On Ad Hominems Part 2: Getting Personal With Parameters

In my last post, I discussed what I called the “classic view” of the ad hominem fallacy and what I see as real life challenges to that view. I do not claim those challenges actually mean ad hominems are valid, but those challenges compel me to reconsider the view that we must always avoid them.

In this post, I offer a few suggestions–or “parameters”–for how we ought to approach ad hominems while respecting both the claim that they’re fallacious and the fact that in the messy real world, we act on them and think with them. I’m not ready to say that ad hominems are therefore valid. I’m also not going to offer something like a formal test to determine when the personal is relevant. In fact, the parameters I offer here are more a way to limit the use of ad hominems.

First, an apology. I promised this post would be a lot shorter than part 1. It’s shorter, but not by much. Sorry.

Wherein I walk back but also double down

I’d like to thank all who commented on the thread for part 1. I’d like to acknowledge three points others brought up there. First, many (most?) of the commenters believed either that I called things ad hominems that weren’t, or that I presumed getting personal was always fallacious without acknowledging that sometimes the personal was actually relevant to the discussion.

The second point, implied by Jaybird’s, Tod’s, to some degree CK Macleod’s, and others’ comments, riffs off the first. Sometimes the personal is relevant. Sometimes people motte-and-bailey things, using personal arguments but crying “ad hominem!” when it’s convenient. Sometimes who cries “ad hominem,” and when, tells a lot about the crier’s priorities or the real argument he or she is making. Sometimes, it’s prudent, if not necessarily valid, to take the personal into account.

The third point is Doctor Jay’s, who suggested

When I think of “ad hominem”, I think of contempt. An ad hominem argument of this sort uses “You’re an asshole” to respond to “I think X”.

[snip]

Contempt is not a feeling, it is a behavioral strategy. Insulting someone is like punching them. I am quite capable of hurting people physically, but I have experienced very few situations where it seemed necessary or valuable to do so. I do not for a moment think that punching someone will change their mind, and make them my friend.

His comment deserves to be read in full, so please read it. He seems to be interpreting the most common translation of “ad hominem“–“attacking the person”–more literally than I have. Ad hominems are fallacies not only because they’re irrelevant, but also because they’re a sign things have gotten nasty and become more of a power struggle than anything.

(By the way, if I’m misrepresenting Dr. Jay’s or any other person’s argument I apologize and hope they’ll correct me.)

I believe the parameters I offer below work whether your definition of ad hominem is expansive or narrow. If below you think I’m the term ad hominem too expansively, then substituted “getting personal” for “ad hominem.” My goal is to explore the questions we should ask ourselves and the burdens we should assume when we make things personal. Those questions and burdens are good to consider whether we’re contemplating ad hominems proper or something that doesn’t quite meet your definition of ad hominem.

Parameter #1: The Categorical Presumption

Before resorting to an ad hominem argument, we should first of all start with this presumption:

An ad hominem is guilty until proven innocent.

The one using the ad hominem must assume the burden of proof that it is relevant to the discussion. That person must also show his or her work.

Some ad hominems are less irrelevant than others. Even if–or especially if–you’re a big advocate for making the personal arguable, you should be prepared to answer the most basic objection that you’re attacking the person and not the argument.

I offer no firm opinion, in this post, about what standard of evidence should meet that burden. Perhaps, following Larry Hamelin’s distinction from the last thread (if I read him right), the standard might be higher (something like “reasonable doubt”) if we’re trying to rebut a “descriptive” argument while the standard might be lower (something like “preponderance of the evidence”) if we’re rebutting a “normative” one. (I’m still grappling with what Larry has said in that comment. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.)

That burden of proof implies this corollary:

You must know when you’re making an ad hominem argument.

It is not always easy to know if you’re making something personal. Or maybe you do know, but it’s very easy to hide what you’re doing. Some words or phrases, however, give a clue that you or someone else is making something personal:

  • “….but not for thee”
  • Concern troll
  • Entitled/entitlement
  • Fish you I got mine (FYIGM)
  • Glib (and it’s variants)
  • “Only a [x, y, z type of person] would say….”
  • Smug
  • -splaining
  • Sic (when quoting your interlocutor)
  • Social Justice Warrior
  • Whitebread
  • “Why is it that…?”

I’m sure you could think of more. You also might notice I’ve used a lot of these, too. But please, please, please note. I’m not trying to create an index of prohibited words and phrases. Neither am I saying those phrases always imply someone is getting personal. I’m saying only that if you’re using those phrases, you might be making an ad hominem argument without fully realizing it or at least without copping to it.

Again, I’m not trying to be a gatekeeper. I’m just suggesting that if you use these terms, then there is a high probability you’re making this personal.

Parameter #2: Imagine…

…the virtuous opponent

How would your argument change–how would your position on any given controversy change–if the person you were arguing against were of the utmost respectability?

A variant of this argument is the opponent who is not virtuous, but who acknowledges their own lack of virtue and their own past errors.

