Featured Post

On Ad Hominems Part 1: The Messy World

You may be familiar with Sam Wilkinson’s defense of ad hominem arguments. You may also be familiar with the push back he has received. I have generally been on the side of the push backers, but I am beginning to reconsider.

This post is the first of two. Here I’ll explore some challenges to what I call the “classic view” of ad hominems. These challenges are leading me to consider my erstwhile belief that all ad hominems are invalid. However, I still believe we should be wary of ad hominem arguments. [Note: this post is very long, but the middle portion is very skimmable.]

In part 2, which I promise will be a lot shorter, I’ll propose some parameters for approaching, using, and limiting ad hominem arguments.

The Ad hominem fallacy: the “classic view”

Ad hominem refers to “attacking the person” instead of addressing the argument the person is making. Tu quoque means roughly “you do it, too,” and it is a kind of ad hominem argument, as in “you alight! I learned it by watching you!” I’ll mostly stick with ad hominem here, but you should be familiar with tu quoque, as well.

What I call the classic view, which can probably be found in most introduction to logic textbooks, is the view that ad hominems are irrelevant to the truth value of any given statement. They are also irrelevant to the chain of logic that links premises and leads those premises to a conclusion in a deductive argument.

A deductive argument is where one reasons from general premises to specific conclusions. All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal. The fact that Socrates was an annoying gadfly who enjoyed baiting people in his mostly one-sided “dialogues” doesn’t detract from the fact that he is a man or mortal.

Or to use what seems to be everyone’s favorite example, take the case of a serial adulterer who inveighs against adultery. The fact that he is a hypocrite doesn’t mean adultery is good. And according to the classic view, such arguments have no place in deductive reasoning.

Please indulge me. I’m ignorant of the history of philosophy. Maybe what I call the “classic view” isn’t classic at all and is an artifact of post-World War II logic courses. Or perhaps logicians for decades or centuries or millennia have recognized or even insisted on exceptions and limitations. I’m using “classic view” as shorthand, nothing more.

Challenges to the ad hominem

Short list of challenges

This post is long. So just in case you don’t want to wade through my ca. 1,500 words describing the “challenges,” here’s a rundown.

  1. In practice, I rely on ad hominems quite a lot. And you do, too.
  2. Ad hominems are clearly a fallacy only in the rare instance of deductive arguments divorced from practical considerations.
  3. Some arenas define the rules of argument so as to place ad hominems in play.
  4. Ad hominems can often tell us something important about the issue under discussion.
  5. One’s standing to say something can be relevant to what is said.
  6. Ad hominems help us discern inconsistencies in others’ arguments.
  7. Something something postmodernism something.

Challenge #1: Me quoque…et vosque

I do it, too. A lot.

I have a position on a controversial topic. I learn that Person A, for whose intelligence and intellectual honesty I have a lot of respect, has a contrary position. The facts haven’t changed and new facts haven’t come to light, but learning of A’s position leads me to question or even change my own.

I guess this is probably more a “friendly ad hominem” than an “attack on the person.” But the same dynamic applies mutatis mutandis for people with whom I have an icy relationship and who present arguments I’d otherwise agree with.

This isn’t only a case of letting my personal feelings interfere with logic and reason, although it’s definitely that, too. It’s also a case where that person’s own attributes lead me to reconsider that which I already thought I knew.

And you do it, too. You probably couldn’t not do it at least sometimes. While it’s frustrating to be on the receiving end of that attitude. It’s a fact of life and it’s probably necessary when it comes to sorting information.

Challenge #2: So lovers who profess they spirits taste / Feed yet on grosser meat

Vikram Bath reminded us a while ago that the pure world of freshman logic courses is not a precise fit with the messy world of real-life probability. (Read the whole thing. His post has the virtue of making basically the same argument as mine, but his is better written and not nearly as long.) Probably anyone from Kindergarten age on up knows this at some level. We also have to judge others’ intentions and not only their arguments. In certain situations, as I’ve written before, we do have to worry about another person’s sincerity if only to judge how they’ll act in the future.

Sometimes the person is the issue. True, it’s not always easy to know when that is so. Neither is it always easy to agree on which aspects of the personal are fair game. But sometimes character and reputation are up for discussion.

Challenge #3: In some arenas, the rules put ad hominems in play

Take an example courtesy of Mark Thompson. To my knowledge, he doesn’t believe “ad hominems are always valid.” But he has noted that in some arenas, the personal is defined as valid. Speaking specifically about gay marriage and the charges of personal hypocrisy against some of ssm’s opponents, he has said [italics in the original],

Specifically, insofar as we’re discussing the constitutionality (as opposed to the practical merits) of prohibitions on SSM, discriminatory animus is a major issue. If the sole justification for it that holds up to inquiry is a lizard-brain discomfort with homosexuality, then a prohibition on SSM is basically unconstitutional per se.

[snip]

Show that enough prominent SSM opponents don’t act in ways consistent with their arguments yet continue to retain their prominence and you start to have a pretty good claim that arguments against permitting SSM aren’t merely wrong, they’re actually pretexts to legitimize discriminatory animus. While it’s not possible to ever conclude that discriminatory animus lay behind everyone who opposes SSM, it may well be possible to conclude that it lay behind enough opponents of SSM to become a “but-for” cause of SSM prohibitions.

I doubt that courts which reject laws for “animus” actually cite widespread hypocrisy among that law’s advocates. But I’m not a lawyer. And what I take to be Mark’s main point is still a good one. He’s arguing that in certain, bounded environments–in his example, American constitutional jurisprudence on “animus” as it relates to measures that curtail civil rights–personal attitudes, including hypocrisy, are put into play even if a pure, deductive argument would not accept it. (If I misinterpret him, I hope he or someone else will correct me. As always, caveat lector, read the whole thing, et cetera.)

An example of another arena in which ad hominems are put into play might include “honor cultures” from our time or earlier times. Think of the dueling-culture in the early American Republic. (See Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor, 2001)

My larger point is that if everyone in a given community agrees that ad hominems are part of the rules, then if one wishes to abide by the rules in that community, ad hominems have a stronger valence than the classic case suggests. That reasoning is circular, but it also describes the way things often are.

Challenge #4: Ad hominems (sometimes) touch on the issue and not only the person

About a million years ago in internet time, Noah Millman at The American Conservative offered a partial defense of ad hominems [italics are Millman’s]:

The charge of hypocrisy, in other words, is usually embedded within a larger framework of argument, one which may affirm or reject the specific morality of ends that the accused hypocrite claims to uphold. Rather than deny the legitimacy of the charge of hypocrisy, wouldn’t bringing that context out into the open advance the cause of honest argument more effectively?

After all, without the charge of hypocrisy, how would you make some of the arguments above? [Here, Millman refers to arguments that cite infidelity among some opponents of same sex marriage–GC] If I believe that repressing one’s sexuality is harmful, and I can’t point to the hypocritical minister as a piece of evidence, then my argument is badly weakened – and for no obvious reason. Why am I obliged to say, in effect, that his actions have no bearing on the validity of the principle he stands for, when his actions are, to my mind, evidence that his principle has pernicious consequences? Isn’t the question of how principles play out in practice an extremely important question in debating said principles?

That’s only one part of Millman’s argument. He makes additional points in favor of (some kinds of) ad hominems (in some situations). He is also focusing specifically on ad hominems’ relevance for professing Christians. In other words, I’m taking only part of his argument and twisting it to my own purpose. So read his whole essay if you want to get what he’s really saying and not what is undoubtedly my contrived representation of it.

That said, here is my riff off his argument: Ad hominems often tell us about the issue under discussion.

Let’s take again the case of the adulterous minister. That case tells us something about the minister, yes. But it also tells us something about adultery, namely, that perhaps it

  1. resonates with enough people that denouncing it is popular and almost expected; and
  2. is something not quite as easy to avoid as simple preaching usually makes it out to be; and
  3. calls for forbearing judgment on those whom the minister might condemn

The ad hominem-ness of calling out that minister’s adultery doesn’t change the wrongness of adultery, but it strikes me as having something to do with adultery as a practice that goes beyond that one proverbial minister’s hypocrisy.

Challenge #5: Standing

I’m not a parent. I have never played any significant role in raising children. I have undertaken no training in child psychology or child education or child rearing. With only a handful of exceptions, I’ve never been a babysitter.

Those facts suggest to me that any advice I might give about parenting is suspect. Not necessarily wrong. Any one thing I might say could be right in and of itself. But as a non-parent, I have almost no stake in the outcome. I have almost zero familiarity with the types of daily compromises and complicated feelings that come when raising children. Even a correct piece of advice doesn’t do much for the parent when it comes from me.

