The Ad Hominem Complex

Thursday 4/12/12

Recently I have been convicted that I sometimes resort to ad hominems in my dealings with other people.  A couple of my friends and professors have pointed this out to me (mostly due to Facebook posts), and I have taken it to heart.  This is my attempt to process through that.

The term “ad hominem” is a Latin phrase that literally means “against the man.”  This is a type of philosophical fallacy where you make a personal attack against the arguer instead of attacking the argument.  By attacking the person, you are attempting to undermine their argument.  This fallacy is a form of genetic fallacy.

The attack may discredit the reliability and trustworthiness of the person, but since it doesn’t address the argument, it is not a good way to debunk or disprove the argument.  It is true that often good arguments are badly argued by incapable people who themselves have questionable characteristics.  But a bad delivery of an argument does not make the argument unsound; the presenter simply needs to work on expressing and articulating the argument well.  The viability of an argument rests upon the quality of evidence for or against it, not the person arguing it.  Thus, the success of any argument has two aspects: the evidence for the argument and the presentation of the argument.

However, there can be times when ad hominems can be properly used in argument form.  If someone is making a personal argument for or against another person’s character and qualification, employing an ad hominem could potentially discredit the person and thus the argument.  For example, if a business is looking to hire a financial manager to oversee their assets, someone could legitimately point out the financial failings and mismanagement of this person in other areas of life (personal or a previous business) which would point to a character flaw that disqualifies them from the position.  For more information on logical fallacies and ad hominems in particular, see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry here.

So far all of the times I have used ad hominems have been on Facebook.  Is there a reason for this?  I think so.  First, I don’t tend to relate to people in person in a direct and attacking manner; I would much rather reason with them, and quite frankly, I do not feel comfortable attacking other people.  However, over the internet everything is far more impersonal, the person is at a distance, and you may not even know them.  If you end up saying something mean or unkind, it is much easier to overlook it, blow it off, and never deal with it as you should.  It seems to me that there is a level of unaccountability in social networking dialogue which can lead to more hostile, dogmatic interchanges and the use of ad hominems.

Second, I find it takes considerable effort and patience to reply to arguments on Facebook with grace, humility, and a generous orthodoxy.  It is much easier to resort to personal attacks.  So I conclude that most of the time using ad hominems reveals a laziness and unconcern for the other person.  Researching, marshaling, and accurately arguing good, sound arguments takes a lot of hard work, time, energy, and effort.  What’s more, to type out these arguments on a Facebook post takes even more time, and most of the time these arguments are ineffective at convincing someone to change their mind.  In our time sensitive, shallow, and rushed society, taking the time to use good arguments on Facebook (or other social networking sites) is not a priority.  In fact, it’s not even possible on some sites like Twitter.  Ad hominems feel good for a while, but they are the lazy way out and they ultimately hurt both you and the person you’re arguing against.

Why have I used ad hominems?  I find that I resort them the most when something that is precious and dear to me is threatened.  This realization relates to what I talked about in my post “Be angry!…but do not sin.”  Usually this comes down to religious, economic, or political issues that I engage with on Facebook.  For example, when someone promotes President Obama as being a good president who should be re-elected, I so strongly disagree with this that I want to laugh.  I believe there is good and ample evidence showing President Obama’s ineffective leadership, poor financial handling, deceitful lying, bribery, and many unconstitutional actions that make him impeachable.  Yet it takes effort to compile these evidences and know them thoroughly, along with having a good grasp on the U.S. Constitution and domestic and international economic and political workings.  It is much easier to simply attack the person as being “stupid” or “ignorant” or “politically biased,” instead of presenting real arguments against his or her assertion about the President.  It isn’t that good arguments aren’t out there, but that I am too lazy to take the time and energy to argue them.  And this is only amplified if you suspect that your arguments won’t help the person you are trying to convince.

Like I said above, many of these issues are near and dear to me.  When I feel that someone is trampling on my rights and freedoms, or they are promoting corrupt politicians, bad economic models, or religious intolerance that will in essence lead to my freedoms being taken away and my rights denied, I get angry and passionate.  I am ready to defend these things which I believe are God-given and inalienable and have been purchase for me with the blood of others.  This is when I lash out at the person and use ad hominems.  I often do not do this intentionally, since it more of a gut reaction.  I have found that I often don’t know that I’m doing this, and it’s only been when others have pointed it out to me that I’ve become aware of it.  Yet it lurks beneath the surface, and if you aren’t on guard it can strike in an instant.

One of the most convicting aspects of using ad hominems is they reveal that you are more concerned about winning arguments and protecting what’s yours instead of caring about the other person.  In order to preserve your logic (even if it is fallacious) and the things you love, you resort to tearing down the other person.  This is completely antithetical to Christianity.  A Christian who truly loves other people and cares about their well-being will be concerned to win the person, not the argument.  What have you gained if you win the argument but trample on the person in the process?  You might feel good about your intellectual brilliance, arguing skills, and the thrill of victory for a while, but put yourself in the other person’s place.  If you have erroneous logic do you want someone with the truth to come and tear you apart and demean you, or do you want someone who is gentle and loving, yet intellectually capable, to correct your false thinking?  Of course you want the latter.  And you are far more likely to respond positively, understand your error, and accept the truth than if you are attacked.

Therefore, I am committing to not using ad hominems anymore.  Having processed this issue, hopefully I can see them coming and prevent myself from resorting to them in the future.  When they do come out, I will be able to recognize my mistake, take responsibility, apologize, and learn from it.  I am not afraid of hard work and so I will do my best, both on this blog and on Facebook, to engage the person with good arguments from evidence in an attempt to win them to the truth.  And who knows, perhaps in the course of such discussion and dialogue, I will learn new things that I didn’t know, be convicted of the truth, and change my own perspectives.

Finally, to those of you whom I have used ad hominems against, I am sorry.  For the rest of you who are tempted to use them, don’t.  They are ineffective and rude, they reveal weak logic and fallacious reasoning, and they not only tear down the person you are attacking, but they also undermine your own intellectual and personal credibility and health.


3 thoughts on “The Ad Hominem Complex

  1. Thanks, Ben, for your honesty and sincerity. It is good when other believers care enough about us to call us to account. I learned some things in this post. I do have a question. What is a genetic fallacy? Being of the scientific bent, that sounds like a mistake of heredity to me :-). I also have a quote from Phillip Yancey that I happened upon yesterday that seems to go along with what you have said. “A grace-filled Christian is one who looks at the world through ‘grace-tinted’ lenses.”

    1. Hi Carol,
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to reply! You are correct about a genetic fallacy. A person commits a genetic fallacy when they attempt to refute an argument by appealing to its source or origin, when the origin of the argument is irrelevant to the soundness of argument itself. Here’s an example: someone may become a Christian for psychological reasons (desire to find love or acceptance, out of fear of judgment, etc), but this does not automatically make their belief false. To dismiss their faith simply because they came to it for psychological reasons (instead of, say, logical or scientific reasons), would be to commit a genetic fallacy. The psychological origin of their belief does not automatically make their belief true or false; to determine veracity of belief one must examine the beliefs according to logic, experience, internal consistency, whether it is factually accurate, and the like. You can read more about genetic fallacies here: Hope this helps!

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