On Ad Hominems Part 1: The Messy World
You may be familiar with Sam Wilkinson’s defense of ad hominem arguments. You may also be familiar with the push back he has received. I have generally been on the side of the push backers, but I am beginning to reconsider.
This post is the first of two. Here I’ll explore some challenges to what I call the “classic view” of ad hominems. These challenges are leading me to consider my erstwhile belief that all ad hominems are invalid. However, I still believe we should be wary of ad hominem arguments. [Note: this post is very long, but the middle portion is very skimmable.]
In part 2, which I promise will be a lot shorter, I’ll propose some parameters for approaching, using, and limiting ad hominem arguments.
The Ad hominem fallacy: the “classic view”
Ad hominem refers to “attacking the person” instead of addressing the argument the person is making. Tu quoque means roughly “you do it, too,” and it is a kind of ad hominem argument, as in “you alight! I learned it by watching you!” I’ll mostly stick with ad hominem here, but you should be familiar with tu quoque, as well.
What I call the classic view, which can probably be found in most introduction to logic textbooks, is the view that ad hominems are irrelevant to the truth value of any given statement. They are also irrelevant to the chain of logic that links premises and leads those premises to a conclusion in a deductive argument.
A deductive argument is where one reasons from general premises to specific conclusions. All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal. The fact that Socrates was an annoying gadfly who enjoyed baiting people in his mostly one-sided “dialogues” doesn’t detract from the fact that he is a man or mortal.
Or to use what seems to be everyone’s favorite example, take the case of a serial adulterer who inveighs against adultery. The fact that he is a hypocrite doesn’t mean adultery is good. And according to the classic view, such arguments have no place in deductive reasoning.
Please indulge me. I’m ignorant of the history of philosophy. Maybe what I call the “classic view” isn’t classic at all and is an artifact of post-World War II logic courses. Or perhaps logicians for decades or centuries or millennia have recognized or even insisted on exceptions and limitations. I’m using “classic view” as shorthand, nothing more.
Challenges to the ad hominem
Short list of challenges
This post is long. So just in case you don’t want to wade through my ca. 1,500 words describing the “challenges,” here’s a rundown.
- In practice, I rely on ad hominems quite a lot. And you do, too.
- Ad hominems are clearly a fallacy only in the rare instance of deductive arguments divorced from practical considerations.
- Some arenas define the rules of argument so as to place ad hominems in play.
- Ad hominems can often tell us something important about the issue under discussion.
- One’s standing to say something can be relevant to what is said.
- Ad hominems help us discern inconsistencies in others’ arguments.
- Something something postmodernism something.
Challenge #1: Me quoque…et vosque
I do it, too. A lot.
I have a position on a controversial topic. I learn that Person A, for whose intelligence and intellectual honesty I have a lot of respect, has a contrary position. The facts haven’t changed and new facts haven’t come to light, but learning of A’s position leads me to question or even change my own.
I guess this is probably more a “friendly ad hominem” than an “attack on the person.” But the same dynamic applies mutatis mutandis for people with whom I have an icy relationship and who present arguments I’d otherwise agree with.
This isn’t only a case of letting my personal feelings interfere with logic and reason, although it’s definitely that, too. It’s also a case where that person’s own attributes lead me to reconsider that which I already thought I knew.
And you do it, too. You probably couldn’t not do it at least sometimes. While it’s frustrating to be on the receiving end of that attitude. It’s a fact of life and it’s probably necessary when it comes to sorting information.
Vikram Bath reminded us a while ago that the pure world of freshman logic courses is not a precise fit with the messy world of real-life probability. (Read the whole thing. His post has the virtue of making basically the same argument as mine, but his is better written and not nearly as long.) Probably anyone from Kindergarten age on up knows this at some level. We also have to judge others’ intentions and not only their arguments. In certain situations, as I’ve written before, we do have to worry about another person’s sincerity if only to judge how they’ll act in the future.
Sometimes the person is the issue. True, it’s not always easy to know when that is so. Neither is it always easy to agree on which aspects of the personal are fair game. But sometimes character and reputation are up for discussion.