I’ll except the cases of “obvious” abuse that none of us endorses or admits to endorsing. But even then, I imagine that someone like me might have a hard time diagnosing even “obvious” abuse.

I don’t have standing to give parenting advice. In my opinion–and probably in most others’ opinions–my lack of standing severely challenges the correctness of almost anything I might say on the matter.

(I owe the idea of standing, I think, to OT commenter/author Patrick. I can’t claim he necessarily agrees what I’m doing with it, and he certainly can’t be blamed for my using it. But his comment here is an example of what got me thinking along those lines. To be clear, I’m not saying he’s saying the idea of “standing” is a good thing or disproves the classic view of the ad hominem fallacy. But he seems to be saying that’s how things tend to work in practice.)

Challenge #6: ad hominems expose the ad hocs

I don’t remember if my introduction to logic textbook talked about the ad hoc fallacy. But my biology 101 professor did. He used the idea to argue against the approach some young earth creationists used to dispute evolution.

As I understand them, ad hocs are not necessarily fallacious in themselves. They might be a valid arguments in that the premises, if true, will lead to the arguer’s conclusion. But as this article notes, an ad hoc “describes ideas which are created solely for a specific task and not intended to be generalizable in any way.” Or to elaborate, ad hoc arguments signal inconsistent or dishonest reasoning.

If I notice someone who uses a general principle to support an argument but then uses a contrary principle when it’s convenient for him or her to do so and when he or she doesn’t offer a way to distinguish the two instances, that leads me to suspect their argument. If that person has a habit of doing this, I am inclined to be suspicious or hypercritical of most of what they say.

I’ve made some leaps in that paragraph. The specific “ad hoc” argument may represent a defensible principle. The contrary “ad hoc” argument may also represent a defensible principle. There may be a legitimate way to reconcile the two principles/arguments so as to vitiate the claim that there’s ad hockery afoot. And even if none of that applies, the fact that someone habitually argues this way doesn’t mean that any one thing that person says in any one instance is wrong.

But it all seems to put the ad hominem into play in a way that it isn’t in the classic view. If someone regularly acquits themselves particularly dishonestly, that person is usually the sort to rely on ad hoc arguments. At least that’s been my experience.

Challenge #7: “What is truth?”

I’m not postmodern theorist. What little I’ve read about postmodernism is soul-crushingly dense. I’m not sure I understand or can explain it. But I can’t wholly deny what I take to be one of its key claims: Facts are constituted by the observer, or by the relationship between the observer and the observed. And the history and traits of the observer are bound in that relationship, so that reality is in some meaningful way constituted by that observer’s history and starting assumptions.

I’m not sure how much I believe that. But even so, as someone trained in history, where the source material is fragmented and represents so many different points of view and where a narrative has to be imposed on what is both too little and too much evidence, I cannot deny there’s a certain appeal to the claim that the truth and falsity of what we call facts are somehow related to the person discerning and conveying them.

If one accepts that and carries it in a certain direction, it opens the court wide open to ad hominems. I take no position here on whether that direction is the proper one or on what kind of world I’d have to accept if everyone believed and acted that way. I just offer it as a challenge to the ad hominem prohibition.

Challenges, not a refutation

You may say these challenges demonstrate only that humans are not always rational.

You may also say I’ve shown only that ad hominems are fallacies except when they aren’t. You might add that if I spend enough intellectual energy, I can contort “that which must be proven” to make any purported fallacy relevant.

I don’t have a good answer to those objections. I do not view the challenges listed in this OP as refutations. Even though the classic view can answer these challenges without a sweat (except perhaps for the thing about postmodernism), they represent how ad hominems work in practice. In practice, things are usually not so clear. In my next post, I’ll offer some thoughts on how to use or engage with ad hominems while acknowledging that the world is a messy place.

Photo credit: “Messy Kitchen,” by Mark Knobil. Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License: Attribution and non-commercial. Gabriel Conroy did not modify this image and his use of the image is not necessarily endorsed by the image’s creator.


Staff Writer
Home Page Public Email 

Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer. ...more →

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

78 thoughts on “On Ad Hominems Part 1: The Messy World

  1. Especially in light of the earlier posts referenced, it’s useful to make a distinction between descriptive (how the world actually is) and normative (how the world should be) discourse.

    I’ve argued extensively that normativity is strictly a matter of subjective preference, not objective truth. If the normative is strictly descriptive (i.e. how the world should be is just a special category of how the world is), then the absolute prohibition on ad hominem and tu quoque arguments follows naturally. However, if subjectivity enters in the substance of normative arguments, then the case against ad hominem and tu quoque weakens considerably.

    Using the example from Secret Children, as a subjectivist, I do not read the underlying argument as “Domenici opposes gay marriage; Domenici is bad; therefore, gay marriage is good.”

    First, I deny that the final clause is even meaningful: there is no such thing as properties of goodness and badness that states of affairs can have, even in the loosest, most metaphorical sense that concrete objects can “have the properties” of heaviness or redness. Instead, goodness and badness represent relations between subjective consciousness and states of the world.

    I do not claim that objective descriptive arguments have no place in normative discourse: we must accurately and truthfully understand the objective facts about the states of the world about which we have subjective preferences. Also, what preferences a person actually has, and statistics about the preferences of a population, are descriptive and truth-apt.

    Instead, I read the argument as an example of the charge of negotiation in bad faith. Domenici argues, I prefer a world where deviant sexual behavior is absent, but his behavior reveals that he does not actually prefer such a world, because he himself engages in deviant sexual behavior. Thus, he must prefer something else, that he opposes same-sex marriage because he prefers some other kind of world. Because he is not revealing his true preferences, he is negotiating in bad faith.

    In contrast, Jason Kuznicki’s argument from Gavin Newsom lacks the same element of bad faith. There is no conflict between Newsom’s stated preference, to allow same-sex marriage, and his actual behavior, having an affair. Newsom seems to prefer a world where adult consensual sexual behavior is broadly tolerated, which is revealed both by his political positions and his behavior.

    Hence, in normative discourse, ad hominem and tu quoque arguments are broadly valid, because they reveal contradictions in the preferences actually held by advocates of one normative position or another.

    Report

    • Thanks for your well-thought-out comment, Larry. I hadn’t thought of differentiating between normative and descriptive arguments, but it makes sense to me. Now that I’ve looked over my “challenges,” they seem to rely either on instances of normative claims or on appeals to authority (where you have to trust the person from whom you’re getting information).

      I suppose one exception might be my postmodernism “challenge,” which seems to make the line that divides normative and descriptive less than clear.

      As for “bad faith” vs. “good faith,” that’s an interesting way to look at it. And it’s probably what I was hinting toward with my “ad hoc” example.

      Again, thanks for writing!

      Report

  2. Well, reading this I feel you have significantly expanded the reach of the terminology of “ad hominem”, but then so have some of those people you have cited.

    And this puts us into the realm of Wittgenstein, and postmodern theory. Sigh.

    ————————————————-

    When I think of “ad hominem”, I think of contempt. An ad hominem argument of this sort uses “You’re an asshole” to respond to “I think X”.

    Now while many people who use contempt come from a place of hurt and anger, because of their experiences, I contend that contempt is like violence (which also often comes from a place of hurt and anger).

    Contempt is not a feeling, it is a behavioral strategy. Insulting someone is like punching them. I am quite capable of hurting people physically, but I have experienced very few situations where it seemed necessary or valuable to do so. I do not for a moment think that punching someone will change their mind, and make them my friend.

    Nor will contempt. It is used to drive people away, so that one can declare victory on the field of battle. No argument has been won. No minds have been changed, other than perhaps to convince people to stay the hell away from the person who is free with their violence.

    Nevertheless, I cannot claim a absolute uselessness to violence, nor will I claim such for contempt. I do not like it though, not one little bit.

    Report

    • That’s an interesting way to look at it, Doctor Jay. I confess that when I come away from some examples of ad hominems, I get the sense that the ad hominem’er is punching, and whether it’s punching up or down, it’s still punching.

      I’ll have to think more on this.

