Hi, my name is Julianne Chung
and I’m a graduate student at Yale University
Today I am going to talk about ad hominem fallacies
“Ad hominem”is a Latin term
that can be translated into English as “to the man”
which is a very literal tranlation
or “against the person”
which is a bit more descriptive
Ad hominem fallacies are also very often called
“fallacies of personal attack.”
This is because such fallacies are commited
whenever one attempts to challenge a position
by criticizing something having to do with its source
thereby shifting attention away from the points at issue
and focusing it instead on those who are arguing for them
There are many different kinds of ad hominem fallacies
We are going to briefly survey six here
They go by the following names
First, abusive ad hominem.
Second, circumstantial ad hominem
Third, tu quoque.
Fourth, guilt by association
Fifth, genetic fallacy
And sixth, ad feminam.
Abusive ad hominem arguments
present personal characteristics of individuals
as good reasons to discount their ideas.
However although certain personal characteristics
might give us reason for suspicion,
they do not affect the virtues of claims considered on their own.
Here’s an example of such an argument:
“We should never think that anything politicians ever say is true
because they’re all dirty, lying scumbags.”
It should be easy enough to see that
this argument does not give us reason
to discount everything that politicians say.
Indeed, even those who are the least admirable
likely say true things at least some of the time.
Whereas an abusive ad hominem argument
works by attacking an individual directly,
a circumstantial ad hominem argument
attempts to challenge a person’s position
by suggesting that she is advancing it
merely to serve her own interests.
Although this can be seen as abusive,
circumstantial ad hominem arguments
differ from abusive ad hominem arguments
in that they focus on their target’s situations,
rather than on their personal characteristics.
Once again, however, although such arguments
may give us reason to question an individual’s intentions,
they do not impact whether her claims themselves
are nonetheless worth taking seriously.
Consider this argument:
“Summer vacation should be abolished.
“Any student who argues otherwise should not be listened to,
“because he or she stands to benefit from its continuation.”
Although we might wonder whether a student
who opposes getting rid of summer vacation
is doing so solely out of self-interest,
that has no bearing on whether it should indeed be eliminated or not,
or whether such a student’s arguments are any good or not.
Plenty of excellent positions and arguments
also happen to benefit those advocating them.
That does not diminish their merit however.
Another tactic that is often used to attack claims
by undermining their advocate’s credibility
involves allegations of a certain kind of hypocrisy.
This fallacy goes by the name “tu quoque,”
which in Latin means
“you too,” or “you also.”
When one commits the tu quoque fallacy,
one accuses the person of acting in a manner
that contradicts some position that she supports,
and concludes that her view is worthless on account of the fact
that she failed to follow her own advice.
However, whether someone is acting in a manner
that is somehow in tension with the position she is advancing
has no bearing on whether it is right or wrong,
although it can admittedly strike us
as somehow dishonest, or less than noble.
Here’s an example:
“I can’t believe you’re trying to convince me
“that I should give more money to charity,
“when you don’t give nearly as much as I do.”
Whether the person that this argument attacks
(let’s call him “person B”)
gives as much money to charity
as the person advancing this argument does，
(let’s call her “person A”)
has no bearing on whether person A
should or should not give more money to charity.
Presumably, that depends on other things besides what B is doing,
say, for example, how much money person A makes,
how much money person A presently gives, and so on.
The guilt by association fallacy is committed
whenever one tries to argue against a certain view
by pointing out that some unsavory person is likely to have agreed with it,
“Chocolate chip cookies can’t be any good.
“My philosophy professor loves them,”
and she is the meanest teacher I have ever had!”
As we all know, chocolate chip cookies are delicious,
despite the fact that some mean people think so as well.
A claim can be true despite its being endorsed by someone we don’t like.
However while arguments that commit the guilt by association fallacy
aim to cast a claim into question
by condemning someone who is likely to have agreed with it,
the genetic fallacy occurs whenever an attempt is made
to cast a claim into question by condemning its origin.
Here’s an example of an argument that commits the genetic fallacy:
“The founder of organization X
“served time in prison for embezzlement,
“so we can conclude that the organization
“must still be corrupt.”
We can imagine this argument being advanced
in order to argue against a claim
to the effect that organization X
offers many excellent services
and deserves financial support.
However, the mere fact that the founder of organization X was a criminal
does not show that the organization
currently acts in a way that is morally unacceptable.
Things could have changed a lot since then.
As a note, arguments that commit the genetic fallacy
can also be used positively, to support claims
rather than undermine them.
The last fallacy that I am going to talk about today
goes by the name “ad feminam.”
Ad feminam arguments attempt to discredit a claim
on the grounds that a female person it.
Such arguments often include statements to the effect of:
“Why should I believe anything you have to say?
“After all, you’re just a woman.”
I take it to be more or less obvious
as to why such arguments are deeply problematic.
How about this example?
Does it commit one of the fallacies just considered?
If so, which one?
“Ronald Reagan was in favor of similar policies,
“so they must be the right thing to do.”