just calling the other kid a liar. That’s ad hominem. Another way to think about it is like this: it’s when someone tries to win an argument by saying mean or irrelevant things about the person they’re arguing with, not by discussing the actual topic.
Types of Ad Hominem Fallacies
There are different ways people can use ad hominem fallacies:
- Abusive ad hominem fallacies are when the attack is personal. Instead of talking about the idea, the attacker says something bad about the other person. This usually happens when they can’t think of a good reply to the argument.
- Circumstantial ad hominem fallacies are when someone rejects an idea because of who said it. They think the person only suggests the idea for their own benefit, which doesn’t actually say anything about whether the idea itself is good or bad.
- Tu quoque is calling someone a hypocrite. It’s like saying, “You do this too, so you can’t talk.” But just because someone might not always follow their own advice doesn’t mean their point is wrong.
- Guilt by association is when someone dismisses an idea because they don’t like the people who agree with it. It doesn’t matter who agrees if the idea is good on its own.
- Genetic fallacy is not liking an idea because of where it came from or who came up with it. But an idea should be judged on its own, not on its background.
Example and Explanation
Mary: We should use bikes more often and recycle because it will help our planet.
George: You’re just saying that because you’re a kid and don’t know about real life.
George’s reply is an example of an ad hominem fallacy because he’s saying Mary’s idea isn’t worth listening to because of her age, which has nothing to do with whether her ideas about protecting the environment are good or not. This is a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy because George is pretending that Mary’s circumstances (being a kid) make her idea less valuable, which isn’t fair or logical.
Logical Form of Ad Hominem Fallacy
Person A makes a point.
Person B says something bad about Person A, like they’re not trustworthy or have a bad character.
Person B thinks this means Person A’s point must be wrong.
Here are a few other examples you might come across:
- In political ads, instead of talking about ideas, politicians often say mean things about each other. They’re trying to make people dislike their opponent instead of thinking about what their opponent is saying. This is an abusive ad hominem fallacy.
- In the movie Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts’ character tries to shop in a fancy store, the workers think she doesn’t belong. They’re not even giving her a chance to show that she can buy things; they’re judging her by her looks. This is a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy.
- In the Harry Potter books, the Minister for Magic doesn’t believe Harry when he says a bad guy is back because the Minister doesn’t like Dumbledore, who agrees with Harry. This is guilt by association.
Origin of Ad Hominem Fallacy
The phrase “ad hominem” comes from a Latin term meaning “to the person.” It started being used a long time ago, back in 1588. Latin is an old language that isn’t spoken much anymore, but we still use some Latin words and phrases when we’re talking about certain ideas.
How to Avoid Ad Hominem Fallacies
If you want to stay away from making ad hominem fallacies, here’s what you can do: focus on the point someone is making, not who they are or what they look like. When you argue, it should be about the ideas and facts, not about personal stuff. If you hear someone else making personal attacks, they might be trying to distract you from the real issue. And if someone uses an ad hominem against you, you can either ignore them or point out that what they’re saying has nothing to do with your point. Sticking to the real topic makes your arguments stronger.
Sometimes, ad hominem fallacies are mixed up with or used alongside other types of wrong arguments. Here are some examples:
- Straw man fallacy: This happens when someone changes what you said into something easier to argue against, like making it sound stupid, and then attacks that instead of your real point.
- Appeal to emotion: This is when someone tries to win an argument by making you feel really scared, angry, or sorry for them instead of using logic.
- Red herring: This is when someone throws in a distraction—something not related to the argument—to make you lose track of what’s really going on.
In conclusion, an ad hominem fallacy is when someone ignores the actual idea and instead attacks the person. Remember, just because someone says something about the person who made an argument, that doesn’t mean the argument itself is bad. It’s important to listen to what people are saying and to talk about the ideas, not the person. Knowing about ad hominem and other fallacies can help you think more clearly and argue better, focusing on facts rather than feelings.