…the vicious ally

How would your argument change–how would your position on any given controversy change–if your most vocal ally in the position you advocate were the worst scoundrel or hypocrite? For a much better illustration of this point and the point about the virtuous opponent, see Jason Kuznicki’s post here.

…your own character up for discussion

How far is your own character–your own hypocrisies, idols, personal weaknesses, and instances of false piety–relevant to the point you’re making? I suppose it is not strictly right to say that if an ad hominem is somehow open for discussion in one direction, then it must be open for discussion in the other direction. But goose and gander and all that. It seems fair to ask the question.

A goodly number of people say “yeah, I’d apply the same rules to me.” And good for them. But they should be prepared for others to use those same rules in a way that seems unfair or inconvenient, not just in the way they might think the rules should apply. These things can have a life of their own.

…the world you are creating

Along those lines…if you believe the ad hominem you’re using is relevant, what will the world of argument and action look like if you extended that claim of relevance beyond the particular discussion that concerns you in the moment? How universalizable would you make it? Would you like to live in a world in which such interrogation into your and others’ personal life is extended to all like instances?

Parameter #3: Own What You Don’t Know

I’ve heard it suggested that when one person takes a moralistic stand, it is the prerogative of someone else to take that person’s entire life in consideration as a refutation, especially when instances in that life bespeak a inconsistency on the very moralistic stand at stake.

I submit that we cannot know that person’s entire life story. We cannot know what they think deep down. We cannot know their heart. We cannot know everything they’ve ever said.

If your view is that “actions speak louder than words,” then I submit you cannot know every action that person has done. Nor can you know the full motivation behind that action. I also suspect that most people, even some of the most despicable or those with the views you find most abhorrent, at least sometimes do good things, some of which you’ll have no hope of knowing about.

And….you might get it wrong. Maybe there’s an underlying consistency in someone’s behavior that goes beyond proving “that person is evil in exactly the way I define evil.”

None of that obviates the resonance (I almost said “validity”) of any give personal attack. Maybe those actions that you know about are enough, even accounting for all the unknowns, to establish your interlocutor’s hypocrisy. But it behooves us to acknowledge the unknown, if only to tamper down the righteous fury.

Unless Righteous Fury Is What You’re Going For

If it is, be prepared to face the consequences. Righteous fury begets righteous fury. It makes things a naked power struggle, in which god or whatever standard of justice pleases you is on your side and the other side battles for the wrong.

That said, there’s a time for everything. As Pillsy said in the comment thread for my first ad hominem post,

If you lack the ability to engage your opponent’s argument on the merits, because as far as you can tell your opponent’s argument is, really, completely without merit, yet the argument still has political force, what other options do you really have? You can ignore it, in the hopes it will go away, which has a pretty poor track record, or you can accept that this particular rhetorical struggle isn’t being conducted by Marquess of Queensbury rules and throw the occasional metaphorical elbow.

I might disagree with him about when it’s appropriate to throw that elbow, but I do agree that sometimes it’s called for or justified. In such situations, though, it’s necessary to be sure of your rightness or at least being willing to accept the consequences for being wrong.

Coda: If It’s Too Easy, Maybe You’re Doing It Wrong

Remember what got us in this fix. It was the facile habit of carrying around a list of fallacies from Logic 101 and checking off the item marked “ad hominem” whenever something personal was brought up. The complaint was against the belief that the act of checking off by itself and once and for all answered whatever point is being made. Crying “ad hominem!” did more work than the crier supposed. Calling out ad hominems can be merely a lazy argument.

Getting personal runs a similar risk. It is messy. It is inelegant. It brings things into play that go beyond what is ostensibly under discussion. Ad hominems are withal temptingly easy to employ. If you think the ad hominem you’re using is self-justifying or if the ad hominem is pretty much all you have to offer on the discussion, then maybe it’s more lazy argumentation than anything else. Maybe you’re missing something that shouldn’t be missed. Maybe you’re not convincing those you’re trying to convince. Or maybe, depending on the circumstances and why you’re using it, it’s more like the rhetorical contempt Doctor Jay talks about in his comment.

Here’s how I know when I’m using “contempt” as a tactic. I feel a thrill at having scored somebody with a one-liner, or having caught someone in an inconsistency or a moment of personal weakness or a moment of emotion. That thrill lasts about five or ten minutes. Maybe fifteen. And then I feel guilty. And while the guilt eventually abates, it never goes away completely. And while I often apologize, the apology, especially if it’s one of many, many apologies, rings hollow. At the end of the day, even if the apology is accepted, what I’ve said remains said. The thrill is hard to maintain.

On an important level, the points I’ve just made–ad hominems are inelegant; they’re lazy arguments; they don’t convince certain people–are subjective.

And most of the “parameters” I discuss in this post are subjective, too. They are not checklists to discern once and for all what makes an ad hominem relevant or irrelevant. In themselves they don’t actually touch on the relevance. I don’t offer anything like a Lemon test for personal arguments. My parameters require those who follow them to ask themselves honest questions and give themselves and others honest answers.

