Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
Ad Hominem Attacks
Written by Tim Gier
Spend any time online and sooner or later you will witness someone accuse someone else of using an Ad Hominem attack. Most of the time, the accuser is mistaken. Consider the following two examples:
1. “Prof. Guy Frangelini is abrasive, arrogant, egotistical and mean-spirited. Given that, I choose to avoid him and his most loyal followers at all costs.”
2. “Brian Friedman is a ‘new-welfarist’ so, of course, he supports ‘cage-free’ eggs. I don’t care what he says.”
Now, it may appear that the first of these is the Ad Hominem while the second is not. However, the opposite is actually the case. The second example is the Ad Hominem, not the first. Here’s why.
An Ad Hominem is used to discount a person’s argument or opinion based on an irrelevancy. So, in the second example, the fact that Friedman may be a “new-welfarist” has no bearing on whether his arguments in support of “cage-free” eggs have merit. That is, if one assumes that just in case another is a “new-welfarist” that therefore another’s opinion is invalid, a fallacy has been committed. It may well be that Friedman’s arguments in support of “cage-free” eggs are not good arguments, but one cannot know in advance of hearing the arguments whether that is the case. “New-welfarists” are certainly capable of making good arguments, and just in case someone is a “new-welfarist” cannot mean that they are necessarily wrong about anything. Whenever you hear, or read, someone saying something to the effect that “Of course he would say that, what would you expect?” you ought to be on the lookout for the Ad Hominem.
Now, as for the first example, it’s simply a matter of personal opinion whether Prof. Frangelini is abrasive, arrogant, egotistical and mean-spirited. If a person finds him to be those things, then certainly they have the right to say so, and to avoid him and his associates should they so choose. Notice, in the first example the opinions and positions of Frangelini are not at issue. It is not being said, “The guy is a jerk therefore his opinions are worthless.” All that is being said is that the guy is a jerk. It’s just like saying that avocados taste like crap.
It is a common misconception that any negative statement about another person's character constitutes an Ad Hominem. That is not the case, and that misconception leads to many people unknowingly committing the actual fallacy.
For instance, one need only to venture into certain Facebook pages to see prominent people with the online animal activist community say such things as "We don't pay attention to anything said on ARZone because ARZone is 'new-welfarist,' anti-abolitionist and pro-violent." Now, even if any of those three terms had any actual objective, real meaning, which they do not, by saying these things people who are otherwise presumably intelligent are committing a fallacy. That is, they are ignoring, discounting and avoiding the arguments made on ARZone based on irrelevant alleged traits. This is not the same as saying, for example, that "I don't like to talk to Tim because he's a jerk" -- my being a jerk has nothing to do with the cogency of my arguments, and someone not wanting to talk to me because I am a jerk says nothing about their thoughts on my arguments. It's just a value judgment. In the prior example, the claims about "new-welfarist", etc., are specifically invoked to render any arguments moot - they are not simply insults (though they are that) they are insults with the intent to forestall discussion and to dissuade anyone from engaging with the actual arguments. It's a cheap trick made all the more cheap when those same people complain about others "being mean". In other words, when I say that I think that Prof. Guy Frangelini is abrasive, arrogant, etc, I still give him his due as a person with opinions and arguments worth addressing. I just happen not to like the guy. Those who commit the Ad Hominem don't give others their due, they don't treat the opinions and arguments of others with respect - they don't really think others are their equals, they treat them with disdain. Funny that, in a movement that is supposed to be based on mutual appreciation and equal consideration!