In all corners of the world of debate, there will always be those that thankfully have taken the time to understand the importance of well-formed arguments. Just the same there will also be those that learned the terminology without learning the proper usage. The best and most common example of this phenomenon would be those that cry out “Ad hominem” towards every statement directed at a person. In this article, we’ll give some examples of the proper use and misuse of this term, and why it’s important to make the distinction in your arguments.
Let’s start off by going through what an Ad Hominem fallacy is and why it is a fallacy. Ad Hominem comes from the Latin “to the man” or “to the person” and short for “Argumentum Ad Hominem.” The reason this is a logical fallacy is that Ad Hominem arguments attack’s the person rather than the point or counter-arguments they were making. A correct example of this would be saying that “You’re not a lawyer, therefore, you are wrong about the law.” The error lies in basing the validity of a point or arguments on the person making it rather than the argument itself. For most of you out there, I’m sure you’ve likely come across this before and understand this fallacy well. Here’s where it gets tricky.
Many people misuse this term to be interchangeable with insults, but that’s not correct usage for the purposes of debate. If I say “you’re wrong, and you’re an idiot” I haven’t made an Ad Hominem fallacy; I’ve simply insulted you (still not something that ought to happen in a debate, but not a logical fallacy either). Now if I say “You’re wrong because you’re an idiot” then I have committed the fallacy. The differences in these statements boil down to whether I am attempting to tie views or information about yourself into the validity of the claim you’ve put forth. Essentially if I make a negative statement about the person I am debating as if it was evidence against their point then I have committed the fallacy; if my negative statement had nothing to do with their point then it’s simply an insult.
The other most common place that the mistake is made with the usage of Ad Hominem is regarding the credibility of sources. If one person uses info from, say, David Wolfe as evidence that naturopathy works best, and another person says “David Wolfe is a loon so I’m not buying into anything he says” they would have committed an Ad Hominem fallacy in their argument. Now if they said “His works have mostly been discredited as seen in the May 2017 article by Julianna LeMieux in American Council on Science and Health so you can’t really call him an expert on the matter” then no fallacy had been committed. The difference here is that in the latter example we are critiquing the credentials of a person given as a source of information, while in the former we are simply disregarding because of personal views on the person. Critiquing the source of information, whether a person, agency, or report, is not the same as critiquing the argument based on their findings. It’s important in a debate to distinguish between what is information, what is the argument made, and what the point being supported is, as all three of these components are separate and need to be addressed as such in any effective debate.
The last note to make about the Ad Hominem fallacy and its usage is applicable to all form of fallacy identification during a debate. One little known logical fallacy is the (in my opinion humorously named) Fallacy fallacy. The Fallacy fallacy occurs when someone mistakenly believes that because they’ve identified a fallacy in the argument that they have refuted the point. If I told you 16/64 reduces to 1/4 because we remove the 6 on each side you would be correct in saying that my method is wrong. You would have committed a fallacy fallacy if you then said that my answer had to be wrong as well because I used a poor argument for it. When it comes to calling out an Ad Hominem many make a similar mistake in assuming that because the argument was poor they’ve successfully disproven the point. What they have done is disproven or showed the faulty logic of the argument made; this on its own has no bearing on the point of the argument and needs to be disproven separately. Next time you see someone committing what you believe is an Ad hominem fallacy make sure to keep this in mind or you may end up proving their insults right.
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