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Edward Feser on Ad Hominem!

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  • rlbaty50
    Ad hominem often comes up in the cases of controversies, and I am often falsely accused of the fallacious use of ad hominem, my accusers typically indicating
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2013
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      Ad hominem often comes up in the cases of controversies, and I am often falsely accused of the fallacious use of ad hominem, my accusers typically indicating that alleging the use of ad hominem automatically implies a fallacy.

      I typically respond by simply noting that there is the non-fallacious ad hominem which I often use.

      I just ran across an exposition of that issue on Feser's blog and present it for consideration here:


      What is an ad hominem fallacy?

      Thursday, April 18, 2013

      As students of logic know, not every appeal to authority
      is a fallacious appeal to authority.

      A fallacy is committed only when the purported authority
      appealed to either does not in fact possess expertise on
      the subject at hand, or can reasonably be supposed to be
      less than objective.

      Hence if you believed that PCs are better than Macs
      entirely on the say-so of either your technophobic
      orthodontist or the local PC dealer who has some overstock
      to get rid of, you would be committing a fallacy of appeal
      to authority -- in the first case because your orthodontist,
      smart guy though he is, presumably hasn't much knowledge of computers, in the second case because while the salesman
      might have such knowledge, there is reasonable doubt about
      whether he is giving you an unbiased opinion.

      But if you believed that PCs are better than Macs because
      your computer science professor told you so, there would be
      no fallacy, because he presumably both has expertise on the
      matter and lacks any special reason to push PCs on you.
      (That doesn't necessarily mean he'd be correct, of course;
      an argument can be mistaken even if it is non-fallacious.)

      Similarly, not every ad hominem attack -- an attack "against
      the man" or person -- involves a fallacious ad hominem.

      "Attacking the man" can be entirely legitimate and sometimes
      even called for, even in an argumentative context, when it
      is precisely the man himself who is the problem.

      Attacking a person involves a fallacy when what is at issue
      is whether some claim the person is making is true or some
      argument he is giving is cogent, and where the attacker


      essentially ignores the question of whether
      the claim is true or the argument cogent,
      and instead just attacks the person giving
      it (in which case we have a kind of red
      herring fallacy) or


      suggests either explicitly or implicitly
      that the claim can be rejected false or the
      argument rejected as not cogent on the basis
      of some irrelevant purported fault of the
      person giving it (in which case we have a
      poisoning the well fallacy, or perhaps a tu

      Hence, suppose you put forward an argument against
      "same-sex marriage" and someone responds either by
      calling you a bigot, or by suggesting that the only
      reason you are putting forward such an argument is
      to rationalize some religiously motivated prejudice.

      Here we have classic examples of ad hominem fallacies.

      In the first case the person responding to you is
      trying to change the subject -- trying to make you
      and your alleged bigotry the issue, where what is
      at issue is the cogency of your argument.

      In the second case, the person is not changing the
      subject -- he is addressing the question of whether
      your argument is cogent -- but he is nevertheless
      appealing to an irrelevant consideration in assessing
      its cogency, since whether your argument is cogent or
      not has nothing essentially to do with your motives
      for putting it forward.

      However, if what is at issue is not a person's claim
      or argument, but rather precisely some aspect of the
      person himself, there is no fallacy in calling attention
      to his defects, and in some cases it can even be entirely
      appropriate to do so in a polemical fashion.

      For example, suppose what is at issue is whether a certain
      person is a reliable witness or an unbiased source of
      information, as in a court case.

      Then there is no fallacy whatsoever in showing that his
      track record reveals him to be a compulsive liar, or to
      have a bad memory or bad eyesight, or to have been drunk
      at the time of the events he claims to have witnessed,
      or to have a personal stake in the outcome of the case.

      These are ad hominem criticisms -- criticisms directed
      "against the man" himself -- but there is no fallacy
      involved, because the credibility of the man himself
      is precisely what is at issue.

      Or suppose that what is at issue is, again, not whether
      a certain claim is true or a certain argument cogent,
      but instead whether a certain person is reasonable,
      intellectually honest, worth trying to have a conversation
      with, etc.

      For example, suppose someone in a combox shows himself
      by his pattern of behavior to be an ignoramus, a crank,
      a troll, etc. -- say by repeatedly making sweeping,
      ungrounded, or unhinged assertions, dismissing ideas
      and arguments he evidently does not even understand or
      books he hasn't bothered to read, or indeed by committing
      ad hominem and other fallacies right and left.

      There is in such a case nothing wrong with calling such
      a person an ignoramus, a crank, a troll, etc. and refusing
      to engage with him any further.

      That is certainly an attack on the person, but it is no

      It is just a straightforward inference from the facts,
      a well-founded judgment about him and his behavior,
      rather than a fallacious response to some argument he
      has given.

      Or suppose someone gains a reputation for expertise on
      some important matter of public controversy when in
      fact his views about the matter are laughably off-base
      and demonstrably ill-informed.

