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Ad Hominem

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Ad Hominem

Most people recognize that personal attacks are not good arguments, yet it does not stop people from using them. Personal attacks are also called ad hominem arguments. Ad hominem attacks try to bring down someone, rather than someone’s argument. The ad hominem argument is a logical fallacy that comes in many forms.

Ad Hominem Definition

An ad hominem argument is a logical fallacy. A fallacy is an error of some kind.

A logical fallacy is employed like a logical reason, but it is actually flawed and illogical.

The ad hominem argument is specifically an informal logical fallacy, which means that its fallacy lies not in the structure of the logic (which would be a formal logical fallacy) but rather in something else.

An ad hominem argument targets the person rather than their argument.

This fallacy is so ubiquitous in argumentation that it has two categories and many variants beyond that.

In Latin, ad hominem means “to the person.” So, an argument ad hominem means “an argument to the person.”

Abusive Ad Hominem and Circumstantial Ad Hominem

There are two main kinds of ad hominem fallacy: the abusive ad hominem fallacy and the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy.

The abusive ad hominem argument attacks a person’s character to discredit them.

Here is a simple example of an abusive ad hominem argument:

Jake can’t be correct. He is a fool.

The argument is that Jake is wrong because he “is a fool.” There is no attempt to counter Jake’s argument, whatever that may be.

The circumstantial ad hominem argument attributes bias to someone to discredit them.

Here is a simple example of a circumstantial ad hominem argument.

Jake’s always been critical of the school board. He will say that the board wronged students regardless of the circumstance.

The argument is that Jake is too biased against the school board to make a sound judgment. However, there is no attempt to address Jake’s current argument against the school board.

Ad hominem, School example, StudySmarterTo be logical, address Jake's argument. Flaticon.

The abusive ad hominem argument and circumstantial ad hominem argument are logical fallacies. But why?

Why the Ad Hominem Argument Is a Logical Fallacy

A logical argument counters the logic of an opponent. Logical arguments stay on track and result in learning.

The ad hominem argument does not counter the logic of an opponent. Instead, it attacks the opponent, which is irrelevant in terms of logical argumentation. All that matters is the argument—not who is presenting the argument.

Thus, the ad hominem attack is a logical fallacy.

An ad hominem argument could be considered a kind of red herring because it distracts from the argument.

Types of Ad Hominem

Here is a list of some ad hominem attacks. These types are more specific than the broader abusive ad hominem fallacy and circumstantial ad hominem fallacy.

  • The ad personam fallacy occurs when an arguer derails the debate by ignoring the debate and attacking the person's character:

You want to talk about economic problems? I want to talk about your problems because you’re an idiot.

  • Tu quoque is when an arguer attacks someone’s character, and the attacked person replies, “You are just as bad or worse.”

I’m the idiot? You’re the one who voted for sanctions three years ago. You’re the real idiot.

  • An arguer using ex concessis says that if your current and past views differ, your current view cannot be correct.

Sanctions are better than war. You claim to be peaceful now, but you supported the war in Iraq until it was too late. Wolves stay wolves.

  • Guilt by association occurs when an arguer attacks someone based on others who hold the same view.

I’m no warmonger. Do you know who else wants your precious economic package to pass? Three big outfits of the military-industrial complex!

  • An arguer using the argument ad feminam discredits someone for being a woman.

Right, but so do a lot of people. Then again, when have women ever understood the economy?

  • The name-calling fallacy occurs when someone calls someone else names.

You’re nothing but a dirty old elephant, Jack—a dirty, mucky old elephant.

As you can see in the above exchange, ad hominem attacks come in a wide variety and can go on pointlessly—masquerading as a debate! You should be on the lookout for any one of these ad hominem arguments or a combination of them.

Ad hominem, Debate example, StudySmarterA heated debate might lose focus on the arguments. Flaticon.

Functions of Ad Hominem

It’s easy to see why people use ad hominem attacks. They are hurtful, break someone down, and can discredit someone in front of a non-academic audience. While experts in a field might dismiss or at least identify ad hominem attacks, your average person is unequipped to understand that logic follows the argument, not the person.

Ad hominem arguments can be used in essays and papers, debates, and just about anywhere a disagreement occurs.

Example of Ad Hominem in an Essay

Here is an example of how an ad hominem fallacy might appear in an essay.

In his 2022 article, Kirsch writes liberally on the lack of “inclusiveness” of children’s fiction, even in the modern era, but of course, he fails to mention how much better it has gotten over the last one-hundred years. It isn’t surprising. Kirsch, ever the complainer, has been complaining about the state of fiction since 1974. It’s a shame that the dinosaur doesn’t reference anything so far back as 1974 in his recent article. If he did, he would also see how much waffling he has done over the years. Also, let’s not forget that deJoan, a radical liberal who supports splitting the country, endorses Kirsch’s neo-liberal nonsense."