      Report

  3. So, a number of things are being run together, some of which only bear a superficial resemblance to ad hominem attacks. The issue of deductive logic is a bit of a red herring. What is really at stake is the relationship between evidence and the proposition. In cases of deductive logic, that relationship is clear in a way that fucking around with the conclusion given the premises can in principle be shown to be problematic. In non-deductive cases, it is less clear cut. But nevertheless, if evidence is the sort of thing that can ever be said to support a conclusion, then whenever it in fact does so, the personal failings of the person who reports that fact cannot possibly bear on the issue. But, as you say things are a bit complicated, and it takes a bit of work to show why things which look like ad hominem moves seem reasonable. If I’m successful, I would have shown that they are not ad-hominem moves. Given the length of this reply, I might just address the first point and leave the rest to another post.

    I have a position on a controversial topic. I learn that Person A, for whose intelligence and intellectual honesty I have a lot of respect, has a contrary position. The facts haven’t changed and new facts haven’t come to light, but learning of A’s position leads me to question or even change my own.

    This confronts the issue of peer disagreement. And lots of papers have been written on this. Here is a bit of a thought experiment. Imagine a logically omniscient person. She is not omniscient: she doesn’t know everything. But, she knows all logical truths and is capable of drawing perfectly the conclusion that is supported by the evidence she has. If her evidence is misleading and one sided she can end up with false beliefs. But she is never thereby epistemically irrational. The cases of disagreement that we are considering are cases where disagreement is, or potentially is, higher order evidence against your current position. The distinction I want to drive here is between primary or first order evidence, and higher order evidence. Your primary evidence for thinking that colonel mustard committed the murder is perhaps something like his fingerprints and dna all over the murder weapon, the alibis of other suspects, witness accounts etc. Primary evidence is directly about the conclusion. Higher order evidence is distinct in that it does not bear directly on the conclusion, but on whether your primary evidence really supports the conclusion. If our ideal epistemic agent can never make a mistake in drawing conclusions from her evidence, then necessarily her evidence always supports her conclusions. Now, in order for evidence to be the sort of thing that evidence is (i.e. something from which you can reason your way to a conclusion instead of arbitrarily jumping to one) evidential support must be logically scrutable. So, our ideal epistemic agent not only reasons perfectly from her evidence to her conclusions, she knows (in the strong infallible sense) that her conclusions are supported by her evidence. As such no fact of disagreement can rationally obligate her to revise her beliefs about any given issue. This is because her primary evidence does support her conclusions and she knows this.

    This should hopefully become clearer once I formally express what’s going on. Suppose I wanted to know whether it will rain tomorrow. Call this proposition B. My evidence is a variety of weather reports of which I have an adequate track record to assess. Call my total body of evidence E. Suppose E really supports B only to a degree of about 0.7. I can represent this degree of evidential support in the following way:

    P(B|E) = 0.7

    I can also construct a meta-probability around this conditional probability. We do this by assessing the likelihood that I have reasoned correctly. let’s call this proposition A. Given the logical scrutability of evidential support, I ought to always a) apportion belief according to the evidence and b) recognise that I have done so and c) when I have not done so, recognise that I have not and do a) accordingly. That is, the maximally rational option is always for A to be true and for P(A) = 1. The logical scrutability of evidential support makes it the case that whenever A is true, A is necessarily true (in the logical sense) and it is always rational to believe a logically necessary truth. So, for the logically omniscient person, something like the following is true:

    P((P(B|E)=0.7)|(p(A)=1))=1

    When I assign a 1 to the metaprobability, this constrains my assessment of P(B|E) in a way that is incorrigible to any higher order evidence. This is driven by the principle that my assignment of the likelihood of B|E be constrained by my estimate of the expected likelihood of B|E.

    P(B|E)=Ex(P(B|E))

    It is impossible to add any higher order evidence to p(A)=1 to make it rational to revise this meta probability downwards.

    Now, let’s start talking about actual people. What are our second best options? Its a brute fact about me that I cannot always, especially in non-deductive cases, tell when I’ve reasoned perfectly. The reason for this is not because there is something fundamentally impenetrable about the support relation, but merely that I am not a perfect rational being. So, let’s try out a few cases.

    Case 1: A is false but I am nevertheless fully confident that A is true. This is a bad case and at one level, we can say that since whenever A is false it is necessarily false, I am irrational for nevertheless believing that A. But setting aside that particular error, given the structure of my first order and meta attitudes about B and E, they are rationally impervious to revision by the existence of disagreement (or at least there is a limited sense in which this is so).

    Case 2: A is true, but I assign some middling probability k to having reasoned correctly. Again, this is less than perfectly rational as whenever I have reasoned correctly, it is necessarily true that I the reasoning I engaged in is correct. That is a fact about the relation between the evidence and the conclusion. The conclusion is deductively or probabilistically entailed by the evidence. There therefore exists a series of inferential steps that maps on to this entailment relation. And insofar as my reasoning involves just these steps, I have reasoned impeccably to the conclusion. Nevertheless, suppose I have not been able to keep track of all my steps and have trouble ensuring that each step I took was correct, then that might result in me providing some sort of intelligent guess about the quality of my inference which nevertheless fails to accord with what the facts about my inference entail. In the understanding that this assignment falls short of full rationality, suppose

    P(A) = k.

    If not-A then either C: I overestimated P(B|E), or D: I underestimated P(B|E) or F: I reasoned badly but still luckily ended up with the correct value of P(B|E).

    Let’s set aside F. There are some interesting things to say about just what sorts of cases this may involve, but if my options are only A and F, then we reduce to the infallible case. My conclusion is nevertheless perfectly supported by evidence and I know it.

    The interesting stuff comes up in estimating P(C) and P(D). The only way I can maintain consistency between the value I assign P(B|E) and the metaprobabilities is if P(C) = P(D). The can be a number of cases where this assumption is valid simply because we have no more reason to believe that we have overestimated than underestimated (and vice versa). Sometimes if we have assigned a very high value to the support relation (e.g P(B|E) = 0.99) and we estimate that our margin or error is sufficiently large, we have to be more confident that we have overestimated than under because P(B|E) cannot be more than 1. The reverse problem occurs if P(B|E) is very low.

    Where they take on non-0 values, the presence of disagreement, especially by people I regard as equally or more competent or by people who have the same evidence as I do, provides evidence that I have either over or under estimated P(B|E). The key thing here is that their inferential competence is what grounds the higher order evidence when they disagree with you.

    Does a failure to abide by a principle that one espouses indicate anything about whether one really believes it? Not really. At best it is very weak evidence.

    Does moral failure translate into inferential incompetence? no. Weakness of will as such has no bearing on one’s inferential competence.

    This particular defence of ad-hominem doesn’t work. There is a clear difference between moral competence and epistemic competence. While the lack of the latter can undermine the former (because not being able to figure out what the right thing to do is makes you less likely to do the right thing), the lack of the former, when manifested as hypocrisy, is no evidence for the lack of the latter.

    Conservative arguments against homosexuality stand or fall on their own regardless of the actions of their proponents.

    Report

    • I probably didn’t understand as much of your comment as I ought to have, Murali, but thanks for taking the time to write. It seems that you’re saying something like the following: If someone whose judgment is trustworthy disagrees with you (the generic you), then that could be a sign you are wrong, but it doesn’t change the fact whether you were right or wrong to begin with. Is that the gist of it? If so, I agree.

      I would like to clarify something. You suggest I’m offering a “particular defence of ad-hominem.” that’s not really my intention. While I do take the position that we/I cannot escape ad hominems, I do not think ad hominems are therefore valid. (And to be clear, as Doctor Jay suggests above, perhaps I’m casting a larger net than maybe I ought and am calling things “ad hominem” that aren’t.)

      Report

      • Yeah, that is probably my bad for trying to condense a paper and a half into a blog comment. What I was trying to spell out was the idea that cases when we should change our view in the face of experts or peers disagreeing with us is a) deeply complicated and b) deeply connected to our assessments about their competence in assessing the primary evidence. None of these really touch on the ad-hominem and tu quoque cases that were the subject of intense disagreements with Sam. i.e. Doctor Jay’s point that you are casting far wider a net than you ought.

        Report

    • I realised that I also answered the second objection in the pre-amble to the argument. There is, generally, a question of what relation evidence has to the conclusion. The answer for deductive and non-deductive cases is not profoundly different, rather it is a matter of degree. The likelihood of all crows being black increases as our sample size increases. When the sample size=population size, then the answer becomes certain. The basic point is this: if non-deductive reasoning was not logical in at least the probabilistic sense, then we would not be able to even in principle (even if we were logically omniscient) figure out which of the logically possible worlds was actual (or likely to be actual) on the basis of the evidence we had available to us. One way of putting this is the following: a-posteriori inferences from evidence are justified if and only if an apriori function mapping possible bodies of evidence to corresponding conclusions about various propositions were also justified. The reason for this is that we would not want to call something an instance of reasoning (or perhaps good reasoning) if we could not in principle work out the conclusion given that body of evidence. This “able to be worked out” should lie at the core of any plausible account of reasoning and once we can show that some theory treats as justified things which cannot be worked out given the evidence, that should falsify that theory.

