When arguing, there are many logical fallacies that can trip us up. The idealised honest debater tries to avoid all of these traps, while pointing out when their opponent has fallen into one. When the conversation heats up, one of the most common flawed arguments that get thrown into the mix is the ad hominem attack: when we stop addressing the argument itself and instead attack the person who is making it. But is this always such a bad thing?
Ad Hominem: Play the ball, not the man
Ad hominem attacks are generally seen as a bad thing. If you’re debating some hot topic with somebody, and you start firing barbs at their character, or personal history, then you’re guilty of an ad hominem attack. You’re playing the man, as they say, not the ball. And the reason we don’t like this is that it’s a tacit admission that your argument is weak. You’re unable to reason your way past the points they are making, so you undermine their authority to make those points. The point of an ad hominem argument is to make your audience lose faith in your opponent by making him or her seem foolish, or dishonest, or unreliable. Your own weak argument is now propped up by having not been made by the other guy. It’s a cheap tactic, and it smacks of cheating. It’s a psychological trick to fool your audience into believing that your opponent’s argument must be somehow flawed. It’s about winning at any cost.
It gets worse when there is no audience, such as when you’re arguing with somebody in private, or quarrelling with a loved one. There’s nobody to impress, only the desire to beat your opponent by getting them to concede defeat. In this case, ad hominem attacks are particularly weak because your opponent believes themselves to be the good guy. Everybody sees themselves as the hero of their own story, and attacking their character will do therefore do precisely nothing to convince them that they are wrong and you are right.
So that’s why we don’t like this tactic. It’s an effective way to “win”, but it doesn’t bring you any closer to resolving the issue, or finding the truth.
But this knowledge leads us to a newer, darker place: simply knowing that it exists opens up a new way to undermine your opponent: Accuse them (falsely or not) of launching an ad hominem attack on you. After all, if they are using these sorts of tricks, then their argument must itself be weak. Why else would they stoop to such dirty tricks? This, incidentally, is known as the ‘Fallacy fallacy’ – the idea that if an argument has logical fallacies in it, then the premise that it defends must be false, ignoring the idea that it could be true but simply badly argued.
There’s a problem with everything I’ve said up till now, though. We’re assuming that arguments are these pure things, that exist by themselves in some perfect ideological space, and that the context of their delivery is irrelevant. But that isn’t always true. Life isn’t a debating contest, where we talk only in pursuit of the perfect logical argument. Sometimes we’re talking about real problems in the real world. These topics have contexts that impact everything that is said.
For example, consider a famous anti-semite presenting an argument against the rights of jews (or blacks, or palestinians, or whites, or redheads, or any other prejudice at all). It turns out that they’re quite intelligent, and are able to construct a chain of reasoning that seems sound. You, playing by the rules, can not find any flaws in the argument. Now obviously this does not mean that they are right. It only means that you were not smart enough to spot their bad reasoning, or that you never noticed the bad assumptions that their whole argument is based on. But if we leave things as they are, then they “win” the argument, despite being wrong.
So in this context, their antisemitism becomes quite relevant. If you know that a person is strongly biased towards a particular result, then you know that they are probably not making an honest argument at all. In that case, their reasoning is very likely faulty, even if you are unable to figure out exactly where they went wrong. Pointing out that their history of anti-semitic statements then becomes absolutely relevant to the argument, even if this is, strictly speaking, an ad hominem attack.
And of course, sometimes the person really is the target after all. If a person, or group of people, are trying to do something evil, by whatever standard you judge such things, then is it reasonable to waste time sparring verbally with them? Not if your goal is to expose their evil and stop them from doing more.
It’s become common, these days, for such people to sew confusion and discord by creating false arguments, filling our attention spans with a never-ending stream of nonsense. These arguments are sometimes compelling (if flawed), but sometimes make no effort at all to sound reasonable. What makes them effective is that they are churned out at a rapid rate, and are tuned to our own hot buttons. They pull us into endless and pointless debates. They are fake arguments, and we waste our time trying to debate a smokescreen.
When that happens, it’s best to abandon the debates and get to grips with the people and what they represent directly. Your goal is not to come up with cleverer arguments, but to defeat their actions and expose their motivations. In other words, the people themselves are the problem. When you’re at this point, when you’re fighting people instead of ideas, ad hominem attacks are not unfair distractions. They’re relevant and appropriate.
Know your ad hominem game
So the next time you’re angrily yelling at somebody on the Internet about some politician on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you, think about what you’re trying to achieve. When you get accused of ad hominem attacks, you should know whether that’s a fair criticism. If it is, abandon that tack and focus on the issues. But if you are in fact fighting against the people behind the ideas then there’s no shame in admitting that you are in fact playing the man and not the ball.