Challenge #3: In some arenas, the rules put ad hominems in play
Take an example courtesy of Mark Thompson. To my knowledge, he doesn’t believe “ad hominems are always valid.” But he has noted that in some arenas, the personal is defined as valid. Speaking specifically about gay marriage and the charges of personal hypocrisy against some of ssm’s opponents, he has said [italics in the original],
Specifically, insofar as we’re discussing the constitutionality (as opposed to the practical merits) of prohibitions on SSM, discriminatory animus is a major issue. If the sole justification for it that holds up to inquiry is a lizard-brain discomfort with homosexuality, then a prohibition on SSM is basically unconstitutional per se.
Show that enough prominent SSM opponents don’t act in ways consistent with their arguments yet continue to retain their prominence and you start to have a pretty good claim that arguments against permitting SSM aren’t merely wrong, they’re actually pretexts to legitimize discriminatory animus. While it’s not possible to ever conclude that discriminatory animus lay behind everyone who opposes SSM, it may well be possible to conclude that it lay behind enough opponents of SSM to become a “but-for” cause of SSM prohibitions.
I doubt that courts which reject laws for “animus” actually cite widespread hypocrisy among that law’s advocates. But I’m not a lawyer. And what I take to be Mark’s main point is still a good one. He’s arguing that in certain, bounded environments–in his example, American constitutional jurisprudence on “animus” as it relates to measures that curtail civil rights–personal attitudes, including hypocrisy, are put into play even if a pure, deductive argument would not accept it. (If I misinterpret him, I hope he or someone else will correct me. As always, caveat lector, read the whole thing, et cetera.)
An example of another arena in which ad hominems are put into play might include “honor cultures” from our time or earlier times. Think of the dueling-culture in the early American Republic. (See Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor, 2001)
My larger point is that if everyone in a given community agrees that ad hominems are part of the rules, then if one wishes to abide by the rules in that community, ad hominems have a stronger valence than the classic case suggests. That reasoning is circular, but it also describes the way things often are.
Challenge #4: Ad hominems (sometimes) touch on the issue and not only the person
About a million years ago in internet time, Noah Millman at The American Conservative offered a partial defense of ad hominems [italics are Millman’s]:
The charge of hypocrisy, in other words, is usually embedded within a larger framework of argument, one which may affirm or reject the specific morality of ends that the accused hypocrite claims to uphold. Rather than deny the legitimacy of the charge of hypocrisy, wouldn’t bringing that context out into the open advance the cause of honest argument more effectively?
After all, without the charge of hypocrisy, how would you make some of the arguments above? [Here, Millman refers to arguments that cite infidelity among some opponents of same sex marriage–GC] If I believe that repressing one’s sexuality is harmful, and I can’t point to the hypocritical minister as a piece of evidence, then my argument is badly weakened – and for no obvious reason. Why am I obliged to say, in effect, that his actions have no bearing on the validity of the principle he stands for, when his actions are, to my mind, evidence that his principle has pernicious consequences? Isn’t the question of how principles play out in practice an extremely important question in debating said principles?
That’s only one part of Millman’s argument. He makes additional points in favor of (some kinds of) ad hominems (in some situations). He is also focusing specifically on ad hominems’ relevance for professing Christians. In other words, I’m taking only part of his argument and twisting it to my own purpose. So read his whole essay if you want to get what he’s really saying and not what is undoubtedly my contrived representation of it.
That said, here is my riff off his argument: Ad hominems often tell us about the issue under discussion.
Let’s take again the case of the adulterous minister. That case tells us something about the minister, yes. But it also tells us something about adultery, namely, that perhaps it
- resonates with enough people that denouncing it is popular and almost expected; and
- is something not quite as easy to avoid as simple preaching usually makes it out to be; and
- calls for forbearing judgment on those whom the minister might condemn
The ad hominem-ness of calling out that minister’s adultery doesn’t change the wrongness of adultery, but it strikes me as having something to do with adultery as a practice that goes beyond that one proverbial minister’s hypocrisy.
Challenge #5: Standing
I’m not a parent. I have never played any significant role in raising children. I have undertaken no training in child psychology or child education or child rearing. With only a handful of exceptions, I’ve never been a babysitter.
