Character Attacks: How to Properly Apply the Ad Hominem

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

In another case, when President Bill Clinton fibbed on national television about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, accusations that he was a liar were not entirely unjust. Although a supporter might argue that Clinton’s sex life was not directly relevant to his ability to govern, his ability to adhere to the truth could certainly be, and his willingness to lie on this occasion could call into question the veracity of his remarks on other subjects.

Of course, we should not discount everything any person says, no matter how badly he or she has been discredited. The fact that a person lies or behaves improperly on one occasion does not mean that he or she lies or behaves inappropriately all the time. Again, a critique of a person’s character should not prevent further examination of the arguments at hand. After all, which position is right is usually independent of a person’s character or conduct.

Being aware of how the ad hominem attack works can help us evaluate which instances of its use we should ignore and which we should consider. Ask yourself: How relevant is a political candidate’s character or action to his or her ability to perform in office? How pertinent is any person’s past or group affiliation to the claims that person makes or to that individual’s expertise in a specific domain? If the character-based attacks are not relevant to these larger issues, then they are best ignored. Instead we should attend to what is really important: What is a person asserting? Why does he or she offer a particular view, and is the view defensible?

This story was originally printed with the title, "Character Attacks".

(Further Reading)

  • Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric. Douglas Walton. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Becoming a Critical Thinker: A User Friendly Manual. Fifth edition. Sherry Diestler. Prentice Hall, 2008.

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

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