In an argumentative discussion each party involved must be able to express their point of view without constraints, discrimination or other interferences. This is, in fact, an important prerequisite for the effort to overcome differences of opinion. In practice however, often things are far from this ideal. Not only do interlocutors not respect each other’s right to free speech, but they also resort to unfair and manipulating arguments in order to impose their own opinion. One of these devices is the appeal to the person or the argumentum ad hominem.
The essence of the appeal to the person consists of changing the focus of the discussion from the debated idea to the person involved in the debate. The one who makes oneself guilty of this fallacy feels he is losing ground when it comes to the debate on ideas and resorts to the appeal to the person in order to discredit one’s opponent. The argument has the following form: “My opponent is a bad person, this is why you should reject his argument.”
The daily reality abounds in examples where this certain type of sophism is being used. In an article published in The Telegraph1, Richard Foetry seeks to convey his readers his concern regarding the promotion of the Intelligent Design (ID) theory in the schools in Great Britain, using multiple rhetorical sophistic devices. Among these, he uses the argumentum ad hominem, referring to the intelligent design theory as being IDiotic, suggesting, through an interrogation, that the supporters of the theory are to be considered idiots.
Identifying the ad hominem sophism
An ad hominem sophism can be motivated by envy, frustration and jealousy. When one’s negative emotions are unloaded on the opponent, one loses track of the goal to unravel the truth regarding the matter at hand.
Another situation where we can come across the ad hominem fallacy is the answer to what has been perceived as an appeal to the person. For instance, when someone has invested emotionally into a certain, to such an extent that he has come to identify himself with the respective cause, any justified objection to the cause is interpreted as an appeal to the person.
In such a case, one tends to have an exaggerated and disproportionate reaction towards the raised objection and ends up using an ad hominem sophism: “You always criticize anyone trying to do something good”, “you’re such a know-it-all” etc.
The fallacy of the appeal to the person may be also directed against groups of people, being used to discredit the initiator of an idea or its promoters and supporters: “This initiative cannot be good because it’s promoted by liberals/conservatives.” In this way, it’s not the initiative itself which is being questioned, but the group of people promoting it.
Using the ad hominem sophism
The ad hominem fallacy is often used to disrupt the argumentative process and to reach the desired result faster, namely winning the argument. By destroying the opponent’s credibility, the one resorting to this device hopes to win the audience and the public opinion over to his side. If wrapped in a justifiable package the ad hominem sophism can become a very efficient manipulation method.
A society in which the public speech is sprinkled with such rhetorical devices, which go by unsanctioned and unidentified, becomes easily polarized and divided.
In some cases, the appeal to the person does not come forth as deliberate disruption of the argumentative process, but as a desperate measure. It is a last resort for a participant to a debate who feels that his argument on the debated ideas is slipping through his fingers, and decides he must show people that the one winning the debate of ideas is a man of questionable reputation or lacking character.
How to respond to an ad hominem attack?
The answer of the Lord Jesus when he was attacked by a guard of the high priest is instructive: “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:32). In other words, if “my argument is faulty, then prove where the fault is and show me how to correct it. If it is good, than why do you resort to a sophism, uttering insults and denigration?” A calm and explicit approach regarding the fallacy used by the opponent is the best reaction to the ad hominem sophism.
Any allusion, argument or hypothesis which aim at the opponent’s characteristics or convictions, except for the situation where these are directly involved in the debate’s subject, represent the hijacking of the argument by means of the ad hominem sophism. This is an unfair method, lacking elegance, a method one uses to compensate for the loss suffered in the debate of ideas. The one interested in the truth and concrete data will not let himself be moved nor intimidated by such maneuvering subterfuges, which are incompatible with an honest identification of reality.