      Report

  4. This subject almost always seems to come up in the context of social conservatism and its bone-deep opposition to allowing people the freedom to make choices in matters of sex, romance and household formation. IME, social liberals [1] tend to find the social conservative viewpoint on these matters not merely misguided or mistaken, but, well, “not even wrong”. There is so little common ground that they find it impossible to find a common set of premises to provide a set of ground rules for debate. On those occasions when social conservatives do try to offer defenses for their positions that make sense to non-social conservatives, their attempts tend to be comically weak, as well.[2]

    If you lack the ability to engage your opponent’s argument on the merits, because as far as you can tell your opponent’s argument is, really, completely without merit, yet the argument still has political force, what other options do you really have? You can ignore it, in the hopes it will go away, which has a pretty poor track record, or you can accept that this particular rhetorical struggle isn’t being conducted by Marquess of Queensbury rules and throw the occasional metaphorical elbow.

    [1] Of which I am one, and rather stridently.

    [2] See the very common argument that gay people must forego the right to marry because straight people are so incredibly terrible at handling the burdens of marriage that the tiniest change in the way “marriage” is understood is liable to send even more straight marriages tumbling into the abyss.

    Report

    • Pillsy,

      The necessity of “throwing the metaphorical elbow” is in part what I’m writing about. Sometimes it’s necessary. I do question how effective that really is in practice. Maybe it helps rally the base come election time. Maybe it convinces appellate court justices. Maybe it actually changes at least some minds. But maybe not.

      Report

      • Well, I was thinking more about that, and one issue is that political arguments are less about changing minds than supporting a policy and/or party. That metaphorical elbow may not make the person you’re arguing with any more receptive to your ideas [1], but making them accept your idea is only one possible route to accomplishing what you’re actually trying to accomplish, which is to strengthen your coalition relative to theirs.

        Maybe that means getting your allies fired up, or discouraging their allies, or both. Maybe it means enforcing (or creating) informal norms of discourse that make merely articulating their argument socially unacceptable [2]. Maybe it simply means transforming a speaker who is impressive and dignified (or merely scary) into a figure of ridicule.

        Reasoned persuasion is a means, not an end. Like other means, it is better suited to some ends than others.

        [1] On the contrary, I expect the vast majority of people become less persuadable when you insult them.

        [2] One particularly common and frustrating assumption I find in American political discourse is that doing this is inherently illegitimate. I couldn’t disagree more strenuously–I think the norm against explicitly advocating white supremacy to be one of the most important political accomplishment in the US in the 20th century.

        Report

        • I mostly agree, and the example from your footnote number 2 is particularly well-taken (and sadly on the wane these days).

          I see this point a little differently, however:

          Reasoned persuasion is a means, not an end. Like other means, it is better suited to some ends than others.

          It’s not so much that I see reasoned persuasion as an end. I don’t. But I see something like empathy and understanding, or unconditional love, as ends, or at least ideals I should strive for (and that in practice I fall short of pretty much every day).* That means treating people with the dignity they deserve as people and eschewing contempt-based argumentation of the sort Doctor Jay refers to in this thread.

          That’s hard to do. Especially when it’s inconvenient for me. I’ll concede that sometimes it’s necessary to suspend even that “end” in service to a higher or better or at least more urgent end.

          And again, while I think that’s a good ideal, I fall short most of the time.

          *I’m keeping this in the first person because I’m not sure whether it’s really my prerogative to tell someone else they should hold this point as an end. Sometimes I act as if I’m sure. But honestly, I’m not at all sure.

          Report

        • “Maybe it means enforcing (or creating) informal norms of discourse that make merely articulating their argument socially unacceptable [2].”

          All this does is change the labels. It used to be that the hypermasculine insult was to call someone “gay”, but people have grudgingly and at length accepted that this is Get You Fired stuff. But that doesn’t mean they stop doing it, now they just say “cuck”.

          And it has weird follow-on effects. See, for example, teenagers yelling racial slurs on Xbox Live because they know it gets a rise out of people.

          Report

          • @densityduck:

            All this does is change the labels.

            Yes. There are no perfect solutions in this fallen world of ours, and if you create and enforce social norms sometimes you get people that want to violate them just to break a taboo. Nonetheless, I’d rather have a partially functional system of social norms that people deliberately test than no system at all.

            Also, I don’t think this necessarily goes one way. I was a young adult in the ’90s and remember a lot of very self-consciously “politically incorrect” stuff getting a lot of attention and praise. I gotta wonder how much of today’s apparent young adult enthusiasm for intersectionality and “safe spaces” and the like is just rebellion against that.

            Report

            • “if you create and enforce social norms sometimes you get people that want to violate them just to break a taboo. ”

              hey that’s awesome just so long as we keep in mind that the solution to “break a taboo” is different from the solution to “inherent thoughtcrime”

              Report

    • Good comment pillsy. And this:

      If you lack the ability to engage your opponent’s argument on the merits, because as far as you can tell your opponent’s argument is, really, completely without merit, yet the argument still has political force, what other options do you really have?

      reminds me of conversations I had a while ago with true red conservative at this site (TvD). My suggestion was that conservatives ought to abandon trying to justify some of their so-con (and other) beliefs, and instead just assert them as if they were irreducibly basic, either as sentiments or as foundational principles. But irreducible basic either way. At that point, argumentative challenge is pretty well shut down and all that’s left is the political force of the claim being advanced – how well it resonates, how deeply it cuts, how frustrated it makes your opponent.

      It’s a game, but as you say there’s a very real sense in which politics is a game; it’s about presenting support for a policy or agenda as a show of force rather than (eg) the most rational solution to a public policy problem.

      And as you say, once reasonable debate over proposed policies and other sundry beliefs is rejected as a viable option, all that’s left is either apathy, meta-analysis or personal attacks, none of which will alter the beliefs of folks playing that part of the game.

      Report

      • Stillwater,

        I think you’ve hit on what is one of my problems with some of the people who advance socially conservative positions. They don’t always recognize how a given position, like keeping ssm illegal/unrecognized by law, is incongruent with the type of liberal democracy they otherwise support. If they were more open and honest that their position, on at least certain particulars, runs against liberal democracy, then I’d at least have more respect for them, even though I’d still disagree with a particular view.

        Of course–and in keeping with the theme of this thread and post–we all do that. For example, I support the ACA, despite the very good constitutional objections that have been raised against it. While I don’t concede it’s unconstitutional, it does represent taking a certain liberty with what appears to be written and as I would otherwise prefer to interpret that document. Maybe that’s a bad example. But the point is, no one is immune from that type of motivated thinking.

        Report

        • “They don’t always recognize how a given position, like keeping ssm illegal/unrecognized by law, is incongruent with the type of liberal democracy they otherwise support.”

          Why?

          The “liberal” in “liberal democracy” doesn’t mean the same thing as in “socially liberal”.

          Report

          • The liberal in liberal democracy refers to the constitutional protections of a range of freedoms. Arguably, the reason why we would want to protect a range of freedoms has something to do with safeguarding particular spheres of activity from interference. Presumably, one of those spheres of activity is the personal or private sphere, especially insofar as it deals with personal or private conscience. Protecting the personal or private sphere of activity from interference is or at least entails, roughly speaking, social liberalism.

            Report

          • Yeah, there’s a little confusion there with the word “liberal.” I find that most people in the US who take socially conservative positions also claim to be followers of “liberal democracy,” although they might not use the word “liberal.”

            In other words, I agree with Murali’s response.

            Report

          • I think your question deserves a better response than I gave last night. While I agree with Murali–and his explanation is pretty much mine–I probably implied too much that inconsistency with liberal democratic principles means a given position is wrong. If so, I’ll walk that back a bit.

            There may be good reason in any given case to go against the principles implied by liberal democracy. Except for the most consistent among us, I’d say we all do so in at least some cases. My problem with some (some!) social conservatives is that on some issues, they don’t recognize the disconnect.

            Or maybe I’m again assuming too much in talking about liberal democracies. Liberal democracies have existed a lot longer than legal ssm has. And even though I think if the principles of liberal democracies are taken to their logical conclusion and if we still have state recognized marriage then ssm ought to be legal, perhaps I’m being too hasty to insist on it. That said, in 2015, the way of looking at principles like equal protection–principles that most social conservatives claim to believe in when it comes to other groups–legalizing ssm is probably necessarily implied by those principles.

