George Henry Moulds
George Henry Moulds

Truth Always Prevails is still far from true. Truth, ungarnished and unguarded, may convince many by its own natural light. But in many areas and on many questions, Truth without the Appearance of Truth comes in a poor second. 

– George Henry Moulds, Thinking Straighter (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1965, 1966) vii.

Photo credit: Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives.

Understanding Ad Hominem Attacks

Ad hominem (ad HOME-eh-nem), meaning “to the man” or “against the man” in Latin (sources differ), and short for “argumentum ad hominem” [1], is “an argument based on the failings of an adversary rather than on the merits of the case; a logical fallacy that involves a personal attack” [2]. “Argument” in this context does not mean a “fight with words”, but rather a chain of logical inferences leading to a particular conclusion—an attempt to persuade using reason. Ad hominem is the idea that if you can’t attack the argument, attack the character of the arguer—it’s “character assassination”.

Here is an example of an ad hominem attack [3]:

Smith: “This town needs more efficient and vigorous police protection. Some on the police force should be retired and some should be fired.”

Jones: “Absolutely not. And who are you to talk about improving our police protection? As I recall, thirty years ago you did time for forgery.”

The fallacy here is that instead of attacking Smith’s argument, Jones attacks Smith as a person, which has nothing to do with the town’s police protection. Ad hominem is off the subject and vicious, but the fallacy continues to prosper because it is so effective—ask yourself, “How easy is it now to give Smith’s argument serious consideration?” [4].

So Smith has been discredited, but is Smith’s argument discredited? Even people with squeaky clean reputations have made honest mistakes and turned out to be wrong. And for all those terrible not-so-squeaky people, is it wise to disregard every argument of theirs, even in spite of the evidence offered?

We see that evaluating arguments on the basis of the arguer’s reputation is simply not reliable. Is there an alternative? Yes. In the case of a deductive argument, for example, there is only one reliable way to determine the truth of a conclusion. We must ask, (1) are the premises true, and (2) is the reasoning from them valid? If so then, regardless of the arguer’s character—good, bad, or even horrible—the truth of the conclusion is inescapable [5].

Another point often overlooked; “…those who use the Ad Hominem seldom realize that it may be applied to themselves”, observes the author of a well-known book on logical fallacies [6]. That is to say, discrediting an argument by discrediting the arguer is itself an argument—a new one—which immediately raises the question, “What about the character of the new arguer?” (We already know the new arguer indulges in character assassination.) So we see that character assassination calls into question the character of the assassin—something that fairness, it seems, should require. The author urgently advises us that, “even when you sincerely loathe your opponent, you have the first obligation to consider the force of his argument, not of his person.” [7]. Failure to do so would leave many of the world’s truths unconsidered.

Sources:

1. “Ad hominem”, Wikipedia, accessed 2011 Aug. 17, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem.

2. Richard Nordquist, “ad hominem”, About.com Guide, Grammar & Composition, http://grammar.about.com/od/ab/g/adhomterm.htm, accessed 2011 Aug. 17.

3. George Henry Moulds, Thinking Straighter (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1965, 1966) 78. Available through Abebooks.com as of 2011 Aug. 9. Highly Recommended.

4. Moulds 78.

5. Specifically, in the case of deductive arguments, if the premises are true, and the reasoning is valid, the conclusion MUST be true. Such arguments are known as sound arguments. See A Little Logic, http://home.wlu.edu/~mahonj/LittleLogic.htm accessed 2011 Aug. 17. NOTE: Here we glimpse a transcendent authority independent of and more powerful than any person or group of people.

6. George Henry Moulds 78.

7. Moulds 78.

Recommended:

  • George Henry Moulds, Thinking Straighter (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1965, 1966). A thorough yet non-technical college-level textbook on the most common logical fallacies with examples and numerous exercises. Answers not supplied, unfortunately, but the exercises are not very difficult. According to the author, “This book might better be titled How Not to Be Deceived” (vii). We could all use a book like that these days! Copies occasionally available through, for example, Alibris.com at http://www.alibris.com/booksearch?author=moulds&title=thinking+straighter accessed 2011 Aug. 18.

  • The PROPAGANDA GAME
    The PROPAGANDA GAME by Robert W. Allen & Lorne Greene
  • Robert W. Allen and Lorne Greene, The Propaganda Game (New Haven: AIM (Autotelic Instructional Materials) Publishers, 1966, 1988 ed.). An educational game covering all major logical fallacies, based on the book Thinking Straighter by George Henry Moulds. All game questions have answers supplied. Occasionally on eBay.com. To buy the current retail version, see Wff ’N Proof (Wff pronounced “woof”) at http://wffnproof.com/inc/sdetail/127. For an online version of the game booklet, see pnl-nlp.org, at http://www.pnl-nlp.org/download/propaganda/page1.htm. The ad hominem fallacy is described there under Section F, No. 3. See BoardGameGeek.com for more game information and images at http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/5647/the-propaganda-game. All links in this paragraph accessed 2011 Aug. 18.