12 Days of Scepticism: Day 1 – Ad Hominem

It’s Christmas Day so when better to start a series of posts on logical fallacies? I’ll do one for each of the 12 days of Christmas and, sadly, that will probably mark a downturn in the amount of blogging I do. I’m starting a masters degree in Genomic Medicine in January and at this point I’m not sure how intensive it will be but, obviously, I’ll need to prioritise my studies. I think initially I’ll do one post a week instead of the usual five, if I can do more I will but it might be a bit irregular; we’ll see.

Anyway, on with the show. I can’t stress how important it is to learn at least a dozen or so of the main logical fallacies. Like puppies, they’re not just for Christmas but for everyone all the time. Whether you’re listening to a douchebag politician or negotiating with a car salesman or arguing over what colour curtains to buy an awareness of logical fallacies are a vital tool in our every day lives.

Before we begin I need to make a quick point. The word argument has taken on rather negative connotations in recent years. It implies anger and unpleasantness. When I use the word argument here I don’t mean it in that sense. I’m using what is normally listed as the second definition:

A reason or set of reasons given in support of an idea, action or theory.

For me an argument is an exchange where you come up with an initial premise, A, apply a logical argument, B, and come up with a conclusion, C. Logical fallacies can creep in at any of these three stages.

It’s the first day of Christmas and, no doubt, Jesus couldn’t be further from our minds than when we’re stuffing our faces full of festive food and already beginning to feel bad about how much effort it will take to de-obese ourselves in the new year. As an atheist I couldn’t care less about the man; I’m only 95% convinced that he even existed at all. If I wanted to I could launch a personal attack against him, call him names, try to hurt his feelings, that kind of thing. That, however, would be an ad hominem attack and therefore off limits.

Ad hominem translates as ‘against the man’ and is the fallacy where someone attacks the person instead of attacking their argument. It is extremely common, I guarantee you’ll hear it at least every couple of days, maybe you even do it yourself, perhaps unwittingly. If you attack the person instead of their argument then the argument won’t go anywhere, you’ll fail to win it and what you’re effectively engaging in is just bullying which, as I’m always telling my five year old, is bad.

If you want to win the argument, for example that Jesus wasn’t a great moral example to us all but was actually as bad as the psychotically genocidal Old Testament, then you need to attack his arguments. There are plenty of instances to choose from:

  • Salvation is only for those who abandon their wives and children for him; Matthew 19: 29, Mark 10: 29-30, Luke 18: 29-30
  • Children who curse their parents should not merely be put in the naughty corner, oh no. They must be killed (Matthew 15: 4-7, Mark 7: 9-10
  • Jesus wasn’t against slavery, he actually taught that slaves that don’t obediently serve their masters should be beaten: ‘And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.’ Luke 12:47

I’m hoping that it isn’t actually necessary for me to construct arguments as to why these Trumpian statements are bad, it should be apparent to any vaguely civilised person. So, as you can see, there is no need to use an ad hominem and say that Jesus was a douchebag, all you need do is see what he had to say for himself and let him hang himself with his own rope.

In real life arguments won’t always be this clear cut, but try to make sure you don’t fall foul of it yourself and certainly point it out when other people do it. The world is nasty enough without people being unnecessarily rude to each other when they are arguing.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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3 thoughts on “12 Days of Scepticism: Day 1 – Ad Hominem

  1. This has no real value, but I just wanted to add to with some of my thoughts.

    I think that ad hominems can have practical value if you want to make a point about someones qualifications. For example if you say that the person on the other end of the argument is not as qualified as you to so that your knowledge has more weight in the argument in terms of fact. This does not mean that the contender’s thoughts are not valid, and this type of formula only is productive to an extent.

    Because what it seems as, is that ad hominems are totally blacklisted as an argument because like you said above. But I think that there are few instances to prove a point. It is hard to fornulate because this is not my mother tongue and the fact that I am open to the thought that this could be wrong.

    But I think for example it can be used in the case of dissonance. If one argues one that this thing results in conclution X. And you make the point that last week the same set of facts led you to conclution Y instead. And in this case there where no information added but instead had looked at the evidence a second time. And this makes the other persons argument incoherrent or something.

    This all could be a big brainfart. The example is kinda bad because it is not totally an ad hominem, but maybe you know what I mean anyways. It was the best example I could come up with without using to much time on it. But I think also the God discussion is where you often can use an ad hominem in the argument, but this time to that particular god instead of the contender.

    Hope this was consistant enough to be understandable or to have a point.

    And looking forwards to the next 10 days of scepticism, and good luck with the studies. C:

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    1. That’s a fair point, I’m not entirely sure myself but it’s certainly worth thinking about. I think in the first instance we should always attack the argument, not the person, and if they’re not so well qualified then that should be all the easier. But if you’re discussing physics, let’s say, and person A is a physics graduate and person B has never touched touched a physics book would it be an ad hominem to point that out? It feels like a reasonable point but if you want to avoid the risk I suppose it’s best to stick to the arguments.

      Liked by 1 person

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