            In my opinion, the disconnect between those principles and the anti-ssm position is sufficient to demonstrate the anti-ssm position is wrong. The anti-ssm’ers probably disagree, and it’s there we part company. But I’d like them to acknowledge the disconnect instead of papering it over or perhaps demonstrate why there is no disconnect (but I’ve seen no convincing demonstration to that effect).

            And to be clear, I’m not referring to all social conservatives, nor am I saying the disconnect here applies to all other social conservative positions (although it applies to some). I’m not making the “but they reject modernity!” argument.

            Report

            • Gabriel Conroy: And even though I think if the principles of liberal democracies are taken to their logical conclusion and if we still have state recognized marriage then ssm ought to be legal, perhaps I’m being too hasty to insist on it. That said, in 2015, the way of looking at principles like equal protection–principles that most social conservatives claim to believe in when it comes to other groups–legalizing ssm is probably necessarily implied by those principles.

              I’m not going to divert this discussion to the questions of types of liberalism and the nature of “liberal democracy.” I’ll just say that I agree that you are being “too hasty.”

              Any mode of thinking that leads you to an oxymoronic assertion of “probable necessity” should be taken as a signal that you have not thought the matter through. It says: “I believe that if I did go through a process of thinking the matter through logically, then the conclusion I prefer would probably be irrefutable!” Or, to deploy a different absurdity: “I’m sure that it would probably be proven, or would be demonstrated to be demonstrable. So, to save time, I won’t bother thinking about the alternative. This is how I also know that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, that the Sun revolves around the Earth, that my race is superior to other races, and that anything else I very much prefer to think must also be good and correct to think.”

              For the sake of understanding, the rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which you, Murali, and our Supreme Court turn liberalism as “equal” protection of individual (or minority) freedoms into a “necessary” requirement for a particular set of legal determinations and related social or civic institutional adjustments would need to be, as it were, slowed down, removed from the realm of intellectual prestidigitation and submitted to accountable audit. In this way this otherwise off-topic discussion does relate to the “ad hominem” question, since the reliance on ad hominem for what I called prudential or practical reasons has the same character: of suspending (or skipping) a properly philosophical (or other “scientific”) inquiry for the sake of “getting on with things” (politics). Doing so will be necessary and convenient this side of New Jerusalem (where everyone is always already doing the right thing), but it undermines the claim on behalf of public reason to treat consciously setting it aside as the same as pursuing it.

              Report

              • CK,
                Do you think there may be some problems in terms of objectivity? I came across a problem a few weeks ago where I went to unpack some of the nuances of objectivity and what I found was most people aren’t using something purist like True Objectivity, but something more like the objectivity encountered in their chunk/area of society. At that point I realized most people are using a construct of social objectivity.
                That kinda led me down the road of what would be the differences between True Objectivity and social objectivity.

                Report

                  • “For the sake of understanding, the rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which you, Murali, and our Supreme Court turn liberalism as “equal” protection of individual (or minority) freedoms into a “necessary” requirement for a particular set of legal determinations and related social or civic institutional adjustments would need to be, as it were, slowed down, removed from the realm of intellectual prestidigitation and submitted to accountable audit.”

                    I think you may be using Objectivity set A, while they are using Objectivity set B.

                    Maybe a difference in how justice is parsed in neutrality.

                    Report

                    • I mean in a sense that liberals (if I have been listening correctly) think justice starts or is built by looking at the most disadvantaged group and going from there.

                      This is different than justice in the terms of Perfect Justice which requires justice to look perfect from each individual or vantage point.

                      Still don’t know if that is phrased well, but I hope you get my point.

                      Report

              • Yeah, I think you’re probably right that I haven’t thought it through. I suppose if I were to name names and cite a specific example I’m thinking of–and if I took the time to research that example–then I’d be on firmer ground, at least as concerns that example.

                But then….I guess what I just wrote is an example of your “I believe that if I did go through a process of thinking the matter through logically,….”

                And then again, some of this has to do with the fact that I tend to doubt and second myself a lot.

                Report

              • CK, my point was more semantic than justificatory. Our understanding of liberal as a prefix to democracy is bound up in the protection of a range of civil and personal freedoms. Insofar as marriage sets up a norm against interference in and scrutiny of the personal lives of the married set, then, the failure to extend that norm to gay couples (like the failure to extend it to plural relationships) is a violation of some personal freedoms and thus contrary to the understanding of liberalism qua prefix to democracy.

                Consider, we would not consider a democracy which, for instance banned gay sex a liberal democracy, regardless of the press and political freedoms it happened to afford. Perhaps our understanding of “liberal” qua prefix has changed, but if m assessment of our semantic intuitions are right, then your objection is more akin to the curmudgeon who thinks the rest of the world is using a word in the wrong way. But meaning is conventional and where the conventions change, the fact that the conventions were different in the past does not change the fact that the conventions now are what they are.

                Report

                • Yeah, this.

                  I wonder what might say in response. It seems to me that his earlier claim about submitting claims to an accountable audit requires establishing the rules of that game, since in my view the SSM debate is as decisive as any argument I’ve (personally) ever encountered. That is, if the “liberal” part of “liberal democracy” is viewed as implying maximizing freedoms (or rights) (which is the conventional meaning), then the only counter argument pivots on the concept of “democracy”. Or maybe that’s wrong. I actually don’t know, since I can’t make head or tails of his claim.

                  Fact is, the argument for SSM – based on “equal protection” or whatever condition CK views as relevant – has been submitted for audit to the point of exhaustion. That anti-SSM folks don’t agree with the premise doesn’t mean the argument hasn’t been made. And it doesn’t mean that it (the premise) isn’t liberal. It just means that people disagree with it for reasons that have little to do with liberalism or “auditing”.

                  Report

                  • That anti-SSM folks don’t agree with the premise doesn’t mean the argument hasn’t been made. And it doesn’t mean that it (the premise) isn’t liberal.

                    This is less clear cut than you state. Arguably, one of the key liberal commitments is having rules that are justifiable to everyone. That means that if SSM is to be justified there has got to be some premises that conservative accepts which entail legalisation of SSM

                    Report

              • I called prudential or practical reasons has the same character: of suspending (or skipping) a properly philosophical (or other “scientific”) inquiry for the sake of “getting on with things” (politics).

                What proper “philosophical (or other “scientific”) inquiry” are we failing to have in regards to SSM?

                Report

                • Gentlepeople,

                  I’m neither inclined nor able to pursue this discussion into simultaneous overlapping political philosophical questions. Here, at my blog, and in other venues I have already spent or wasted, take your pick, countless hours or days or centuries on the political philosophy of liberalism and liberal democracy and on the “SSM debate.”

                  Gabriel offered his discussion on ad hominem arguments. I responded to it. I believe the discussion began to go off-topic in on way, perhaps too on-the-nose in another, when he made the following observation:

                  I think you’ve hit on what is one of my problems with some of the people who advance socially conservative positions. They don’t always recognize how a given position, like keeping ssm illegal/unrecognized by law, is incongruent with the type of liberal democracy they otherwise support. If they were more open and honest that their position, on at least certain particulars, runs against liberal democracy, then I’d at least have more respect for them, even though I’d still disagree with a particular view.

                  The overly-on-the-nose part is where Gabriel lays charges of hypocrisy and testifies as to his reduced respect for social conservatives or for “some of the people who advance socially conservative positions.” The attack on the the character of “some of the people who advance” may have inspired Density Duck to raise questions about the claim on incongruity between liberal democracy or a supposed type of liberal democracy (the one that social conservatives “otherwise support”) and “illegality/non-legality of SSM.” In short, “some of the people” on the other side of the SSM debate make a very similar argument about certain “incongruencies” on the pro-SSM side. Instead of acknowledging the point, which “some of the people” like to print in big, bright, block letters wherever and whenever they can, Gabriel prefers to tell us how he feels about them as people. The ad hominem in the literal sense is obvious. Its function as argumentum ad hominem is perhaps more subtle: In my view it at least points to the beginning of an indictment of opponents for being opponents at all.

                  Murali proceeded to offer backing for Gabriel’s position, adopting, perhaps unavoidably, a position in which a tendency toward expanding a “private, personal” sphere of rights and freedoms is taken to require regimes of civil/legal/administrative etc.- or public and social – recognition and “protection.” He argues that “we would not consider a democracy which, for instance banned gay sex a liberal democracy, regardless of the press and political freedoms it happened to afford.”

