(1) The person’s character is attacked. (2) the person’s circumstances are noted. (3) the person does not practise what is preached. This takes many forms. For example, the person’s character, nationality or religion may be attacked. Alternatively, it may be pointed out that a person stands to gain from a favorable outcome. Or, finally, a person may be attacked by association, or by the company he keeps. There are three major forms of Attacking the Person: 1) ad hominem (abusive): instead of attacking an assertion, the argument attacks the person who made the assertion. 2) ad hominem (circumstantial): instead of attacking an assertion the author points to the relationship between the person making the assertion and the person’s circumstances. 3) ad hominem (tu quoque): this form of attack on the person notes that a person does not practice what he preaches, in effect, “look who’s talking”.
Ad hominem abusive: “According to supporters of capital punishment, the death penalty is an effective deterrent against murder. This is nonsense. These people are not interested in deterrence at all.
They want vengeance pure and simple. They suffer from a kind of bloodlust; they are people who flock to see Dirty Harry movies. They get turned on by the thought of shooting up the bad guys.” (Hughes
& Lavery, Critical Thinking, p. 152.)
“This tweet really riled men up. Stop mansplaining to me in the replies.” Charges of “mansplaining” is a recent example of “poisoning the well” by shaming someone for offering an opinion, argument, or explanation in virtue of them being male.
Ad hominem circumstantial: In the current “Climate Change” debate, accusations of dishonest motives are rife. Advocates of catastrophic climate change, for example, are accused of 1) being “watermelons”, truly motivated by socialist ideals, seeking to transfer power from private enterprise to government regulation, as well as 2) merely trying to tap into the considerable financial funding available for research favorable to climate change “alarmism”. Skeptics, often referred to disparagingly as “deniers”, are similarly tarred as being shills for the energy industry, likewise motivated by filthy lucre rather than the truth of the matter. When these idealogical or pecuniary interests are taken to discredit arguments for or against catastrophism, we have a case of ad hominem circumstantial.
Ad hominem circumstantial: “Of course academics argue in favour of the proposed expansion of university education: the more aspiring graduates there are, the more job opportunities there are for people like them.” (Bowell & Kemp, Critical Thinking, p. 135.)
Ad hominem circumstantial: “It is true that several college professors have testified that these hallucinogenic drugs are harmless and nonaddictive, but these same professors have admitted to taking drugs themselves. We should certainly disregard their views.”Engel, Soldan, and Durand, The Study of Philosophy, p. 143.
Ad hominem tu quoque: “Majority member Joe C. is under fire for using public funds to pay for more than $44,000 in expenses. Minority members accused the majority floor leader of having one standard in opposition and quite another standard n government. In defense of Joe C., the majority floor leader pointed out that a minority member (while in the previous majority) had himself been questioned about his expenses, including out of state travel expenses.”Tindale, Fallacies and Argument Appraisal, p. 95.
Ad hominem tu quoque: “Far too much has been made over the CIA’s espionage abroad. Other countries are just as deeply engaged in spying as we are.”
(Engel, Soldan and Durand, The Study of Philosophy, p. 143.)
Ad hominem tu quoque: “Those Islamists and their apologists who argue for ‘religious toleration’ are arrogantly dishonest. They ignore the fact that more than 100 mosques already exist in New York City. Meanwhile, there are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia. In fact no Christian or Jew can even enter Mecca. And they lecture us about tolerance. If the people behind the Cordoba House were serious about religious toleration, they would be imploring the Saudis, as fellow Muslims, to immediately open up Mecca to all and immediately announce their intention to allow non-Muslim houses of worship in the Kingdom.” (Newt Gingrich, “Statement on the Proposed ‘Cordoba House’ Mosque near Ground Zero“, newt.org, accessed July 21, 2010.)
