Fallacy: The Ad Hominem attack

George_Soros_-_Festival_Economia_2012_01_(cropped)In the study of logic, one thing we learn is the logical fallacies. A logical fallacy is a mistaken way of thinking. Logical fallacies have been identified— often in ancient times— so we can learn not to make mistakes like that.
When you hear politicians making a personal attack upon other politicians, this is often an ad hominem attack. This is how it works. When you are discussing something— a proposed political policy— and perhaps you feel you don’t have a strong argument— instead of discussing the issue, you start discussing how evil the guy with the other position is.
Why is that a fallacy? Because bad people can hold a good idea just as good people can have bad ones. So, therefore, if you prove another person is a wife-beating swine, it doesn’t prove that the swine’s tax policy proposal is wrong.
You can talk about the policies or ideas of another person, or you can talk about the person himself. When you respond to a statement about an idea with a condemnation of a person with that idea, you are changing the topic. In a way, you may be admitting that you don’t have any good reason to reject the idea you are discussing, when you change the subject by starting a personal attack.
Another way to do something on the line of an ad hominem attack is to associate the disputed idea with a person who is generally regarded as objectively bad. The most popular bad person to use here is Hitler. The idea is bad, you claim, because Adolf Hitler was in favor of it. Or might have been in favor of it. Or was against it but might have changed his mind.
This is a somewhat indirect ad hominem attack. Instead of directly saying Joe, the guy who made a proposal for a tax reform, is a bad man and so his idea must be bad, you connect the idea to Hitler, and (usually) don’t actually say that Joe is just like Hitler for making the proposal.
The ad hominem attack is a type of logical fallacy which is called a non sequitur. Non sequitur means ‘it does not follow.’ In other words, it’s something that is not the point.
Now, if a human being— perhaps a politician— can be proved to be a swine, a racist, an adulterer, a liar, or corrupt, you can certainly mention such things when you evaluating the man’s character. It’s just that the man’s character does not affect whether his individual policies are good or bad. When talking about the policies— the ideas— the character of an individual who has these ideas is a non sequitur.

One thought on “Fallacy: The Ad Hominem attack

  1. When I try to enjoy art I have to evaluate a piece on its own terms regardless of the artist’s lifestyle. Ditto with public policies.

    Weird how no one knows about any murderous dictators except Hitler. Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Kim Jung Il, Pol Pot…all truly horrible men. Chalk it up to public education.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.