1: marked by an attack on an opponent's character rather than by an answer to the contentions made

2: appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect

 


As the Latin phrase suggests, the typical ad hominem argument boils down an attack on the man. Such an attack might go something like this: "Bob is such a jerk that there's no use believing anything he says."

In fact, Bob's supposed repugnance may or may not have anything to do with the soundness of a particular case Bob makes.

Thus, it's valuable to be able to identify an ad hominem attack and discredit it. However, as Aristotle pointed out, an audience is not merely persuaded by logic alone. We are moved by our own emotions (pathos) and the character (ethos) of the speakers and/or writers in a debate.

Perhaps the most stirring ad hominem attack in recent American political memory took place during the 1988 presidential election, when Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen squared off against Indiana Republican Dan Quayle (both were candidates for vice-president). Quayle, arguably one of the most dismal figures in our nation's political history, had pointed out during a televised debate that his years of experience were comparable to those of John F. Kennedy when Kennedy became president. Whether it was planned or not, Bentsen's retort was staggering—the equivalent of a rhetorical knockout punch. Click on the image in the middle column to listen to Bentsen's brief but devastating blow.

In some cases, an ad hominem argument seems almost inescapably fitting. For instance, in Paul Fussell's forceful essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb," Fussell attacks the arguments of several writers who believe that the United States erred in dropping atomic weapons on Japan. Fussell's position is that as ineffably horrific as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, defeating the Japanese by conventional means would have been even more so—for all sides.


To make his case, Fussell draws upon his personal experience on the front lines in Europe, and he points out that critics of dropping the bomb almost uniformly did NOT experience the brutality of war firsthand. Fussell is so annoyed by his opponents that his own arguments spill into ad hominem, as he acknowledges:

What did he [Galbraith] do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.

And later:

Likewise, the historian Michael Sherry, author of a recent book on the rise of the American bombing mystique, The Creation of Armageddon, argues that we didn’t delay long enough between the test explosion in New Mexico and the mortal explosions in Japan. More delay would have made possible deeper moral considerations and perhaps laudable second thoughts and restraint. “The risks of delaying the bomb’s use,” he says would have been small—not the thousands of casualties expected of invasion but only a few days or weeks of relatively routine operations.” While the mass murders represented by these “relatively routine operations" were enacting, Michael Sherry was safe at home. Indeed when the bombs were dropped he was going on eight months old, in danger only of falling out of his pram. In speaking thus of Galbraith and Sherry, I’m aware of the offensive implications ad hominem. But what’s at stake in an infantry assault is so entirely unthinkable to those without the experience of one, or several, or many, even if they possess very wide-ranging imaginations and warm sympathies, that experience is crucial in this case.