Those facts suggest to me that any advice I might give about parenting is suspect. Not necessarily wrong. Any one thing I might say could be right in and of itself. But as a non-parent, I have almost no stake in the outcome. I have almost zero familiarity with the types of daily compromises and complicated feelings that come when raising children. Even a correct piece of advice doesn’t do much for the parent when it comes from me.
I’ll except the cases of “obvious” abuse that none of us endorses or admits to endorsing. But even then, I imagine that someone like me might have a hard time diagnosing even “obvious” abuse.
I don’t have standing to give parenting advice. In my opinion–and probably in most others’ opinions–my lack of standing severely challenges the correctness of almost anything I might say on the matter.
(I owe the idea of standing, I think, to OT commenter/author Patrick. I can’t claim he necessarily agrees what I’m doing with it, and he certainly can’t be blamed for my using it. But his comment here is an example of what got me thinking along those lines. To be clear, I’m not saying he’s saying the idea of “standing” is a good thing or disproves the classic view of the ad hominem fallacy. But he seems to be saying that’s how things tend to work in practice.)
Challenge #6: ad hominems expose the ad hocs
I don’t remember if my introduction to logic textbook talked about the ad hoc fallacy. But my biology 101 professor did. He used the idea to argue against the approach some young earth creationists used to dispute evolution.
As I understand them, ad hocs are not necessarily fallacious in themselves. They might be a valid arguments in that the premises, if true, will lead to the arguer’s conclusion. But as this article notes, an ad hoc “describes ideas which are created solely for a specific task and not intended to be generalizable in any way.” Or to elaborate, ad hoc arguments signal inconsistent or dishonest reasoning.
If I notice someone who uses a general principle to support an argument but then uses a contrary principle when it’s convenient for him or her to do so and when he or she doesn’t offer a way to distinguish the two instances, that leads me to suspect their argument. If that person has a habit of doing this, I am inclined to be suspicious or hypercritical of most of what they say.
I’ve made some leaps in that paragraph. The specific “ad hoc” argument may represent a defensible principle. The contrary “ad hoc” argument may also represent a defensible principle. There may be a legitimate way to reconcile the two principles/arguments so as to vitiate the claim that there’s ad hockery afoot. And even if none of that applies, the fact that someone habitually argues this way doesn’t mean that any one thing that person says in any one instance is wrong.
But it all seems to put the ad hominem into play in a way that it isn’t in the classic view. If someone regularly acquits themselves particularly dishonestly, that person is usually the sort to rely on ad hoc arguments. At least that’s been my experience.
Challenge #7: “What is truth?”
I’m not postmodern theorist. What little I’ve read about postmodernism is soul-crushingly dense. I’m not sure I understand or can explain it. But I can’t wholly deny what I take to be one of its key claims: Facts are constituted by the observer, or by the relationship between the observer and the observed. And the history and traits of the observer are bound in that relationship, so that reality is in some meaningful way constituted by that observer’s history and starting assumptions.
I’m not sure how much I believe that. But even so, as someone trained in history, where the source material is fragmented and represents so many different points of view and where a narrative has to be imposed on what is both too little and too much evidence, I cannot deny there’s a certain appeal to the claim that the truth and falsity of what we call facts are somehow related to the person discerning and conveying them.
If one accepts that and carries it in a certain direction, it opens the court wide open to ad hominems. I take no position here on whether that direction is the proper one or on what kind of world I’d have to accept if everyone believed and acted that way. I just offer it as a challenge to the ad hominem prohibition.
Challenges, not a refutation
You may say these challenges demonstrate only that humans are not always rational.
You may also say I’ve shown only that ad hominems are fallacies except when they aren’t. You might add that if I spend enough intellectual energy, I can contort “that which must be proven” to make any purported fallacy relevant.
I don’t have a good answer to those objections. I do not view the challenges listed in this OP as refutations. Even though the classic view can answer these challenges without a sweat (except perhaps for the thing about postmodernism), they represent how ad hominems work in practice. In practice, things are usually not so clear. In my next post, I’ll offer some thoughts on how to use or engage with ad hominems while acknowledging that the world is a messy place.
Photo credit: “Messy Kitchen,” by Mark Knobil. Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License: Attribution and non-commercial. Gabriel Conroy did not modify this image and his use of the image is not necessarily endorsed by the image’s creator.