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Philosophy 203: Scientific Reasoning
Personal Attack

Abstract: The argument concerning the attack of a person's character or circumstances  is characterized and shown to be sometimes persuasive but normally fallacious.

  1. Argumentum ad Hominem (abusive and circumstantial): the fallacy of attacking the character or circumstances of an individual who is advancing a statement or an argument instead of trying to disprove the truth of the statement or the soundness of the argument. Often the argument is characterized simply as a personal attack.

    1. The personal attack is also often termed an "ad personem argument: the statement or argument at issue is dropped from consideration or ignored and the locutor's character or circumstances are used to influence opinion.

    2. The fallacy draws its appeal from the technique of "getting personal." The assumption is that what the locutor is saying is entirely or partially dictated by his character or special circumstances and so should be disregarded.

  2. The "tu quoque" or charging the locutor with "being just like the person the locutor speaking about, is a narrower variety of this fallacy. In other words, rather than trying to disprove a remark about someone's character or circumstances, one accused the locutor of having the same character or circumstances.

    1. In cross examination or in debate, the point is often expresses as "My point might be bad, but yours is worse."

    2. If the subject includes an assessment of behavior, the point can be put "So I do x [some specific action], but you do too."

  3. Since the circumstantial variety of the ad hominem can be regarded as a special case of the abusive, the distinction between the abusive and the circumstantial is often ignored.

    Informal Structure of  ad Hominem

    Person L says argument A.
    Person L's circumstances or character is not satisfactory.
    Argument A is not a good argument.

  4. Examples of the ad hominem:

    • A prosecutor asks the judge to not admit the testimony of a burglar because burglars are not trustworthy.

    • Francis Bacon's philosophy should be dismissed since Bacon was removed from his chancellorship for dishonesty.

    • Prof. Smith says to Prof. White, "You are much too hard on your students," and Prof. White replies, "But certainly you are not the one to say so. Just last week I heard several of your students complaining."

    • I can't see that we should listen to Governor Smith's proposal to increase the sales tax on automobiles. He has spent the last twenty years in state government and is hardly an unbiased source.

  5. Uses of ad hominem consideration:

    1. When examining literary or philosophical works, looking at the author's character or circumstances can sometimes provide insight into that person's ideas. In other words, ad hominem considerations can show motives and can sometimes provide explanation. However, these considerations do not demonstrate the truth or falsity of the ideas.

    2. The character of a person is often relevant in consideration of the sincerity of views being offered and so is often relevant to pragmatic decision-making.

  6. Non-fallacious examples of the ad hominem:

    1. If a philosopher presents a "naturalistic view of knowledge," arguing that all knowledge is a function of the adjustment of an organism to its environment and at the same time pleads that his own knowledge is an exception to this generalization, then ad hominem considerations would not fallacious.

    2. If William James were to claim that all philosophers were either tender-minded or tough-minded except for his own variety of pragmatism, then ad hominem appeals cannot be ruled inadmissible.

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