The Personal Attack: The Logical Fallacy of Argumentum Ad Hominem

The term “ad hominem” is a Latin phrase that translates to “against the man” (“Ad hominem”).  It is one of several logical fallacies that may appear (intentionally or otherwise) in the rhetorical mode of writing or speaking known as Argument.  The use of the ad hominem indicates that an argument (or counter-argument) is focusing not on the issue or cause, but on the issue’s presenter, and it generally takes the form of a personal attack of the presenter’s character (“Introduction to Ad Hominem Fallacies”).

The soundest ad hominem attacks are made up of two steps.  The first step is to discredit the speaker/presenter/sponsor, and the second step is to imply that because the speaker/presenter/sponsor is a “bad” person, the issue or cause must be bad as well (“Introduction to Ad Hominem Fallacies”).

For example, prior to the last local election, I attended a debate between two city council candidates regarding a public school bond measure.  Having read about the issue, I was aware that the facts proved the bond’s cost would far outweigh the anticipated minimal benefits—benefits that had not been shown to occur in similar communities.  I had seen no evidence to support any logical argument to encourage citizen’s to support the bond issue, so I was not surprised when one candidate turned the factual debate into a personal attack of his opponent.

The argument: that his opponent had no school-aged children and because of this, his opponent has no vested interest in the success or failure of the community’s public school system. Obviously the candidate who was attacking his opponent (via the ad hominem) hoped that people would equate his opponent’s lacking school-aged children with an inability to assess a public school bond issue properly.

The logical counter to this fallacious argument would be to return the focus to the facts: if passed, would the school bond result in improvements or would it not?  If passed, would the costs of the school bond be worth the benefits or not?  I would quickly point out that whether or not one has children has no bearing on one’s ability to assess the fiscal impact of a set of facts, and I would add to that, that if this were a logical supposition, that only those who had children should be allowed to vote on the bond issue as obviously only those with children have the capacity to make a sound decision in this area.

References

Ad hominem.  (2000).  In The American heritage dictionary of the English language (4th ed.).  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Introduction to ad hominem fallacies.  (n.d.).  Mission Critical.  Retrieved October 17, 2006, from http://www.sjsu.edu/depts/itl/graphics/adhom/adhom.html