                  Setting aside the difference between “banning gay sex” and “recognizing SSM,” certainly from an historical point of view or in a historical discussion we might very well do just what Murali says we wouldn’t, unless we are going to take the position that there were no liberal democracies at all until sundry impostor states reformed their “sodomy” laws over the course of the 20th Century.

                  The theoretical or philosophical matter, and what I believe to be the defect in both Gabriel’s and Murali’s positions as outlined here, has to do with the implicit claim that adoption of liberal premises or supposed “liberal democratic principles” requires support for SSM as a matter of “necessity” – that it is a matter of logic vs “incongruency,” or that, to repeat myself, a “particular set of legal determinations and related social or civic institutional adjustments” can be derived from some more or less general principle, that “all liberal democratic states support the institution of same sex marriage” in the same way that “Socrates is mortal” in the famous syllogism.

                  In this case, I believe that Murali is performing a version of the familiar operation by which assertion of a negative right or freedom of individuals vs whatever state is converted into a positive responsibility of the state, here as “protection.” Such “protection” always inherently involves actual “infringements” of a different kind: A regime of absolute freedom would be a contradiction in terms, as is or ought to be well understood.

                  That statement may be taken as a political argument against the modern social liberal state, but I intend it merely as an observation of an actual logical necessity, in contradistinction to false versions, not as a political argument for or against SSM or anything else. At various times various impossible people right, left, center, statist, libertarian, and on and on have been found attempting to administrate the impossible laws and secure the impossible objectives of any number of impossible states, but we were discussing a different topioc, and, as I stated at the outset, I’m neither inclined nor able to jump into this rabbit hole today here or anytime anywhere soon. My only objective has been to explain where I believe Gabriel and Murali were, for lack of a better word or the time to look for one, fudging. That’ll have to be all from me for now and a while.

                  Report

                  • what I believe to be the defect in both Gabriel’s and Murali’s positions as outlined here, has to do with the implicit claim that adoption of liberal premises or supposed “liberal democratic principles” requires support for SSM as a matter of “necessity” – that it is a matter of logic vs “incongruency,” or that, to repeat myself, a “particular set of legal determinations and related social or civic institutional adjustments”

                    I probably was doing that And that’s something I want to walk back (and tried, unsuccessfully, to do in my second response to DD). On the one hand, I do believe that liberal democracies, or what has passed for “liberal democracies” (since, I don’t know, 1689, 1848, 1870, 1919, or later…I have a hard time setting on a date when they became a thing), embrace a set of principles that carried to their logical conclusion will indeed erode caste barriers and institutions like coverture and eventually in favor of things like bans against discrimination (with all the contradictions such bans entail), companionate marriage, and ssm.

                    On the other hand, I also realize that it’s possible to make an idol of such principles, and to act as if they’re all we should or legitimately can aspire to. I really don’t want to say that any position inconsistent is for that reason wrong. But I do think it’s hard to argue for the inconsistent principle and at the same time claim that it is indeed consistent.

                    So does that mean I err into wishing that I don’t want my opponents to be opponents at all? Maybe. Frankly, I hadn’t thought of it like that. I tend to antsy about the “they reject modernity!” perhaps because it signifies that very attitude. And now on some level I’m doing it, too. I’ll keep it in mind.

                    Report

  5. A lot of fallacies are shortcuts for much more interesting arguments.

    Sometimes, you don’t have a lot of time.
    But, other times, you do. Relying on shortcuts even when you have time to make much more interesting arguments provides a great opportunity for others to do so.

    And what standing to complain will you have when they do?

    Report

      • There’s also the issues involving the whole “X is not about X” thing.

        Pointing out “look at that hypocrite!” is a very quick and efficient way to find out who is a member of your tribe and who isn’t.

        Does the person also point and laugh? Hurray! Probably a member.
        Someone clears their throat and starts giving a speech about logical fallacies? Outsider.

        It’s a shortcut.

        Report

        • I buy that.

          By the way, Jaybird. That reminds me of a comment you wrote about a million years ago here that I’ve been trying to find. It had something to do with how we often have knee-jerk sympathies in one way or another and how that might tell us our own underlying motivations. You used the analogy of a coin toss and wanting it to come up heads or tails.

          Does that ring a bell? It was a particularly well-put comment, but I just haven’t been able to find it. (I like saving up good comments for later reference.)

          Report

          • I remember that.

            Have you all heard of “flippism”? It’s the basic idea that if you don’t know which of two choices are before you, you should flip a coin. Not because you should do what the coin says, mind, but because the moment the coin is in the air, you’re a lot more likely to say “OH I HOPE IT’S HEADS” at which point you’ll know which choice you actually prefer in your gut.

            Then you just have to figure out how much weight to give your gut.

            I bring that up because hypocrisy can work that way for people who are on the fence. Let’s say that you’re torn on a particular policy. There’s this way, there’s that way… you don’t know which is the best one… then you encounter a hypocritical politician. Are you inclined to snort and reach conclusions about all those people? Are you inclined to get defensive and start defending the guy even before you read a single attack? Well, now you know what your gut thinks.

            (Note: this trick doesn’t work for people who know themselves fairly well.)

            Report

    • I actually think that’s an example of something else, if only because the majority is recognizing/stating/hoping that the dirty thing they’re about to do won’t and ought not be taken as binding precedent. And to say a general principle’s applicability to a given situation is different from its applicability to another, different situation isn’t necessarily an ad hoc argument.

      But then again, a lot of the people from that same majority declared the functional part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. So yeah. At least maybe.

      Report

  6. 1. In practice, I rely on ad hominems quite a lot. And you do, too.

    I don’t think that I do. I strive hard not to do so. However, I have been occasionally accused of relying on “ad homs” by people who do not understand the fallacy, and instead associate it with any use of (supposed) insults or “attacks on a person.”

    Sometimes, the issue in question does not concern “whether x is connected to y,” but instead concerns “how we ought to feel or think about Citizen A in relation to fitness for common purpose B.” If the topic is “fitness of A,” the statement or implication “A is unfit,” is relevant. “A is unfit” may be taken as an insult to A, so is “ad hominem” in the sense of being directed “against the person,” but is not an example of the “argumentum ad hominem.” It is literally “ad hominem,” but not an example of deployment of the fallacy.

    2. Ad hominems are clearly a fallacy only in the rare instance of deductive arguments divorced from practical considerations.

    The fallacy remains a fallacy regardless of the practical purpose one may have in mind.

    I may succeed in getting you to vote for proposition A by persuading you that association with opponents of A is unseemly, but I have not in so doing said anything directly about the truth or falsehood or reasonableness of arguments as such for or against A. I have encouraged you to act on the likelihood (conceivably to be taken as a very high likelihood) that whatever the despised anti-A people say is not to be trusted, and that, if you took the time to examine their arguments in detail, your prejudices would be confirmed.

    I would be saying that it would be prudent for you to forego the exercise of reason in regard to the topic or potential topic, and instead rely on reasonable prejudice. That the prejudice may be reasonable for you to maintain (e.g., “Don’t waste your time or risk your reputation engaging in discussion with Nazis”) does not make it an exercise of reason regarding the question (e.g., “Can ‘race’ ever be a valid category for understanding human social differences?”) that you have reasonably chosen not to examine at this time or in whatever venue or with whichever particular discussants.

    3. Some arenas define the rules of argument so as to place ad hominems in play.

    Since in elections and politics in general, we are often concerned, even principally concerned, with the “fitness of Citizen A” or “fitness of Citizens B through Y,” or “the desirability of placing Citizens A through Y in positions of power,” then directing an argument “against the person or persons” is, see above, literally to argue “ad hominem,” but not to rely upon the fallacy.

    In that context, it would not be fallacious to seek to demonstrate that “Citizen A is unworthy of anyone’s vote.” Indeed, to attempt to discuss that question without discussing Citizen A’s “worthiness” would be absurd. The fallacious argument, but not necessarily a “wrong” argument, would be more like “You should despise Citizen A because people whom you despise like Citizen A.”

    The distinction may be hard to keep in mind, since, in politics, the fact that someone has hateful friends can also be taken as critical information, potentially by far the most important or independently decisive information.

    In other words, if we have already concluded that Group B should never be encouraged or empowered, and Group B would be encouraged or empowered by the success of Citizen A, then it will be reasonable or even obligatory for us to consider that information disqualifying. It is information about the person of Citizen A in the question of the fitness of Citizen A, even if it is not specific to any particular action or statement by Citizen A. It is not, however, in itself, information about any particular topic as such under discussion or potentially under discussion. It may, as under 2 above, amount to a prudential argument against entering into discussion at all.

