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Fallacies: Introduction to Ad Hominem

Video transcript

(intro music) Hi, my name is Julianne Chung, and I'm a graduate student at Yale University. Today, I am going to talk about ad hominem fallacies. "Ad hominem" is a Latin term that can be translated into English as "to the man," which is a very literal translation, or "against the person," which is a bit more descriptive. Ad hominem fallacies are also very often called "fallacies of personal attack." This is because such fallacies are commited whenever one attempts to challenge a position by criticizing something having to do with its source, thereby shifting attention away from the points at issue, and focusing it instead on those who are arguing for them. There are many different kinds of ad hominem fallacies. We are going to briefly survey six here. They go by the following names. First, abusive ad hominem. Second, circumstantial ad hominem. Third, tu quoque. Fourth, guilt by association. Fifth, genetic fallacy. And sixth, ad feminam. Abusive ad hominem arguments present personal characteristics of individuals as good reasons to discount their ideas. However, although certain personal characteristics might give us reason for suspicion, they do not affect the virtues of claims considered on their own. Here's an example of such an argument: "We should never think that anything politicians ever say "is true, because they're all dirty, lying scumbags." It should be easy enough to see that this argument does not give us reason to discount everything that politicians say. Indeed, even those who are the least admirable likely say true things at least some of the time. Whereas an abusive ad hominem argument works by attacking an individual directly, a circumstantial ad hominem argument attempts to challenge a person's position by suggesting that she is advancing it merely to serve her own interests. Although this can be seen as abusive, circumstantial ad hominem arguments differ from abusive ad hominem arguments in that they focus on their target's situations, rather than on their personal characteristics. Once again, however, although such arguments may give us reason to question an individual's intentions, they do not impact whether her claims themselves are nonetheless worth taking seriously. Consider this argument: "Summer vacation should be abolished. "Any student who argues otherwise should not be listened to, "because he or she stands to benefit from its continuation." Although me might wonder whether a student who opposes getting rid of summer vacation is doing so solely out of self-interest, that has no bearing on whether it should indeed be eliminated or not, or whether such a student's arguments are any good or not. Plenty of excellent positions and arguments also happen to benefit those advocating them. That does not diminish their merit, however. Another tactic that is often used to attack claims by undermining their advocate's credibility involves allegations of a certain kind of hypocrisy. This fallacy goes by the name "tu quoque," which in Latin means "you too," or "you also." When one commits the tu quoque fallacy, one accuses the person of acting in a manner that contradicts some position that she supports, and concludes that her view is worthless on account of the fact that she failed to follow her own advice. However, whether someone is acting in a manner that is somehow in tension with the position she is advancing has no bearing on whether it is right or wrong, although it can admittedly strike us as somehow dishonest, or less than noble. Here's an example: "I can't believe you're trying to convince me "that I should give more money to charity, "when you don't give nearly as much as I do." Whether the person that this argument attacks (let's call him "person B") gives as much money to charity as the person advancing this argument does (let's call her "person A") has no bearing on whether person A should or should not give more money to charity. Presumably, that depends on other things besides what B is doing, say, for example, how much money person A makes, how much money person A presently gives, and so on. The guilt by association fallacy is committed whenever one tries to argue against a certain view by pointing out that some unsavory person is likely to have agreed with it, as in: "Chocolate chip cookies can't be any good. "My philosophy professor loves them, "and she is the meanest teacher I have ever had!" As we all know, chocolate chip cookies are delicious, despite the fact that some mean people think so as well. A claim can be true despite its being endorsed by someone we don't like. However, while arguments that commit the guilt by association fallacy aim to cast a claim into question by condemning someone who is likely to have agreed with it, the genetic fallacy occurs whenever an attempt is made to cast a claim into question by condemning its origin. Here's an example of an argument that commits the genetic fallacy: "The founder of organization X "served time in prison for embezzlement, "so we can conclude that the organization "must still be corrupt." We can imagine this argument being advanced in order to argue against a claim to the effect that organization X offers many excellent services and deserves financial support. However, the mere fact that the founder of organization X was a criminal does not show that the organization currently acts in a way that is morally unacceptable. Things could have changed a lot since then. As a note, arguments that commit the genetic fallacy can also be used positively, to support claims rather than undermine them. The last fallacy that I am going to talk about today goes by the name "ad feminam." Ad feminam arguments attempt to discredit a claim on the grounds that a female person proposed it. Such arguments often include statements to the effect of: "Why should I believe anything you have to say? "After all, you're just a woman." I take it to be more or less obvious as to why such arguments are deeply problematic. How about this example? Does it commit one of the fallacies just considered? If so, which one? "Ronald Reagan was in favor of similar policies, "so they must be the right thing to do." Subtitles by the Amara.org community