Character Attacks: How to Properly Apply the Ad Hominem

A new theory parses fair from unfair uses of personal criticism in rhetoric

A DOCTOR tells her patient to lose weight, and the patient thinks: “If my doctor really believed that, she wouldn’t be so fat.” A movie aficionado pans the latest Tom Cruise flick because Cruise is a Scientologist. A home­owner ignores a neighbor’s advice on lawn care because the neighbor is a ... you name it: Democrat, ­Re­publican, Christian or atheist. These examples illustrate classic uses of ad hominem attacks, in which an argument is rejected, or advanced, based on a personal characteristic of an individual rather than on reasons for or against the claim itself.

Putting the focus on the arguer or person being discussed can distract us from the issues that matter. Rather than concentrating on an individual’s character, we should, in these cases, be asking ourselves questions such as, Is the doctor’s advice medically sound? Is the Cruise film entertaining? Is the neighbor’s lawn healthy? Meanwhile ad hominem attacks can also unfairly discredit an individual, especially because such critiques are often effective.

Although ad hominem arguments have long been considered errors in reasoning, a recent analysis suggests that this is not always the case. In his new book, Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric, University of Winnipeg philosopher Douglas Walton proposes that fallacies such as the ad hominem are better understood as perversions or corruptions of perfectly good arguments. Regarding the ad hominem, Walton contends that although such attacks are usually fallacious, they can be legitimate when a character critique is directly or indirect­ly related to the point being articulated.

If Walton is right, distinguishing clearly between these cases is important to evaluating the validity of statements people make to us about others. Good or fair uses of ad hominem critiques should, in fact, persuade us, whereas unwarranted uses should not.

Which ad hominem arguments should we aim to ignore? In the so-called abusive ad hominem, someone argues that because a person has a bad character, we should not accept that person’s claims. For instance, during the presidential campaign of 1800, John Adams was called “a fool, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” His rival, Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was deemed “an uncivilized atheist, anti-American, a tool for the godless French.” Accusations like these can easily foreclose on intelligent political discourse about what might make either candidate a good president.

Another illegitimate form of the ad hominem is the tu quoque, or “you, too” version, which is an attempt to discredit a person’s claims because the person has failed to follow his or her own advice. The example of the overweight doctor prescribing weight loss falls into this category. Its use is unfair because, after all, there are good reasons for losing weight, and the fact that a doctor has not managed to heed her own advice should not dissuade others from trying to follow it.

The Cruise attack, on the other hand, exemplifies “poisoning the well,” another brand of ad hominem attacks in which the character assault is launched before the listener has a chance to form his or her own opinion on a subject—in this case, Cruise’s film. If successful, the reminder that Cruise is affiliated with Scientology will bias the listener against the movie. This partiality is unjustified, because Cruise’s religious affiliation is not germane to his acting abilities or the entertainment value of his movie.

Fair Use
What types of ad hominems might then be justified? Walton argues that  an ad hominem is valid when the claims made about a person’s character or actions are relevant to the conclusions being drawn. Consider, for example, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who was caught on a wiretap arranging to hire a prostitute for $4,300. Because this behavior ran counter to Spitzer’s anticorruption platform, its unveiling would prevent Spitzer from governing successfully; thus, criticizing this aspect of his character was relevant and fair. In an earlier scandal, in 1987, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was seen at a motel with a prostitute. Because his behavior undercut his preaching and status as a Christian role model, a character attack based on this incident would have been spot-on.

This article was originally published with the title "Perspectives: Character Attacks."

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