Responding to the Ad Hominem Fallacy

By the end of this post you'll understand why this is funny.
By the end of this post you’ll understand why this is funny.

The argumentum ad hominem (or ad hominem for short) is a fallacy that consists in attacking a person instead of his argument or belief.

It is perhaps the most common fallacy committed on the Internet today.Here are three examples of the argumentum ad hominem: 

1. Mr. Jones believes that Jesus Christ was a real historical figure; he claims that the New Testament documents are the best-attested documents of antiquity and that they were written within the first generation after the death of Christ. But Mr. Jones is neither a historian nor a Scripture scholar, so what business he has speaking as an authority on these issues is beyond me. 

2. In a moment, Mr. Jones will offer arguments for why we should believe that Jesus Christ was a real historical figure. But keep in mind, Mr. Jones’ is a grown man who believes that an invisible God listens to his prayers and lives in his heart. Can we really trust what he has to say on anything of importance?

3. Mr. Jones wants us to believe that Jesus Christ was a real historical figure. He points out that I know very little about the New Testament and the Christian religion. But when I asked him a moment ago which of the four Gospels depicts many people rising from the dead and appearing to people in Jerusalem, he was unable to tell us!

You’ll notice that in all three examples the arguer did not attack Mr. Jones’s argument but instead attacked him as a person. In the first example we are led to believe that Mr. Jones’s argument is unreliable because he is not a historian or a Scripture scholar. Now, there is nothing wrong with requiring evidence or expertise before accepting something as true, but Mr. Jones’s opponent doesn’t do that; instead he dismisses Mr. Jones’s on account of his lack of formal training. But Mr. Jones’ lack of formal training has no bearing on whether his argument was sound.  Perhaps Mr. Jones also has a low IQ, bad breath, and is an alcoholic. None of that is evidence that his argument is unsound.

Poisoning the Well

Now, take a look at the second example. Here we see a variation of the ad hominem fallacy usually called “poisoning the well.” This fallacy is a preemptive attack on the character of a person before they have had the change to make an argument. The term was first used by Cardinal John Henry Newman in his work Apologia Pro Vita Sua, where he wrote, “What I insist upon here . . . is this unmanly attempt of his, in his concluding pages, to cut the ground from under my feet;—to poison by anticipation the public mind against me, John Henry Newman, and to infuse into the imaginations of my readers suspicion and mistrust of every thing that I may say in reply to him. This I call poisoning the wells.”[1] Again, this fallacy lies not in questioning the reliability of Mr. Jones but in making him appear deluded and a fool before he’s even had a chance to make his argument.

Tu Quoque

The third example is also a type of ad hominem argument, called tu quoque (literally, “you too”). The tu quoque fallacy consists in accusing your opponent of the same thing he has accused you of. “Well maybe I am a thief, but so are you!” Well, perhaps he is, but that fact in and of itself does not attempt to deal with—much less refute—his argument.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of the ad hominem fallacy, I would suggest calmly pointing out to the one you’re dialoging with that attacking you (your character, intelligence, etc.) doesn’t deal with the argument at hand, then invite him to spend his energy on that instead.

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5 thoughts on “Responding to the Ad Hominem Fallacy

  1. Great post!

    I’m wondering if the poisoning the well fallacy falls exclusively under the ad hominem fallacy. For example, what if someone were to argue that the Church’s teaching on sexual morality has no credibility because it is exclusively run by celibate men? In this case, would the institution be an extension of the man?

    Atheists will sometimes argue that no Christian can claim he understands the Bible, because they can’t all agree on which passages are to be interpreted literally and which are not to be interpreted literally; therefore, no Christian’s interpretation of the Bible can be taken seriously — they are all a bunch of cherry-pickers. There’s more than one fallacy here and I can see how this could be reduced to the ad hominem, since it ultimately boils down to any particular Christian’s interpretation of the Bible. But because of the generalization, it seems to be larger than just an ad hominem attack, while it aims to undermine credibility without considering any further argument.

  2. #1. Thank youl VERY insightful. It is very helpful to defend oneself when one is aware of methods of attack. Helpful for both reproach and teaching.
    At the risk of not responding directly to your article, again, thank you. Thank you, and your wife, and your family. The thought you give takes time. The time you give is precious. Thank you. Thank you all.

  3. I think a consistent study of the Word of God under the Holy Spirit’s direction is the best source of any argument concerning questions related to spiritual matters,it has all of the answers that we need.

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