What do talk shows, news reports, political debates and many conversations between two people who disagree have in common? Often people are not listening to but rather attacking one another. These are examples of a third way healthy conversations are derailed—through the ad hominem fallacy. In fact, this is so common that it may be the hardest of the three fallacies to spot. But we must learn to identify and reject it if we want to have healthy conversations and come to agreement on the issues we care most about.
What is the Ad Hominem Fallacy?
The ad hominem fallacy is literally “against the man.” It is attacking the person, rather than the position or argument the person is advancing.
For instance, Donald Trump used this fallacy when he responded to criticisms of how he spoke about women:
That was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it…. If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse. Mine are words, and his was action. His was what he’s done to women. There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women. So you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women. (Stated during the second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton on October 9, 2016; a clip is online here [quote above starts at 53 seconds.])
Instead of responding to the criticism of his attitude toward women, he shifted the focus to the actions of Bill Clinton. Whether true or not, that is not the issue at hand. Not addressing the charge and instead shifting the focus to someone else’s actions is an example of the ad hominem fallacy (actually a sub-variety known as the tu quoque ad hominem [the “you too” form]). It sidetracks the discussion, often with an emotionally charged counter-example, so that the issue being discussed is avoided.
A Historical Example—Investigations of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As I have done for the first two fallacies, I’ll illustrate this one with a historical example from the Civil Rights Movement. When MLK was becoming a prominent spokesman for the movement, the FBI began investigating him (in December 1955) to determine if he had communist connections and whether or not he had cheated on his wife. The goal was to use any data found to discredit his arguments in favor of civil rights, along these lines:
Martin Luther King is an outspoken proponent of the civil rights movement. However, he has connections to communist sympathizers. He also cheats on his wife. Therefore his views on civil rights should be discounted.
Such an argument is a clear case of the ad hominem fallacy. Regardless of whether or not he had communist ties or affairs, this has nothing to do with the validity of his arguments in favor of civil rights. It is an attempt to sidetrack the issue by introducing other, emotionally charged criticisms of the person, not the position.
A Ministry Example—“Christians are all hypocrites.”
I often encounter the ad holmium fallacy when discussing the claims of Christ with others. For instance, someone recently told me:
I know Christians believes Jesus is the only way to God. But they must be wrong – Christians are such hypocrites!
Whether or not it is true that most Christians are hypocrites (and I don’t believe it is true, in general), this has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus is the only way to God. This sidetracks the discussion by attacking the person(s), rather than responding to the issue being discussed. Even if every Christian is a hypocrite, it may still be true that Jesus is the only way to God.
A Current Example in the Public Square from The Abortion Debate
As I’ve done in my last two posts, I’ll also illustrate the ad hominem fallacy by an example from a current cultural dialogue—this time from the discussion concerning abortion. Many times, when a man raises a concern over the pro-abortion culture or legislation, the response is:
You have nothing to say about this issue. You are a man, and so your voice must be silenced. Only women understand and can speak to issues of reproductive rights!
In this case, a person (who happens to be male) is making an argument against abortion or “reproductive rights.” However, his arguments are not engaged. Instead he, and specifically his gender, is attacked. Therefore, it is concluded, that his arguments are invalid and not worth engaging.
However, as Frank Beckwith has said so well, “Arguments don’t have genitals.” The arguments the (male) person is advancing should be considered on their own merits. The fact that a man is advancing the argument is not relevant to the validity of the points being made. To sidetrack the issue and dismiss the arguments by attacking the person’s gender is a clear case of the ad hominem fallacy (no pun intended).
Again, as in my earlier posts, my point here is not that there are no good arguments in favor of abortion. (I’ve argued that point in another post.) Here I’m simply making the point that to discount an argument based on the gender of the one making it is a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy.
Christians Must Also Be Careful to Avoid this Fallacy When Discussing the Gospel
As with the red herring and genetic fallacies, it is easy for Christians to employ the ad hominem fallacy as well, especially when we feel attacked. For instance, a non-believer may accuse us of leaving reason at the door of our churches and just believing anything our pastors say. In response we may be tempted to retort:
Non-believers do this too when they blindly believe whatever their favorite political pundit or cultural icon says. So this isn’t a fair criticism of Christians!
Like the example from the 2016 presidential debate, this response is another example of the tu quoque (“you too”) form of the ad hominem fallacy. The premise (objection) is that Christians don’t think through what they believe, but blindly follow whatever they are taught by their pastors. But this response is simply saying, “you too!” It doesn’t address the criticism or offer reasons why this isn’t so. Instead, the response diverts the conversation to alleging the non-believer is also guilty of not thinking for herself, and so the criticism of the believer is not valid.
Instead of sidetracking the conversation with this fallacy, the correct response would be something like this:
That may be true of some believers. But there are many examples of people like C.S. Lewis who deeply examined Christian truth claims and concluded that Christianity is true based on evidence and reason.
Such a response keeps the discussion on track, around the issue at hand: whether faith and reason can co-exist. This is a conversation we should be happy to have!
In all conversations we must treat others as we wish to be treated as a way to love our neighbor, one way we can fulfill our Lord’s greatest commandment. One way to do this is by honestly considering and engaging one another’s ideas, rather than sidetracking the discussions by the ad hominem fallacy (or any other fallacy I’ve discussed). May we do our best to not dishonor one another in these ways, but rather avoid these logical fallacies as a way of expressing love and respect of one another, no matter what issues we may differ on.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Patrick Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic.