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That May Be, But You're Still Wrong

August 27, 2009
 by Kimberly Ruff


It has become commonplace in politics to focus on the speaker rather than their points. In this article, Kim Ruff explores the logical fallacy politicians use to win a debate.

Several years ago, my mother and I were involved in a car accident in which another driver ran a red light, ricocheted off our vehicle, and rolled into a crosswalk hitting two pedestrians, one who later died as a result of her injuries. Months later, when the guilty driver was called into a deposition with the insurance companies, he argued that he was not at fault for the accident. His reason? Because, I’m a bad person.

This type of argument – called an argumentum ad hominem – is popular in politics. Rather than focus on the issue at hand and debate its merits, we instead turn our focus on the character of the person discussing the issue. While we may have successfully shown someone as being less than exemplary in their moral or social standing, we still have not successfully refuted their claims. Instead, their arguments go unaddressed and oftentimes, totally ignored.

When the argumentum ad hominem rears its ugly head in debate, we can oftentimes spot it.

For example, political candidate X might say, “I agree that healthcare needs to be reformed, but I disagree with the President’s plan. Using the federal government as the agent of reform is a bad idea. The failure of other government programs, like Social Security, is illustrative of what a poor substitute government is for the free market.” To which political candidate Y might respond, “The only reason why candidate X disagrees with the President’s plan is because he is a bigot.”

Even if it were true that Candidate X were a bigot, it does not change the fact that he made a good point worth addressing. Rather than doing so, Candidate Y opts for the one-two-punch of bad logic, hoping this character assassination will take Candidate X’s argument with it.

Yet not all uses of the argumentum ad hominem are as obvious as above. Some are as simple as, “Candidate P is not a parent and therefore unqualified to suggest all day kindergarten is a waste of taxpayer money.” While it is true that Candidate P is not a parent, it does not make it true that she is unqualified to claim all day kindergarten is a waste of taxpayer money. If Candidate P made a careful study of the data and concluded that there is no evidence to suggest a statistically significant difference in test scores between students who had all day kindergarten and students who did not, then she is qualified to speak on the issue.

Despite the logical fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem, it plagues our political landscape. Whether its politicians who dismiss rather than discuss, or pundits who opt for ratings over rationality, bad logic abounds. While it is disturbing enough that this has become the level of political discourse in our country, it is even more frightening when we consider that this type of assassination is why good ideas die.

Related Content:

Why We Shouldn't Abandon Our Principles - Kimberly Ruff
I'm Mad as Hell and I'm Not Gonna Listen Anymore! - Kimberly Ruff
Un-American Attacks on Health Care Reform - Nick Coons

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[Thanks for the advice about the links.]Anonymous, you sesgugt that the fallacy of ad hominem sesgugts Stalin being a blood-soaked murdering swine should not discredit his argements about motorbikes. Strictly speaking this is true, although intellectual hygiene might sesgugt that one should take any arguments from such a man with at least a pinch of salt, and one certainly shouldn't turn your back when considering his arguments. Good logic means never dropping the full context.The greater point is that while your argument may be strictly true for the case you raise, the case you raise is not the one I argued. I was not talking about 'someone talking about motorbikes' but about judging a person's character. That is the argument's subject: character, and what do someone's arguments and behaviour show about their character. Specifically, what I was pointing out was that abuse per se is not ad hominem when the abuse is justified -- a point far too widely misunderstood. And frankly, evaluating people as, for example, trolls, evasive creeps, off-the-wall conspiracy theorists, or just boring apologists for the above is not just excellent intellectual hygiene, but the precursor for the necessary evasive actions.

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