Ad Hominem - Abusive

Description:

The argument attacks a position by appealing to the despicable qualities, moral turpitude, and over-all lowness and meanness of a person who holds the position.

 

Comments:

A common way to attack an opponent, while appearing to attack the argument, is to attribute personal qualities to the argument, as in "That's a stupid argument!" Since arguments are not persons they cannot literally be stupid (or intelligent). Saying "That's a stupid argument," really means, "Only a stupid person would offer such an argument," so this is really and Ad Hominem - Abusive, even though it appears to be directed at the argument rather than at the person.

 

Examples:

"I can't believe that anyone really listens to what the American Rifle Association has to say. After all, they're just a bunch of ignorant yokels."

 

"Rush Limbaugh is a big, fat idiot." - title of a book by Al Franken

 

 "If they don't have the guts to come up here in front of you and say, 'I don't want to represent you, I want to represent those special interests, the unions, the trial lawyers...' if they don't have the guts, I call them girlie men." - Arnold Schwarzenegger (2004, referring to members of the California legislature)

 

"Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?" - Donald Trump (2015, in debate remarks critiquing candidate Carly Fiorina.)

 

Discussion:

Obviously peppering an argument with irrelevant insults does nothing to address the soundness of the opponent's argument. However, the Abusive fallacy may be persuasive because it mimics two contexts in which concern for the character or characteristics of a person is relevant.

1. There are occasions, such as job interviews and political campaigns (which are a sort of job interview) in which a person's intellectual, moral, and even physical characteristics are precisely the issue at hand. No bank wishes to hire dishonest clerks; the American public is justified in wishing not to be represented by dull-witted or immoral politicians; modeling agencies need to hire people with physical beauty. In such contexts, personal remarks--even insulting personal remarks--may be perfectly relevant and therefore non-fallacious.

2. Consider the inductive inference: people who have provided reliable and accurate information in the past are more likely to do so in the future; people who have based their arguments on unsubstantiated and inaccurate information in the past may not be worth listening to now. Where the quality of an argument rests on the accuracy and reliability of certain alleged facts, and where it is not convenient to check those facts for yourself, it is not fallacious to take into account the reputation of the person offering those facts.

Presumably, the Abusive fallacy is persuasive because we mistake the context of the argument for one of those in which the character or characteristics of the opponent do actually matter.

In any Ad Hominem - Abusive fallacy, the abuse should be in the actual words used, not just in a perceived tone of voice (especially if the fallacy is written and the perceived tone is only in the ear of the reader). It is not an Abusive fallacy to say, "You Americans..." even when it is said with a tone of contempt, since it is not abusive to call someone an American.

 

Source: Plato collected examples of this fallacy. The term "ad hominem" was coined by John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690. Apparently the first philosopher to distinguish the Abusive fallacy from other forms of Ad Hominem was Schopenhauer in "The Art of Controversy." He called it "argumentum ad personem" to indicate the more personal nature of the attack. I have not yet discovered who first used the term "abusive," but I first became aware of the term from Irving M. Copi, Introduction to Logic, the earliest edition of which appeared in 1953.

 

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