Photo credit: “Maths,” by Sean MacEntee. Creative Commons License, Attribution 2.0 Generic. Gabriel Conroy did not modify the image, and his use of the image is not necessarily endorsed by the image’s creator.


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Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer. ...more →

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13 thoughts on “On Ad Hominems Part 2: Getting Personal With Parameters

  1. “Coda: If It’s Too Easy, Maybe You’re Doing It Wrong”

    This is a really good point. It wasn’t just a weird riff that led Orwell to give us the notion of a Two Minutes Hate.

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  2. At the end of the day, you have to ask what the goal is?

    If your goal is to figure out stuff like “what is truth?” and the best valid, sound argument for any proposition, you should definitely avoid Ad Hominem arguments the same way that you should avoid any fallacies. Fallacies will steer you in the wrong direction.

    If your goal is to convince others of your position, you will probably want to lean pretty heavily on fallacies. Ad Hominem is a pretty good one for that sort of thing.

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      • How convincing, as a practical matter, are ad hominems (and related fallacies of relevance) are, though?

        I imagine they sway some people to the arguer’s side of the argument, especially (but not only, perhaps?) if the swayed are undecided and haven’t already decided to oppose the issue. I also imagine they have a stronger influence in rallying people who already agree with a position.

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        • If “those people” are yucky, then obviously there’s a reason for it. Maybe it’s the way they think, or the things they believe. Better make sure we don’t think the same way or believe the same things, because then we might get yucky too!

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    • While I think I agree, Jaybird, I can’t shake the notion that ad hominems are sometimes relevant. Or perhaps it’s “what I call ad hominems but which really aren’t when you think about what’s really being argued.”

      Larry Hamelin’s point, referred to in my OP, disturbs me (in a good way) for that very reason. Can a normative argument be “true” in a way that always forecloses what we’d call fallacies of relevance? I think the answer might be, “not always.”

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      • Well, I’m a fan of the whole “ad hominems are a shortcut” theory.

        If you’re down with using shortcuts that you might best go with your gut, then, hey. I imagine that it won’t work out too horribly for you. There are tons of evolutionary psychology papers written about the importance of gossip and such. I’ve no doubt that ad hominem is evolutionarily useful.

        But if ad hominem is the only way to reach the conclusion you’ve reached? You’re doing it wrong.

        I mean, hey, sometimes shortcuts get you to the right place anyway. Sometimes that happens. More often, it’s probably likely that there’s no harm done in seeing a pattern in random noise because, sometimes, the pattern does indicate something bad. (See the example of the costs/benefits of making Type I errors vs. making Type II errors that involves the grass moving in such a way that might be a breeze or it might be a predator.)

        If, however, you want to do the “let’s not do fallacies” thing and maybe reach conclusions that are counter-intuitive and testable and repeatable… well, you’ve got to get rid of the shortcuts.

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      • I argue that the answer is, “Fundamentally, never.”

        (Note that arguments such as, “If killing people is bad, it is objectively true that pointing a loaded gun at someone and pulling the trigger is bad,” fundamentally rest on the premise, which is not objectively true.)

        Here’s a link to some of my writing on the subject: Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism. If you have any further questions, feel free to email me, or leave a comment on any post on my blog.

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  3. Thanks for all the thinking out loud on this, Gabriel. I wish I was around more so that I could have contributed to the discussion.

    I think – aside from the most common visceral desire to thumb somebody in the eye, rhetorically – all uses of ad hominems that you’re talking about ties into one very specific type of general case; the case of the normative challenge.

    We as a society still have not settled on what the correct metric is to judge the rightness of normative preferences. When someone plants a firm stake in the ground and announces a normative preference as a moral contention, that has a tendency to get the dander up on the other side, and for eminently justifiable reasons, the person is making an authoritative claim.

    “Gay marriage is unnatural”
    “Education is a right”

    Implicitly, they are arguing either that these statements are self-evident (and you’re stupid for not realizing the truth of this self-evident thing) or they are arguing that they have the authority to make this claim. It’s not an explicit Appeal to Authority, but it’s close enough.

    To the extent that Ad Hominems are deployed against these sorts of folks making these sorts of statements it isn’t so much “This person is a jerk, so they are wrong” (which is the formal framework of the fallacy). It is instead “This person claims to be a moral authority on X, but they suck at X, so they are not a moral authority on X”.

    (This is more or less the conversation we had when Sam was arguing this topic, IIRC.)

    Note that there’s still a problem with the Ad Hominem in this case, because it has an assumption (the assumption being that moral authorities on X must also be good practitioners of X, which is itself a normative assumption).

    However!

    It is very common that the folks *claiming* the moral high ground in the first place have as one of their priors an established pattern of claiming precisely that; that in order to be a moral authority on X, you also have to be a good practitioner of X.

    To the extent that those folks come to the argument with all of that baggage (which is pretty common), then it’s not strictly an Ad Hominem because you have accepted their definition of a moral authority and now you are turning it back on them and showing them that they do not meet their own definition, and that’s perfectly legit as an argumentative tactic… because an argument depends upon the framework, and if the framework doesn’t hold together the argument isn’t grounded in anything.

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