What is an ad hominem argument?

So I got into a rather nit picky argument about whether an argument I made was ad hominem or not. The debate is here.

Here is a kind of preparatory test for Cartel membership. Which of the following arguments are ad hominem fallacies?

X: The BJP failed to win nationally because they abandoned their core principles.
Me: The BJP “stuck to its core principles” in TN and see where it got them. They went along with Jayalalitha because she passed the anti-conversion bill. They aligned with something called the Hindu Munnani, and see where they are now?

Doctor: You have cancer.
Patient: I know from your records that your previous fifty diagnoses have been proven wrong. Why should I believe you?

Alleged Rape Victim: The accused raped me.
Lawyer: Is it true that the night previous to the alleged rape, you willingly slept with the accused?
A R V: Yes
Lawyer: In that case, why should we believe that the accused raped you?

CEO: I have a plan for turning around the company.
Shareholder: All the previous companies that you managed have declared bankruptcy. Why should we approve your plan?

None of them are, prima facie ad hominem attacks.

For an argument to be ad hominem, it is not enough that the argument attacks the person. It should attack the person instead of the person’s argument, i.e. the attack on the person should have no relevance at all to the argument. That is not the case with B, C or D. In all three cases, the questions about the person’s ability or credibility are relevant to the argument. Obviously, if the doctor has a history of misdiagnosing diseases, in the absence of more information, I’d be wary of trusting him. If a woman has willingly slept with the accused the night before, she wouldn’t have much credibility is she claims that the accused raped her the next night. Likewise, if we aren’t allowed to question a CEO’s record, how on earth are we to judge anyone at all?

However, it would be a an ad hominem argument if we persist in disbelieving in a claim even if there is other evidence to back it up, solely because of the credibility of the person making it If the doctor backs up his diagnosis with convincing evidence (I suppose it will have to convince other doctors) or if the woman shows evidence of signs of struggle, then it would be ad hominem to disbelieve this evidence solely based on the doctor’s or the woman’s (lack of) credibility. Clear? Now don’t quibble with me saying “But that is not how I define ad hominem” My definition takes care to distinguish between a fallacy and a reaonable guess. Your’s doesn’t. So there.

What about A? Ah there I made a switch. Yes I recast the argument, but that is the point. The substance of my argument remains the same regardless of who is my opponent. “The strategy faiiled in TN, so why should we trust it to succeed all over India?” is a good argument regardless of who is claiming that the BJP did badly because it abandoned its core principles. The counter argument “TN is a special case. Not generalisable all over India” is not fallacious either. It simply means that we disagree on a question of fact. (I of course, countered that counter-argument too. But let’s not get into that now.)

Anyway the point I am trying to make is that we should be careful before we go about accusing people of fallacies. Not all mistakes are fallacies, and just because a person has committed a fallacy, it does not mean that he has made a mistake.

14 thoughts on “What is an ad hominem argument?

  1. Attacking an argument based on the person(s) – his past and present actions – is fallacious.

    It might have a high probability of correctness, and even might be what we would go by in our daily lives, but it is still logically fallacious.

    B,C,D clearly fall into that box.

    Reg. A: It is not a fallacy.

    But let me recast it – let me know if it is now a fallacy or not:

    TamBramBJPLobby: The BJP failed to win nationally because they abandoned their core principles.

    RR: The TamBramBJPLobby “stuck to its core principles” in Switzerland and see where it got them. Why should I listen to them reg. what BJP should do at the Indian national level?

    Somehow this screams ad-hominem with red-neon signs.

    [Given that situation in TN is diff.
    (dravidian politics et al), the switzerland substitution is not that wayward :]

  2. Also, in A. you have added on the hypothesis that
    BJP stuck to core principles in TN. Which is obviously wrong. Two data points do not a line make and stuff.

    In the argument in the earlier thread, the question was of TamBramBJPLobby losing their right to blabber coz of not making inroads in TN.
    Which is exactly your Case D. I am afraid.

  3. it would be a an ad hominem argument if we persist in disbelieving in a claim even if there is other evidence to back it up, solely because of the credibility of the person making it

    Wait. There is some ungrounded middle thingie here.
    What if the backing-up evidence exists but is not absolute (as most cases are)? Would it still be fallacious to claim a lack of belief based on prior notions about the person?

    /dotting the i’s

  4. It would not be fallacious. It might be a mistake, or it might be a simple difference of opinion as to the facts or as to the interpretation of the facts, but it will still not be a fallacy.

  5. I think that the case of rape is ad hominem because:
    1. The crucial aspect is the woman’s intent.
    2. Unlike a CEO’s ability or a doctor’s diagnostic skills, a person’s intent can change rapidly (in a matter of seconds).

    So you cannot project intent (which is highly changeable) in the way that you can project ability or analytical skills.

  6. Jivha’s statistics taken at face value, don’t weaken Ravi’s argument. They are irrelevant to finding out whether or not it is an ad hominem argument.

  7. Pingback: Jivha - the Tongue
  8. Pingback: Kingsley 2.0
  9. Pingback: The Opti Mystic

Comments are closed.