    4. Ad hominems can often tell us something important about the issue under discussion.

    True if, as under 3, the “question of the person (or persons)” is the actual issue under discussion, or if the real issue, as under 2, is “what is a practical way for me to proceed in relation to this issue?” In either case, the impression that “the fallacy” has somehow failed is based upon a misidentification of the actual question or mischaracterization of the actual topic under discussion. We might, to use an example used elsewhere on this thread, be under the illusion that we are discussing issues relating directly to sexual preference, but in fact we are discussing a different question as to the advancement or suppression of those taking one or another side on whatever particular issue.

    5. One’s standing to say something can be relevant to what is said.

    A version of 2: It’s not useful for me to listen to what someone who I reasonably believe knows nothing useful. Again, the prudential question regarding interlocutors does not speak to the argumentum ad hominem. Similarly, to say that someone is arguing in bad faith or known to argue in bad faith speaks to the question of qualification or prudence of entering into discussion at all. It says nothing about the the subject or potential subject of discussion or potential discussion.

    6. Ad hominems help us discern inconsistencies in others’ arguments.

    Another version of the prudential question.

    7. Something something postmodernism something.

    In short, the post-modernist view as defined in the post would be self-disqualifying regarding any discussion at all. If all discussion is according to this “post-modern view” is “fallacious,” then fallacies are irrelevant – or we are operating from a different notion of “fallacy”: The “true” or “non-fallacious” argument is the argument that has won. We have defined the “true” as “the accepted.” It is for the same reason that “the post-modern view” has been held to be incompatible with the presumptions of liberal democracy, or that the propagation of this mode of thinking (or “thinking”) has been thought to undermine the project of liberal-democratic self-governance as understood by its original proponents and contemporary defenders.

    Report

    • The fallacy remains a fallacy regardless of the practical purpose one may have in mind.

      This is true: insofar as the ad hominem argument is fallacious, it is fallacious regardless of how practical or abstract the argument it’s addressing might be. There’s nothing inherent in abstractness or practicality that renders an ad hominem argument valid or fallacious; it gets that way by being relevant or irrelevant to the premises and conclusions of the argument.

      Report

      • It’s nice to see you’re commenting again Chris. ANd +1 on the definition of what makes adhom a logical fallacy. {{Tho I think some of our more pomo friendly commenters might remain unconvinced.}}

        Report

  7. 1. In practice, I rely on ad hominems quite a lot. And you do, too.

    I don’t think that I do. I strive hard not to do so.

    Well, I meant “except for CK MacLeod,” of course :)

    I think most of what you say is quite reasonable. And as I wrote and rewrote the drafts of this post, I had the sneaking suspicion that most of my examples were actually different instances of the same example or only a couple of examples–something that your “another version of….” reminded me of. And your frequent references to prudence are probably the crux of what makes your comment so convincing.

    What I now have to offer in response to your points are mostly just clarifications on “what I really meant” or more likely “what I would have said if I had thought certain things through.”:

    2. Ad hominems are clearly a fallacy only in the rare instance of deductive arguments divorced from practical considerations.

    The fallacy remains a fallacy regardless of the practical purpose one may have in mind.

    The point you were addressing was an example of my hoping the adverb “clearly” would do more work than it is capable of. I meant something like this: It’s a fallacy regardless. But we can see that it’s a fallacy most clearly when we’re engaging deductive arguments. At least I think that’s what I meant. I do recognize here, and in a couple of my own comments above, that I’m wavering between “maybe it’s not a fallacy (in some circumstances)” and “it’s a fallacy regardless.” Maybe I’m motte and bailying a bit?

    3. Some arenas define the rules of argument so as to place ad hominems in play.

    Since in elections and politics in general, we are often concerned, even principally concerned, with the “fitness of Citizen A” or “fitness of Citizens B through Y,” or “the desirability of placing Citizens A through Y in positions of power,” then directing an argument “against the person or persons” is, see above, literally to argue “ad hominem,” but not to rely upon the fallacy.

    That’s actually a little different from what I was aiming for but also in the same ballpark. I think it’d be hard to find anyone who believes that it’s unacceptable to address personal character when deciding whom to place in a position of public trust in which that person has to use binders full of discretion on important, even life and death. At least I think it’d be hard to find anyone who believes that consistently. (And of course, I’m neglecting your excellent point about that awful Group B that shouldn’t be empowered, even indirectly, by placing person A in power.)

    What I was aiming for was something more like what Mark Thompson seemed to be arguing for in the passage I quoted from him. Something we might recognize as against the rules is now put within the pale by the rules of jurisprudence.

    Even so, there’s a broader sense in which what I’m “aiming for” doesn’t matter as much as your point that the personal, in this case, is relevant.

    4. Ad hominems can often tell us something important about the issue under discussion.

    True if, as under 3, the “question of the person (or persons)” is the actual issue under discussion, or if the real issue, as under 2, is “what is a practical way for me to proceed in relation to this issue?” In either case, the impression that “the fallacy” has somehow failed is based upon a misidentification of the actual question or mischaracterization of the actual topic under discussion.

    I can really find nothing wrong with the point you’re making here, especially your point about “the real issue” under discussion.

    5. One’s standing to say something can be relevant to what is said.

    A version of 2: It’s not useful for me to listen to what someone who I reasonably believe knows nothing useful. Again, the prudential question regarding interlocutors does not speak to the argumentum ad hominem.

    Agreed again.

    To your point about my point about postmodernism, or “postmodernism”: You’re right to use the scare quotes because my definition is probably not the best definition. I’m not sure even how much I believe it. I’m putting it out there.

    My overall response: You’re right, and I also think that’s a reason to be suspicious when people play the “it’s an ad hominem!” card. Maybe what I should have written wasn’t whether ad hominems are really fallacies but instead whether “ad hominem” is overused or whether and in what circumstances invocations of the “personal” actually are relevant to what’s discussed. If I had framed it that way, I might have escaped the (well justified) claim that I’m casting too wide a net here.

    By the way, nice to see you back round these parts!

    Report

    • Gabriel Conroy: By the way, nice to see you back round these parts!

      Kind of you to say so! On the other hand, I won’t take the compliment too personally, since in my observation you’re by nature one of the intellectually more generous souls hereabouts (except maybe when insisting on talking normal dammit).

      Report

  8. I’ll leave it to others to assign labels, but in reading through this I was struck by the connection to voting rights jurisprudence.

    Simply:
    1. It is illegal to pass laws that discriminate on race (or other characteristics).
    2. It is quite possible to write laws with this effect that appear facially neutral (say, closing polling locations in a place that just happens to be 99% black).
    3. These laws are challenged BEFORE they are implemented, so you don’t have direct evidence of discriminatory impact.

    In these circumstances, courts often look to what legislators said to see whether they seem to be huge racists. If so, we assume the law is discriminatory.

    How does this fall for you?

    Report

    • Here’s my stab at it, but you (being a lawyer, correct?) may know better than I.

      What you describe does not strike me as an ad hominem. To my knowledge, in most of those cases, when the courts aren’t looking at effect (e.g., disproportionate impact), they are at intent. They don’t to my knowledge whether the legislators themselves are huge racists. They don’t investigate whether the legislators invite black people over to their house for dinner, say racist things outside the legislative chamber, have black friends, or are members of exclusive social clubs.

      For example, in the case Mike Schilling cited a couple weeks ago, the fourth circuit seems to have based its decision in part on the fact that legislators considered “requested and received racial data as to usage of the practices changed by [their] proposed law.” I read only the excerpt Mike offered and not the whole thing he linked to. There’s probably more to it, but that seems to be an investigation into intent and not the personal attitudes or hypocrisies of legislators.

      Now, if the courts were to examine a law passed by a legislature a majority of whose members were known to be KKK members in their private lives, then maybe their personal racism might be legitimate for judicial scrutiny.

      Report

  9. Just because you don’t have standing doesn’t mean that your advice is worthless. It does mean that it ought to be delivered with a grain of salt (or twenty).

    Report

  10. As with Slippery Slope, Ad Hominem is not necessarily fallacious. If someone’s evidence includes “I’m a trustworthy person”, then showing that they aren’t trustworthy is a valid rebuttal to their argument.

    “You’re an adulterer” is an ad-hom argument. “I think marital fidelity leads to preferable outcomes” is not rebutted by accusations of adultery. “I think marital fidelity leads to preferable outcomes because I practice martial fidelity” is rebutted by accusations of adultery.