Try to count and identify the ad hominem arguments here. They are listed below.

  • “Kirsch, ever the complainer” is an abusive ad hominem fallacy.“The dinosaur” is an example of name-calling.“He would also see how waffling he has done over the years” is an example of ex concessis.Attacking Kirsch based on deJoan’s endorsement is guilt by association.

How to Counter an Ad Hominem Argument

Looking at an essay passage like this one, you might wonder, “Where does one begin to defend themselves?”

Ideally, you wouldn’t defend yourself. Your goal should not be to counter your opponent’s ad hominem argument, because this would be to surrender to the logical fallacy. Instead, you should identify the fallacy and bring the conversation back to the argument.

How to Avoid an Ad Hominem Argument

Finally, you don’t want to commit an ad hominem fallacy yourself. Here are three ways to ensure you don’t go off the rails.

Don’t write angry. When you write angry, you are more likely to heat up and leave the facts behind. Logic is cold and dispassionate; it follows the facts.

Don’t emphasize the person. Instead of attacking the person presenting the argument, attack the argument itself. Logic is only concerned with the argument, not who offers it.

Follow a line of reasoning. Logic should follow from previous arguments and so on. When you draw a conclusion, be sure it is based on evidence and stays on track.

Ad Hominem - Key Takeaways

  • An ad hominem argument targets the person rather than their argument.
  • The abusive ad hominem argument attacks a person’s character to discredit them.
  • The circumstantial ad hominem argument attributes bias to someone to discredit them.
  • The ad hominem argument does not counter the logic of an opponent. Thus it is a logical fallacy.
  • Don't try to counter an ad hominem argument. Instead, you should identify the fallacy and bring the conversation back to the argument.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ad Hominem

In Latin, ad hominem means “to the person.” So, an argument ad hominem means “an argument to the person.” 

Yes. An ad hominem argument could be considered a kind of red herring, because it distracts from the argument.

Yes. The ad hominem argument does not counter the logic of an opponent. Instead, it attacks the opponent, which is irrelevant in terms of logical argumentation.

There are many kinds of ad hominem arguments, including the abusive and circumstantial ad hominem argument. These are used in everything from debates to essays.

Ideally, you wouldn’t defend yourself. Your goal should not be to counter your opponent’s ad hominem argument, because this would be to surrender to the logical fallacy. Instead, you should identify the fallacy and bring the conversation back to the argument.

Final Ad Hominem Quiz

Question

What does an ad hominem argument target?

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Answer

Someone who makes an argument.

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Question

When do ad hominem arguments attack an argument?

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Answer

They do not. An ad hominem argument targets the person rather than their argument.

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Question

What does ad hominem mean in Latin?

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Answer

To the person.

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Question

The _____ attacks a person's character to discredit them.

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Answer

Abusive ad hominem argument

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Question

The _____ attributes bias to someone to discredit them.

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Answer

Circumstantial ad hominem argument

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Question

Why is ad hominem argument a logical fallacy?

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Answer

The ad hominem argument does not counter the logic of an opponent. Instead, it attacks the opponent, which is irrelevant in terms of logical argumentation. All that matters is the argumentnot who is presenting the argument.

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Question

How might the ad hominem argument be considered a red herring?

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Answer

An ad hominem argument could be considered a kind of red herring, because it distracts from the argument.

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Question

_____ occurs when an arguer derails the debate by ignoring the debate and attacking the person.

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Answer

The ad personam fallacy

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Question

_____ is when an arguer attacks someone’s character, and the attacked person replies, “You are just as bad or worse.”

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Answer

Tu quoque

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Question

An arguer using _____ says that if your current and past views differ, your current view cannot be correct.

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Answer

Ex concessis

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Question

_____ occurs when an arguer attacks someone based on others who hold the same view.

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Answer

Guilt by association

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Question

An arguer using the _____ discredits someone for being a woman


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Answer

Argument ad feminam

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Question

_____ occurs when someone calls someone else names.

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Answer

The name-calling fallacy

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Question

How should you counter an ad hominem attack?

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Answer

Ideally, you wouldn’t defend yourself. Your goal should not be to counter your opponent’s ad hominem argument because this would be to cave to the logical fallacy. Instead, you should identify the fallacy and bring the conversation back to the argument.

Show question

Question

What is one way to avoid an ad hominem argument?

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Answer

Here are three ways. Don't write angry, don't emphasize the person, and follow a line of reasoning.

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