Ad hominem abusive: “The Democrats juxtaposed a child plucking the petals from a daisy with the explosion of a bomb as Lyndon Johnson extolled the value of loving one another. A young girl is picking daisies in a field. ‘Four, five, six, seven,’ she says. An announcer’s voice (actually the voice used to count down the space launches at Cape Canaveral) begins an ominous count. “Ten, nine, eight…’ At zero the camera has closed on the child’s eye. A nuclear bomb explodes. Lyndon Johnson’s voice is heard: ‘These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live. Or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other. Or we must die.’ Until the tag line appears, that ad has no explicit partisan content. ‘Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay at home.” (Jamieson, Dirty Politics, pp. 54-6.) While no explicit ad hominem is volleyed in this famous political ad, the implication is clear that Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater is trigger-happy, and thereby a threat to one’s family. The Slippery Slope fallacy is applicable here too.
Ad hominem abusive: “He thrives at the lectern, where his powers of rhetoric and recall enable him to entertain an audience, go too far, and almost get away with it. … Creationists are ‘yokels,’ Pascal’s theology is ‘not far short of sordid,’ the reasoning of the Christian writer C. S. Lewis is ‘so pathetic as to defy description,’ Calvin was a ‘sadist and torturer and killer,’ Buddhist sayings are ‘almost too easy to parody,’ most Eastern spiritual discourse is ‘not even wrong,’ Islam is ‘a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms,’ Hanukkah is a ‘vapid and annoying holiday,’ and the psalmist King David was an ‘unscrupulous bandit.’ … In a curious rhetorical tic, Hitchens regularly refers to people whom he wishes to ridicule by their zoological class. Thus the followers of Muhammad are ‘mammals,’ as is the prophet himself, and so are the seventeenth-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi and St. Francis of Assisi; Japan’s wartime Emperor Hirohito is a ‘ridiculously overrated mammal,’ and Kim Il Sung, the father of North Korea’s current dictator, is a ‘ludicrous mammal.’ Hitchens is trying to say that these people are mere fallible mortals; but his way of saying it makes him come across as rather an odd fish.”Gottlieb, “Atheists with Attitude” in The New Yorker, May 21, 2007.
Ad hominem abusive: “I did some research on this last night and found that the ones who accused Mike of lying were the ‘Jesus People USA’ and according to their website they are a group of 500 who all live at the same address and live in a commune! How’s that for sane? (Can we say Waco?) And, what a surprise, the Cornerstone magazine was published by them. Hmm.” (Discussion at Wikipedia)
Identify the proposition in question and note that it is either true or false irrespective of the character or circumstances of its proponent.
On Ad Hominem Abusive
On the near inevitable effect of abusive Ad Hominems:
On Ad Hominem Circumstantial
Tindale suggests that while the use of a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy may not defeat an argument, the conflict of interest it points out is worth taking into consideration and warrants a closer look at the argument itself. This is especially true, as is often the case, when an argument is made by someone who has been called upon as an authority. For example, an elected city council has to make decisions on many issues where they are not themselves experts, and relevant arguments may be opaque to non-specialists, necessitating a level of trust.
So, it is not always clear that the ad hominem circumstantial is out of place. For example, after providing an independent argument for the relative safety and security of the Mac OS vis-à-vis Windows, to top it off, Daniel Eran Dilger notes:
The intricacies intrinsic to the issue of software security are beyond the ken of the average computer user, and Dilger’s note serves to raise their suspicion towards claims hoped to be taken at face value. Again, vested interests do not decide the issue, but motivate skepticism and hopefully a closer look. There is a real danger here, however. Everyone has to make a living, and it is usually the case that the experts in a particular field are able to do their specialized work because they are remunerated for it. As always, the only recourse to determine the matter for one’s self is to look closely at the argument apart from who is making it.
[Add note about “prejudicial witnesses”.]
On Ad Hominem tu quoque
On Poisoning the Well
Afterall.net circles around contentious issues of faith and reason. This strategy of poisoning the well is widespread in these debates. Skeptics often suggest that anyone who makes space for faith in their worldview has thereby demonstrated their disregard for the tools of reason, or that having committed to particular theological presuppositions, one is unable to follow reason where it leads. Such accusations are no doubt accurate in many cases, but I would argue, not in every case, and not necessarily.