On Ad Hominems Part 2: Getting Personal With Parameters


gabriel conroy

Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer.

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13 Responses

  1. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “Coda: If It’s Too Easy, Maybe You’re Doing It Wrong”

    This is a really good point. It wasn’t just a weird riff that led Orwell to give us the notion of a Two Minutes Hate.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    At the end of the day, you have to ask what the goal is?

    If your goal is to figure out stuff like “what is truth?” and the best valid, sound argument for any proposition, you should definitely avoid Ad Hominem arguments the same way that you should avoid any fallacies. Fallacies will steer you in the wrong direction.

    If your goal is to convince others of your position, you will probably want to lean pretty heavily on fallacies. Ad Hominem is a pretty good one for that sort of thing.Report

    • Avatar Francis in reply to Jaybird says:

      Excellent comment!

      Humans are tribal, rationalizing creatures easily susceptible to fallacious arguments. (sauf moi, bien sure.)Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Francis says:

        How convincing, as a practical matter, are ad hominems (and related fallacies of relevance) are, though?

        I imagine they sway some people to the arguer’s side of the argument, especially (but not only, perhaps?) if the swayed are undecided and haven’t already decided to oppose the issue. I also imagine they have a stronger influence in rallying people who already agree with a position.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

          If “those people” are yucky, then obviously there’s a reason for it. Maybe it’s the way they think, or the things they believe. Better make sure we don’t think the same way or believe the same things, because then we might get yucky too!Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Jaybird says:

      While I think I agree, Jaybird, I can’t shake the notion that ad hominems are sometimes relevant. Or perhaps it’s “what I call ad hominems but which really aren’t when you think about what’s really being argued.”

      Larry Hamelin’s point, referred to in my OP, disturbs me (in a good way) for that very reason. Can a normative argument be “true” in a way that always forecloses what we’d call fallacies of relevance? I think the answer might be, “not always.”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Well, I’m a fan of the whole “ad hominems are a shortcut” theory.

        If you’re down with using shortcuts that you might best go with your gut, then, hey. I imagine that it won’t work out too horribly for you. There are tons of evolutionary psychology papers written about the importance of gossip and such. I’ve no doubt that ad hominem is evolutionarily useful.

        But if ad hominem is the only way to reach the conclusion you’ve reached? You’re doing it wrong.

        I mean, hey, sometimes shortcuts get you to the right place anyway. Sometimes that happens. More often, it’s probably likely that there’s no harm done in seeing a pattern in random noise because, sometimes, the pattern does indicate something bad. (See the example of the costs/benefits of making Type I errors vs. making Type II errors that involves the grass moving in such a way that might be a breeze or it might be a predator.)

        If, however, you want to do the “let’s not do fallacies” thing and maybe reach conclusions that are counter-intuitive and testable and repeatable… well, you’ve got to get rid of the shortcuts.Report

      • I argue that the answer is, “Fundamentally, never.”

        (Note that arguments such as, “If killing people is bad, it is objectively true that pointing a loaded gun at someone and pulling the trigger is bad,” fundamentally rest on the premise, which is not objectively true.)

        Here’s a link to some of my writing on the subject: Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism. If you have any further questions, feel free to email me, or leave a comment on any post on my blog.Report

  3. Avatar Patrick says:

    Thanks for all the thinking out loud on this, Gabriel. I wish I was around more so that I could have contributed to the discussion.

    I think – aside from the most common visceral desire to thumb somebody in the eye, rhetorically – all uses of ad hominems that you’re talking about ties into one very specific type of general case; the case of the normative challenge.

    We as a society still have not settled on what the correct metric is to judge the rightness of normative preferences. When someone plants a firm stake in the ground and announces a normative preference as a moral contention, that has a tendency to get the dander up on the other side, and for eminently justifiable reasons, the person is making an authoritative claim.

    “Gay marriage is unnatural”
    “Education is a right”

    Implicitly, they are arguing either that these statements are self-evident (and you’re stupid for not realizing the truth of this self-evident thing) or they are arguing that they have the authority to make this claim. It’s not an explicit Appeal to Authority, but it’s close enough.

    To the extent that Ad Hominems are deployed against these sorts of folks making these sorts of statements it isn’t so much “This person is a jerk, so they are wrong” (which is the formal framework of the fallacy). It is instead “This person claims to be a moral authority on X, but they suck at X, so they are not a moral authority on X”.

    (This is more or less the conversation we had when Sam was arguing this topic, IIRC.)

    Note that there’s still a problem with the Ad Hominem in this case, because it has an assumption (the assumption being that moral authorities on X must also be good practitioners of X, which is itself a normative assumption).


    It is very common that the folks *claiming* the moral high ground in the first place have as one of their priors an established pattern of claiming precisely that; that in order to be a moral authority on X, you also have to be a good practitioner of X.

    To the extent that those folks come to the argument with all of that baggage (which is pretty common), then it’s not strictly an Ad Hominem because you have accepted their definition of a moral authority and now you are turning it back on them and showing them that they do not meet their own definition, and that’s perfectly legit as an argumentative tactic… because an argument depends upon the framework, and if the framework doesn’t hold together the argument isn’t grounded in anything.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Patrick says:

      Thanks for the comment, Patrick. I haven’t thought of it in precisely those terms–i.e., ad hominems implicitly involving some appeal to (the speaker’s) authority–although Larry Hamlin’s comments in the first thread seem close to that position.Report