Philosophy of Logic – Ad Hominem Arguments

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Philosophical discussions generally consist of productive debate in which two or more people attempt to rationally argue for different sides of a question. They each try to think up and explain a logical argument in support of their position while constructively trying to offer logical rebuttals of the other person’s position. Though called arguments, the philosophers generally have a lot of respect for each other and enjoy having the discussion in a friendly tone. In fact, it becomes very difficult to have a worthwhile philosophical discussion without a lot of respectfulness and friendliness.

Unfortunately, sometimes one person may use an ad hominem argument. An ad hominem argument consists of replying to a person’s argument by merely attacking the character of the person making the argument. It can also be called a personal attack or an irrelevant insult. For example, if Joe claims that the sky is blue, Bob would be making an ad hominem argument if he responded by saying, “No, it isn’t because you are an ugly moron.”

An ad hominem is a fallacy, and it is illogical. Worse yet, it may cause the discussion to break down into an unproductive name-calling contest.

You may have trouble distinguishing an ad hominem argument from a non-fallaciously offensive statement. A claim or argument may not be a personal attack just because somebody feels insulted or offended by it. You can figure out whether a statement is a personal attack or not by asking yourself if the statement is truly relevant to the discussion. If the statement is evidence of the person’s position about the topic, then it may not be an personal attack even if it could be offensive. Nonetheless, if the statement just attacks the other person in the discussion, then it is a personal attack. Generally, name-calling of any kind is an ad hominem. Additionally, saying that the other person is ignorant, stupid, or such will also almost always be an ad hominem.

You can avoid using ad hominem arguments by trying to stay on-topic in any discussion. Additionally, try to speak as nicely, politely, and respectfully as possible. If you constantly try to remain as nice and polite as possible, you will probably not slip up and make an ad hominem. To that end, avoid discussing anything while angry. If you feel angry or emotional, make sure to take extra care to speak or write in as nicely and respectfully of a tone as possible. Focus on making points only about the main topic, and do not comment on the other person’s character or abilities (unless you wish to give them an honest compliment).

If someone calls you names or insults you, do not respond by doing the same. It is no less fallacious for you to return a personal attack than it was for them to make one. I find it most effective to just ignore insults in a philosophical discussion. If you try to mention the other person’s ad hominem and reply to it, you will often end up getting into an off-topic and personal discussion. If you feel the need to reply to an ad hominem, simply and politely tell the person that the ad hominem remark is irrelevant. Talking about the fact that an off-topic remark is off-topic will bring you further off-topic. Just let it go and focus on the topic.

Calling someone a hypocrite is almost always an ad hominem fallcy. In fact, it is specifically referred to as an tu quoque. It is fallacious. For example, if Mark claims that smoking cigarettes is wrong, and Mary tries to rebut it by accusing Mark of smoking cigarettes, Mary has probably made an tu quoque fallacy. The fact that Mark smokes cigarettes does not disprove the claim that smoking cigarettes is wrong.

Also, calling the person who makes an argument biased is almost always an ad hominem fallacy. It is specifically referred to as a circumstantial argument. Pointing out that someone has a reason to want a conclusion to be true is not a valid rebuttal to their argument.

Most importantly, you want to avoid making irrelevant insults. Do not call names. If you do, you are committing a fallacy, and you have greatly hindered the ability for the discussion to remain productive. Remember, the point of philosophical discussion is to have productive and constructive discussions about philosophical topics; it is not to have name-calling contests and insult each others’ personal qualities.


Source by Scott Hughes

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