Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Ad Hominem Arguments and a “Hermeneutics of Suspicion”

In the comments section of another post on this blog, 1 commenter (X) refused to get books on logic recommended by another commenter(Y) because X said Y had previously proven untrustworthy in book recommendations and because Y thought a 3rd individual (Z) was a major religious and political authority, but X distrusted Z enormously.  Y accused X of making the logical fallacy called an Ad Hominem  argument–an attack against the person’s character rather than against said person’s arguments.  Y is right about Ad Hominem arguments: Logicians consider it a major logical fallacy.  Person 1 says that something (e.g., a tax to improve public libraries) is a good thing and should be supported. If Person 2 replies that one should oppose the tax not because of sound reasons (e.g., it will cost too much; it’s the wrong kind of tax; the project is unworthy; the project can be funded in better ways–all logical lines of argument if true) but because Person 1 is (supposedly) a scoundrel who cheats at cards, that’s an ad hominem and does not advance a debate.

But are there limits to the strictures of the ad hominem rule?  What if someone HAS proved to be unreliable on something before or does have a bad character. Don’t we all listen to a person whom we distrust with more suspicion than we otherwise would?  Outside of formal debate, we do this all the time.  Sometimes it is clearly unjustified–and may even be sheer prejudice.  But at other times, such suspicion is surely justified.  If politician P introduces legislation L that financially benefits one of P’s major financial contributors (FC), L may still be a good bill that deserves to become law. But if we the voters (V) find out about FC’s contributions and the way they benefit from L, V will be displeased. V will suspect that L is some kind of kickback for FC’s contributions. At the very least, V will want to give L closer scrutiny before supporting it.

Book recommendations are not a formal debate.  So, I am not sure commenter X on my blog was technically guilty of an ad hominem or not. (He seemed rather to attribute guilt by association–another fallacy–in dismissing Y’s recommendations because of Y’s admiration for Z.)  We listen to those whom we like about books, music, –all kinds of things–more than we do those whom we dislike. That may mean that in certain cases we miss out on some good books, music, or other advice. But it isn’t exactly a logical fallacy in the same way as an attack on a person as a means of defeating an argument would be.

Comments? Queries? Rebuttals? Is there a place for allowing character to influence how seriously we take another’s arguments? If there is such a place, when does it cross the line to actual ad hominem attacks?


November 16, 2007 - Posted by | logic


  1. I generally agree with what you have written, but I do think that the fact that we do dismiss people’s arguments on the basis of distrust or prejudice is a problem that we should lament. This seems particularly problematic in our political process (especially now). If something is proposed by a Democrat or is a supposedly Democratic idea, then a conservative may dismiss it out of hand; and vice versa. It happens too much. We do need to get back to the place educationally where rules of logic like ad hominems are ingrained in our minds and we evaluate all ideas on the basis of their validity, not on who proposes them.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | November 16, 2007

  2. Comment: Great Post, I agree 100%

    Queries: Do you feel that people who have a little (as opposed to a lotta) knowledge concerning logic have a tendency to run amok and accuse *everyone* and *everything* of fallacious reasoning?

    I believe that personal opinions get misidentified as ad hominem attacks far too often. For example, if X calls Y a jerk and Y responds by accusing X of ad hominem argumentation even though the comment was not made to oppose an argument but rather to express an opinion, then Y has leveled an invalid accusation.

    Rebuttals: The defense rests your honor. 🙂

    *intentional hyperbole*

    Comment by Nick Norelli | November 17, 2007

  3. Agreed. I think it’s okay to be suspicious of one’s recommendations based what one feels are poor recommendations in the past, but perhaps one might keep such opinions to one’s self. Or at least not announced publicly. I’m not sure how helpful such opinions are when publicly announced.

    When it comes to argumentation, however, one must be absolutely fair to the argument. If a person has made poor arguments in the past, we can be suspicious going into their latest argument, but we cannot simply reject it based on our suspicion. They may make a sound argument this time around.

    Comment by Pat McCullough | November 25, 2007

  4. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

    Comment by Idetrorce | December 15, 2007

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