An ad hominem argument (or argumentum ad hominem in Latin) is used to counter another argument. However, it's based on feelings of prejudice (often irrelevant to the argument), rather than facts, reason, and logic. An ad hominem argument is often a personal attack on someone's character or motive rather than an attempt to address the actual issue at hand.
This type of personal attack fallacy is often witnessed in debates in courtrooms and politics. Often, the attack is based on a person's social, political, or religious views. Either way, ad hominem fallacy attacks undermine the case and are to be avoided at all costs. You'll see why as we explore ad hominem examples below.
Sometimes, people utilize ad hominem fallacy because they want to appeal to people's emotions. (Raise your hand if you've ever jumped to a conclusion based on emotion, rather than reason.) But, that's precisely why these kinds of arguments are often made of straw rather than of steel.
As soon as you spot someone coming after you with an ad hominem argument, you can counter their attack in two moves.
- Point out the irrelevance of the emotional testimony they've just introduced to the argument. Point out their personal attack on you and highlight how it has nothing to do with the argument at hand. In fact, you can go so far as to ask them how - precisely - their personal attack is relevant to the argument at hand.
- Once you've exposed their weakness, move on. Take the high road. You might say something to the effect of, "I understand you think I'm X,Y, and Z, but that has nothing to do with what we are actually discussing here. So, I'm not going to entertain it any longer."
Make sure you never find yourself on the wrong side of an ad hominem argument with a quick review of the concept in this video.
There isn’t just one type of ad hominem fallacy. Let’s look at the different types of ad hominem arguments you might find.
- Abusive - This is where the person is directly attacked. (i.e. This is why a woman shouldn’t do a man's job.)
- Circumstantial - Personal circumstances motivate a person's argument, so it must be false. (i.e. This car is proven to get great gas mileage. Yeah right! You just want my sale.)
- Guilt by Association - Due to an association to something negative, an argument is discredited. (i.e. Pol Pot was evil and against religion. All people against religion are bad.)
- Tu Quoque - Past actions discredit your argument. (i.e. You don’t believe that cheating is bad when you cheated on your wife.)
Let's review several ad hominem examples. Unfortunately, they're prevalent in the courtroom and in politics, so we'll begin there. To no surprise, ad hominem fallacy arguments also occur in any sort of daily interaction, so we'll review a few more everyday examples, too.
The more you read about examples of ad hominem arguments, the more you'll be able to spot them and, if need be, defend yourself against such claims.
It won't surprise you to learn ad hominem attacks are attempted in the court of law, where jury members' emotions are played upon on a regular basis.
- Attacking a defendant's character rather than addressing the actual facts of the alleged criminal activity - "You haven't held a steady job since 1992. Worse than that, we couldn't find a single employer who'd provide you with a good reference."
- Asserting that witness’ geographical location prevents him from being able to make a clear judgment in the case - "You've only ever lived in the city. The issues that matter to America's heartland are clearly beyond your comprehension."
- Using racial slurs to demean a person of another race in an argument about a crime involving people of different racial backgrounds - "People like you don't understand what it's like to grow up black in America. You have no right to argue about the gang violence on our streets."
- Attacking a defendant’s character by pointing out their flaws in a case - “You cheated and lied to your wife, but you expect the jury to believe you now?”
Have you ever watched a presidential debate? Boy, can they get ugly. Some politicians have even been known to resort to name-calling. Things certainly get sticky in the political arena; here are a few examples to that effect.
- Degrading another politician during a campaign when asked about a specific policy - "Well, I think we need to look at Senator Smith's failures regarding this issue."
- Responding in any debate with an attack on one's personal beliefs - "You don't even belong to a church. How can you claim to be a Christian?"
- Generalizing views of a political party as an insulting argument to an individual who is a member of a different party - "Well, it's pretty obvious that your political party doesn't know how to be fiscally responsible, so I wouldn't expect you to be either."
- Attacking an opponent's physical attractiveness rather than looking at the faults in their politics - “Just look at that face! How could anyone vote for that?”
Whether it’s an opinion piece or lively on-air discussion, words can easily get personal. Explore some different examples that attack religion, sexual orientation, and even socioeconomic status.
- Attacking someone's own sexual orientation in arguing about the right of LGBT individuals to marry - "The only reason you could possibly be in favor of this is because you're not being honest about your own sexuality."
- Using someone's known background or beliefs - "Of course you would say that. You believe life begins at conception and have never studied alternative facts."
- Stating that someone's argument is incorrect because of her religious beliefs - "Perhaps if you weren't Mormon, you would see this quite differently."
- Relying on socioeconomic status as a means to undermine an opposing individual's opinion - "You wouldn't understand since you have never had to struggle."
- Using gender as a means to devalue an argument from an opposing gender - "This is a female issue. As a man, how can you have an opinion about this?"
A simple conversation can suddenly take a left turn into ad hominem territory. Something very innocent can inadvertently become a personal attack on someone else. Let's take a look at a few more examples so you can keep your ad hominem detective skills on point.
- Using someone's education level as a means to exploit and degrade the opposer's argument - "You didn't even finish high school. How could you possibly know about this?"
- Demeaning a teacher's decision on grading by insulting her intelligence - "Well, it's not like you graduated from a good school, so I can see why you wouldn't know how to properly grade a writing assignment."
- Stating that one's age precludes him from being able to make an intelligent or meaningful argument - "You're clearly just too young to understand."
- Use of marital status to invalidate an opinion of someone of a different status - "How can you make a decision about someone having marital problems if you've never been married yourself?"
- Stating that the ethnicity of the opposing individual keeps him from formulating a valuable opinion - "You are from the United States, so you could never understand what it's like to live in a country like that."
Ad hominem arguments often expose people's prejudices. Being able to identify ad hominem arguments can help you defend yourself accordingly.
It's worth mentioning that, in some cases, a personal attack can be relevant to the discussion at hand. Perhaps you're illustrating a long-standing character defect that has influenced another person's bad behavior.
The trouble is these arguments are not always rooted in facts and hard data, and they often take a wrong turn into information that isn't directly related to the discussion at hand. So, try to avoid them and, by all means, protect yourself against such attacks.
If you ever find yourself in a position where you need to battle back an ad hominem attack, see if you can incorporate some positive correlation examples to turn the tide.