    Report

  11. I have said this many, many times on these pages, but once more won’t hurt.

    While ad hominem may be a fallacy, the pointing out of said fallacy is also frequently done fallaciously. Here’s what I see all the time on the intertubes, including here:

    Person A: You should support my position. I should know, because I myself employed my position in my bunnies and I amassed a fortune. If you adopt my position, more people will amass a fortune with wild successful companies like I did.

    Person B: But you don’t have a fortune. Your company wasn’t ever very successful. Every business s you have owned went bankrupt.

    Person A: Ad hominem!

    Too many people rely on the sway of the personality/circumstances of a single person as the base of entire their argument, then claim any criticism of that base to be a logical fallacy.

    Report

    • Or to put it another way, this is an example of an ad hominem fallacy:

      Politician: I believe if we give multi-billion $ corporations more tax credits, there will a trickle down effect that will benefit all.

      Activist: Don’t vote for that plan, because the guy had an affair with his staffer!

      This is not:

      Politician: We need to reject same sex marriage, because anything that goes against what the Bible teaches is about marriage should not be legal.

      Activist: You have three ex-wives, and a string of mistresses, so I believe your argument to be purposefully specious.

      Report

      • This seems obvious. Is it not so to others???

        Discussing the actor is appropriate when doing so is relevant.

        “Listen to me about topic X!”
        “I won’t listen to you about topic X because you have demonstrated yourself to have no knowledge of topic X.”
        Valid.

        “Listen to me about topic X!’
        “I won’t listen to you about topic X because of something you said or did about topic Y, which has no relation to topic X.”
        Invalid.

        Report

        • I don’t think it is obvious, in part because so much of our political battles now resolve around personalities mores than issues, in no small part because that’s what draws eyeballs and sells ad space. Trump is the most fleshed out version of this I’ve ever seen: How often do you ever see his supporters argue his policies, rather than his personality?

          But even though he’s an extreme version, it’s really that way with pretty much everyone now. We don’t really argue religious liberty so much as we argue Kim Davis, Chik-Fill-A, and Khizr Kahn. For good and/or bad.

          Report

          • Interesting. Maybe I just have a different eye then.

            There is nothing about Trump that I like or support. But the moment someone starts talking about his hair or his skin tone, I tune out. They simply don’t matter. They are immaterial to pretty much everything. There is so much to legitimately criticize him about that to focus on superficial crap like that is to say, “I can’t form a better argument,” which ultimately undermines that position… and it is on my side! Similarly with Christie and his weight. Just stop already. The reason to not vote for Christie isn’t because of his waistline.

            And it is especially infuriating when it comes from supposed hardcore liberals who would (rightly) lose their shit if a conservative went off on Obama’s hair/skin tone or Hilary’s weight/body.

            But to your second paragraph, I’m not sure I follow. Yes, there are times we are simply picking sides based on team colors. But at the same time, I think there was some very rich conversation about religious liberty that emerged from Kim Davis or Chik-Fil-A or Khizr Kahn or the “Ground Zero Mosque” or other lightning rod issues.

            Report

          • That’s fair. There are two parts to your example. The first is an argument from biblical authority for position X. The second is a rejection X not on account of the fitness of the argument but owing to an assessment of the intentions of the speaker.

            You have three ex-wives, and a string of mistresses, so I believe your argument to be purposefully specious.

            If the speaker says, “Yes, I fully acknowledge my errors, and in fact, it is because I have personally experienced what happens when the marriage laws are thwarted and undermined that I have come to this position. In fact, not only is “x” wrong, but we need to make “y and z” illegal too.” Then what? Must we believe him? I think not, but your reason for dismissing the argument was ad hominem based on what you thought his intentions obviously were. We are no closer to having proven or disproven the fallacies of position X than we were before we knew his Marital/Sexual history.

            He might even be a better spokesman for that position than some vanilla square who married his high-school sweetheart. But, in either case, the fitness or lack thereof of the man doesn’t address the argument.

            Further, the snippet I quoted wasn’t a “dip for scrip” but really to show that even internal to the fellow’s own argument is a recognition that failure to live up to the law does not make the law invalid or unknowable. Among the Greek’s it was and continues to be discussed as the problem of Akrasia… knowing and doing the right or virtuous thing are not the same. So, even an accusation of hypocrisy doesn’t do to whatever argument he might be making what you imply it does.

            I take CK above to be making a slightly different argument, which is that ad hominem assessments are needed for any assessment of purpose – which I think if entirely unobjectionable, if perhaps not really playing the game that Gabriel lined up. So, we might decide not to engage a thrice married lech (repentant or no) on the topic of x… but that’s just to say that x remains unexamined, and the reason it remains so is on account of the man.

            If, on the other hand, if you are saying “we’ve been over position x many times, and I’ve no intention of wasting my time with that blowhard” Then sure… that’s CK #2/5. But I didn’t get that from your archetypes.

            Report

      • I agree with most of your examples, , but I agree with that your second example from your second comment is an irrelevant ad hominem. Or I believe it might be, but we need more context. At any rate, I don’t believe the relevance of calling out that person’s past marriages and mistresses is obvious.

        If the argument is over whether that politician’s interpretation of what the Bible commands for our legal system is correct, then his personal venality is irrelevant. The activist, of course, is not falling for it, nor should politician expect that of the activist. But I doubt if the activist’s jibe will do more than rally people who already agree with him/her. Or maybe it will sway others. At that point, we’re talking about tactics, such as Pillsy mentioned above, and not necessarily relevancy.

        Or to put a different spin, what if the politician says “We need to reject same sex marriage, because anything that goes against what the Bible teaches is about marriage should not be legal. And for what it’s worth, I admit to violating some of those strictures and under the legal system I support, I would deserve some sanction.” In that case, he is, in a sense, conceding the relevance of the ad hominem, but takes away some of the sting because now the activist has to argue about disingenuousness and not hypocrisy. And disingenuousness is harder to pin down. Not impossible, but harder.

        In my next post, I’ll have a little more to say about how we might engage ad hominems and keep them relevant, or at least limit their irrelevance when they’re used. (All of that depends on whether I’m using a too expansive definition of the term. I’ll have to think on that idea.)

        Report

  12. I’m just now noticing this after some time out of the country. My apologies.

    I am pleased to report that I have had to change my mind: I now support positions if they are held by morally exemplary people. I reject them if they are held by scoundrels.

    Thanks to the sterling examples of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, I am against same-sex marriage, because they are too, and their lives are morally exemplary. They don’t commit adultery. They don’t even fornicate. Their hobbies include teaching people to be peaceful and giving charity to the poor.

    Now prove me wrong. How, I wonder, would you do it? Would you point to the hypocrites?

    If so, we are at an impasse. If we were to evaluate truth this way, if this were to be our method, we would almost never settle on any truths at all, not even provisionally, because we have no means of deciding an issue when both good and bad people can be found on both sides. And that’s the case with a whole lot of issues.

    Report

    • I’ll try to address some (not all) of this in my part 2.

      But for the record, I side more with your way of looking at things than I do the other way, although I’m less against the other way than I was before.

      Frankly, there are too many edge cases for me to endorse the classic view categorically, and I don’t see my way as clearly as some people do.

      ETA: I cited your post for a reason, which is that I largely agree with it.

      Report

      • Or to take a different tack:

        C. S. Lewis (among others, I’m sure) said that faith is continuing to believe what we by reason, logic, and the available evidence tell us to believe, even when circumstances seem to suggest that reason, logic, and the available evidence are all wrong. I guess one way to look at what I’m talking about is a test and/or crisis of faith. I believe ad hominems are generally invalid. (I’m assuming I have defined ad hominems properly, a point some here dispute and with good reason). Yet the world I live in and my daily experience make it tempting to abandon that belief or to act in such a way as if I didn’t believe it.

        Report

        • Good to know. I agree with you, incidentally, that everyone weights the truth value of a new statement to some degree in light of the utterer’s reputation. That’s not crazy. It’s human nature, and if it’s done properly, it can even be entirely rational.

          What’s not proper is to completely dismiss (or accept) any particular statement merely because of a person’s reputation, without reference to the statements plausibility, were it to come from a neutral source.

          Report

  13. Pingback: On Ad Hominems Part 2: Getting Personal With Parameters | Ordinary Times

  14. Pingback: On Ad Hominems Part 2: Getting Personal With Parameters | ePeak.info

Comments are closed.