      Suppose further that he manifests extreme arrogance and dismissiveness toward those who actually do have
      expertise on the matter, where the fact of his unjustified self-confidence only serves to reinforce, in those who
      don't know any better, the false impression that he must
      know what he is talking about.

      Here too an attack on the person himself is legitimate
      precisely because what is at issue is one of his personal
      qualities, viz. his arrogant pretense of expertise.

      Indeed, ridicule and other polemical methods can be
      legitimate tools in such an attack, since arrogant
      pretense can often effectively be countered in no
      other way, and treating the offender more gently might
      only reinforce the false impression that he and his
      views are respectable.

      Hence it is, for example, not only legitimate, but in
      my view imperative, not only to refute the sophistries
      of smug hacks like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss,
      but to administer a severe rhetorical beating as one
      does so.

      [ Here I must digress to address a pet peeve.

      Something called "Feser's tone" is the subject of
      occasional handwringing, not only among some of my
      secularist critics, but also among a handful of
      bed-wetters in the Christian blogosphere.

      But there is no such thing as "Feser's tone," if that
      is meant to refer to some vituperative modus operandi
      of mine.

      Sometimes my writing is polemical; usually it is not.

      I have written five books and edited two others.

      Exactly one of them -- The Last Superstition -- is

      Of course, some of my non-academic articles and blog
      posts are also polemical. But that is an approach I
      take only to a certain category of opponent, and
      typically toward people who have themselves been
      polemical and are merely getting a well-earned taste
      of their own medicine.

      Complaining about this is like complaining about
      police who shoot back at bank robbers.

      I've addressed the question of why and under what
      circumstances polemics are justified in this post
      and in other posts you'll find linked to within it.

      End of digression. ]

      Another example.

      The tu quoque is a species of ad hominem fallacy in
      which a claim is rejected merely because the person
      advancing it does not act in a way consistent with it.

      But there are cases where the fact that a person's
      actions are inconsistent with the claim he is making
      is clearly relevant to evaluating the claim.

      Suppose, for instance, that someone asserts that it
      is not possible to make assertions.

      This is a performative self-contradiction, and while
      the probative value of identifying performative
      self-contradictions is a matter of philosophical
      controversy, it is legitimate at least to wonder
      whether a view that entails such a contradiction
      is coherent.

      If someone could carry out a certain course of action
      that he recommends to others but does not bother even
      to try to do so himself -- the lush who condemns
      others for their drinking, say -- that by itself
      obviously does not show that his advice is not good

      Mere hypocrisy is not of much epistemological interest.

      But if there is reason to think that someone could not
      even in principle adopt a certain policy, then it is at
      least questionable whether the policy is a good one, or
      reflects a coherent train of thought.

      Finally, there are certain positions the very entertaining
      of which cannot plausibly fail to reflect some degree of
      moral defect in the person who advances them.

      For moral character involves, in part, the having of
      morally upright sensibilities, and these sensibilities
      will tend to lead a person to regard certain actions as
      beyond the pale and unworthy of serious consideration.

      Hence that a given person does not so regard them is
      evidence of defective sensibilities.

      Suppose, for example, that someone seriously suggested
      that there are good arguments in defense of torturing
      babies "for fun."

      It is hard to see how someone could sincerely believe
      such a thing unless his moral sensibilities were deeply

      (Whether he is culpable for this corruption is a question
      I leave to one side as irrelevant to the present point.)

      Notice what I am not saying.

      I am not saying that "You are a bad person; therefore
      your argument is invalid!" is a good response.

      It is not a good response; that would be an ad hominem

      If the practices a person is defending really are
      immoral, there should be independent reasons, having
      nothing to do with his personal character, that show
      that they are.

      All the same, if they are immoral, and if moral character
      is in part a matter of having the right sensibilities,
      and if a person shows by what he is willing to regard
      as a live option that he does not have the right
      sensibilities, then there is no fallacy in pointing this

      Indeed, not to point it out might in some cases threaten
      to undermine the moral sensibilities that prevail in society
      at large, insofar as it might make certain immoral actions
      seem respectable or defensible.

      (For more on this issue, see my discussion of Elizabeth
      Anscombe's views on the subject in an earlier post.)

      There are at least five sorts of case, then, in which
      criticism "of the man" can be legitimate and certainly
      not fallacious, even when the larger context is one in which arguments are being weighed:


      when determining whether someone's
      testimony is likely to be reliable;


      when evaluating his worthiness as a
      philosophical conversation partner;


      when exposing the fraudulence of his
      public reputation for expertise on
      some matter;


      when exposing performative self-
      contradictions associated with some
      philosophical position; and


      when noting that a person's willingness
      to take certain views seriously is
      evidence of a corruption of his moral

      None of this shows that a person's claims or arguments
      themselves are undermined merely by calling attention
      to his personal defects.

      To suppose that it does would be fallacious.

      But those who shout "Ad hominem!" too often do not know what
      an ad hominem fallacy actually is.

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