Ad Hominem As Moral Corrective

I am often nicely challenged by posts from Alonzo Fyfe, the Atheist Ethicist. Tonight, he has done something that makes me really sit back and think. He asks himself the question — what is “the greatest moral failing of the modern world – the top of the list of evils that deserves our greatest condemnation”? He excludes some really bad things like murder, rape, genocide, or torture. Understand, he’s not endorsing those behaviors. He’s just saying there’s something worse than them. So what could that possibly be?

Here it is: “…the lack of condemnation given to those who use poor arguments in defense of beliefs that threaten the well-being of others.” Note that Fyfe has chosen his words here very carefully. Simplified to the point that the argument loses its nuances, it can be understood with a syllogism.

  1. There are people in this world who do awful, terrible things because of their beliefs.
  2. Those awful things, and the beliefs which are used to provide a moral gloss on them, cannot be defended by propositions which are objectively or logically correct (that is to say, good arguments). This leaves only bad arguments to justify the bad behavior.
  3. If people are not condemned for making these bad arguments, the bad arguments will seem good and therefore encourage more bad behavior in the future.
  4. Therefore, a failure to condemn not only these bad arguments, but also the people who make them, is a moral failing of inactivity on the part of those who would condemn the bad acts.

The leap here is from condemning a bad argument to condemning the person who makes it. Fyfe points out that while we punish people for engaging in bad activities, we are still punishing people for doing it. We do not punish the act of drunk driving, for instance, we punish the person who drove drunk. I see that logic.

Where I depart from him is that in a world of argumentation, a world in which words and ideas are only combatted with other words and ideas, there is a difference between violations of the criminal law and condemnation of intellectually and morally unsound arguments. In a world of ideas, a condemnation of the person who offers an idea is an ad hominem attack, one that itself lacks intellectual weight:

Adolf Hitler was an advocate of making trains run on time. Hitler was one of the worst and most evil people in human history. Therefore, his ideas about trains running on time should be condemned, and so should Hitler.

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with having trains run on time, whether Hitler was an advocate of that or not. Good people want the trains to run on time, too. But:

Adolf Hitler was an advocate of murdering every Jew in Europe. Hitler was one of the worst and most evil people in human history. Therefore, his ideas about killing Jews should be condemned, and so should Hitler.

This is a little more difficult to parse out, because now we’re talking about genocide, not efficiency in freight transport. The difference here is that the idea dovetails into the characterization of its author. We are here going to the source of the characterization of Hitler as an evil man. But, this is still an ad hominem attack, which is proven by rephrasing it to be someone other than Hitler:

Mohandas Gandhi was an advocate of murdering every Jew in Europe. Gandhi was one of the worst and most evil people in human history. Therefore, his ideas about killing Jews should be condemned, and so should Gandhi.

Here, Gandhi becomes evil and worthy of condemnation. If Gandhi did advocate exterminating Jews, we would rightly condemn him. The statement is ridiculous, of course, because we know perfectly well that Gandhi never adovcated any such thing, so the premise of the statement is false.

Now, in the world of politics, ad hominem attacks are often quite effective. They are good diversions, they create the illusion of moral equivalency, and in that sense diffuse legitimate attacks. But in the cold, hard light of intellect and critical thought, they are not good arguments at all.

We are left with concluding that it is the idea itself that is worthy of condemnation, regardless of the author. The question is, do we condemn the person who advances the idea as well as the idea itself? I think the answer is, not always.

Some people’s minds can be changed, but attacking them personally, instead of the ideas they expound, will close their minds and foreclose the possibility of making them understand the error of their ways.

Other people are more fanatic. One of the hallmarks of a fanatic is an inability to distinguish between their ideas and themselves. If I am a fanatic, I will hear you attack my ideas and take that attack very personally; I will consider myself to be under attack.

In both cases, an attack that is actually personal — “You’re a bad person for advocating that idea” — will be an exercise in futility with respect to the object of the attack, and a demonstration to disinterested observers that the attacker has chosen to attack the person and not the idea, causing the good argument being offered by the attacker to lose some of its credibility. Better, I say, to advance the strongest possible argument against the bad idea itself, and wait for the reaction from its proponent.

This does not, however, get at the problem that Fyfe wants to address — using an irrational argument or an unreasonable belief as a justification for a morally bad act. That needs to be addressed by morally, and not just intellectually, condemning the act of offering an irrational argument to justify a bad act. This can be done without necessarily attacking the person who does it. I think this is important because quite often, the person who advances a bad argument may simply not have thought things through themselves, and they will react to the sting of being accused of having done something morally bad. But I think it is important to give someone a chance to reflect and revise her position before attacking her personally — and, when condemning her, to be clear about why you are doing it.

And, frankly, I think that actually doing the bad thing is, at least sometimes, morally worse than rationalizing some kind of a justification for it.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Sometimes the fallacy of an argument can only be addressed by ad hominem, because not all arguments rise to the level of coherence necessary for rational examination.An example would be the accusation raised by many that African-Americans guilt-trip white Americans to advance their agenda. No doubt it does happen. But if you knew that a white person seemed to be obsessed with that particular aspect of contemporary politics you might conclude that the person in question was not advancing an argument but making a veiled racial attack.If arguments were all rational, or all complete, or all made in the interest of comparing opposing ideas, we could address all things rationally. But most arguments are really nothing more than propaganda — words used as weapons to advance agendas. In those cases I think ad hominem is not only acceptable but called for. It’s true that there are a lot of Jews in banking. But it matters whether that statement is made by a statistician or a Nazi.

  2. Here’s my feeble shot at it all.1. It’s not morally or socially acceptable to allow people to do awful and terrible things.2. Prevention of awful, terrible things should be as narrow in scope as possible as to be as preventative as possible with the least amount of collateral infringement upon freedom as possible.3. Some people believe and think about acts that, if manifest, would be awful and terrible.4. Some of those people do awful and terrible things based on their beliefs and thoughts.5. The remainder do not do awful and terrible things based on their beliefs and thoughts.6. Society may be able to condemn belief and thought, but society cannot prevent belief and thought.7. Society is able to condemn action, and can prevent action.8. Free thought and belief are freedoms that, in themselves, cannot harm anyone, and should be protected.9. The most narrow and reasonable, effective method of preventing action without infringing upon freedom of thought is prevention of action without attempting to prevent thought.10. Lack of preventing immoral acts cannot ever be as immoral as committing the initial immoral act (for the initial immoral act creates the condition – sine qua non).11. Therefore, committing an awful, terrible act (that is deemed immoral) is the greatest moral failing.(was this comment awful and terrible?)

  3. On the contrary, stateofprotest, that pretty much mirrors my thinking on the subject.

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