Fallacious Argument of the Month: the fallacy of the fallacy of the ad hominem

In my ongoing one-woman effort to contribute to the improvement of public discourse, each month I discuss an example of a Fallacious Argument. In December I chose a particular favorite of mine, the ad hominem.

This month I revisit it. Why? Because accusing someone of committing a fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem can itself be a fallacy. Let us consider it.

As the saying goes, there’s an app for everything. Some enterprising soul, capitalizing on the American fondness for the gratuitous insult, has created the political insult generator app, one for conservatives and one for progressives.

Thanks to these digital innovations, iphone and ipod Touch owners need no longer be at a loss for words in any political debate. Confident that a witty retort is always handy, they can hurl at their opponents ready-made epithets such as “crunchy business-bashing libtards” or “puritanical Bible-banging bullies”. It’s all in har-har good fun.

It’s harder to laugh though when a visit to any online forum or the letters page of your daily paper shows how ready to hand the insult is, like a rock to be hurled. But who’s surprised? Marshaling evidence to demonstrate the flaws in an opponent’s reasoning takes hard mental work. It’s much more fun and requires less effort to simply heap verbal abuse upon your adversary to attack their patriotism, ancestry, food preferences, or taste in ties.

There are of course ways to respond to such tactics. Often, however, in response to the jeering, people mistakenly accuse their opponents of engaging in ad hominem attacks. This is the fallacy of the fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem.

In a true argumentum ad hominem, an individual uses an attack on the speaker to undermine the speaker’s argument. Declaring your opponent a “Nazi”, “socialist”, or other insult du jour doesn’t cut it. It may be childish, uncalled for, and do nothing to further discussion, but it is not an ad hominem. Sorry.

If you’re confused about the difference, one writer, Stephen Bond, offers guidance, parsing numerous examples of correct and incorrect uses of ad hominems (warning: some language not safe for kids). Here’s one :

A: “All politicians are liars, and you’re just another politician. Therefore, you’re a liar and your arguments are not to be trusted.”
B: “Yet another ad hominem argument.”

If you accept the premises, A’s argument is sound; but I think most of us would sympathise with B and class it as fallacious, and ad hominem. This is because we do not accept the premise that all politicians are liars. There is a false premise that lies behind all ad hominem arguments: the notion that all people of type X make bad arguments. A has just made this premise explicit.

When debaters throw mud, everyone gets splattered. Too bad that a good clean fight has never been in fashion.

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