Ad Hominem

Definition of Ad Hominem

Ad hominem, which stands for the Latin term argumentum ad hominem, is a response to a person’s argument by attacking the person’s character rather than the logic or content of the argument. Ad hominem remarks are often an example of fallacy, because they are irrelevant to the overall argument. However, there are cases in which ad hominem arguments are appropriate. For example, if a person states an opinion and another person calls their credibility into question, this may be a perfectly relevant response that invalidates the opinion.

The Latin term ad hominem means literally “to the man.” Therefore, the definition of the full term argumentum ad hominem means bringing the argument to the person, rather than the argument itself.

Types of Ad Hominem

There are several types of ad hominem arguments that are fallacious:

  • Abusive: This type of ad hominem argument involves attacking the personal traits of a person in order to invalidate his or her arguments.
  • Tu quoque: Tu quoque means “you too” and refers to an argument that someone may make if he or she spots hypocrisy. For example, if Person A tells Person B not to eat so much junk food to improve his health, and Person B points out that Person A also eats a lot of junk food, this is ad hominem tu quoque. Person A is not wrong to advise Person B not to eat junk food, but Person B tries to invalidate this advice by pointing out the hypocrisy.
  • Circumstantial: This type of argument attempts to raise suspicions about the bias of the individual making the original argument. If someone says, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he,” this is ad hominem circumstantial.
  • Guilt by association: This is a case of ad hominem in which Person A makes a similar claim to Person B, who is already viewed in a bad light. Because of the negative associations of Person B, Person A’s argument is also called into question, regardless of whether the argument is sound or not.
  • Ad feminam: This particular type of argument targets women (ad feminam meaning “to the woman”) and invalidates something a woman says by using stereotypes about women to discredit a statement. This is especially common when someone makes an assertion that a woman only gave an argument because she was suffering from PMS and not because she had a legitimate point.

As stated above, there are also examples of ad hominem that are not fallacious.

Common Examples of Ad Hominem

It is common to find examples of ad hominem arguments in political debates. Here are some examples of the different types of ad hominem from politicians:

  • Circumstantial/guilt by association: Barack Obama in 2012 about Mitt Romney: Now, Governor Romney has taken a different approach throughout this campaign. Both at home and abroad, he has proposed wrong and reckless policies. He’s praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who has—shows great wisdom and judgment.
  • Guilt by association: Rand Paul to Chris Christie in 2015: “I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.”
  • Ad feminam: Donald Trump in 2015, after being asked about Megyn Kelly’s questions for him in a presidential debate: “”You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.”

Significance of Ad Hominem in Literature

Authors generally use ad hominem examples in their works of literature to point out the biases of characters. When the reader is able to see the way that certain characters attack or criticize other characters there is a clearer understanding of the personality and motivations of that initial character. When a character engages in ad hominem attacks, the reader is less likely to trust that character.

Examples of Ad Hominem in Literature

Example #1

BRABANTIO: A maiden never bold,
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. And she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, everything,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on?
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err.
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell
Why this should be. I therefore vouch again
That with some mixtures powerful o’er the blood
Or with some dram, conjured to this effect,
He wrought upon her.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

Desdemona’s father Brabantio doubts that she could have fallen in love with Othello through natural means. Thus, he questions Othello’s methods and character, guessing that Othello used “some mixtures” or “some dram” to make her fall in love. His arguments are unfounded, and Desdemona disabuses him of his biases.

Example #2

“Hester Prynne,” said [Governor Bellingham], fixing his naturally stern regard on the wearer of the scarlet letter, “there hath been much question concerning thee, of late. The point hath been weightily discussed, whether we, that are of authority and influence, do well discharge our consciences by trusting an immortal soul, such as there is in yonder child, to the guidance of one who hath stumbled and fallen, amid the pitfalls of this world. Speak thou, the child’s own mother! Were it not, thinkest thou, for thy little one’s temporal and eternal welfare, that she be taken out of thy charge, and clad soberly, and disciplined strictly, and instructed in the truths of Heaven and earth? What canst thou do for the child, in this kind?”

(The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

This is an interesting ad hominem example in that it’s not necessarily fallacious reasoning. Governor Bellingham is certainly being unfair to Hester Prynne and using arguments about her character against her. Thus, this could be considered abusive or ad feminam. However, the argument in question is whether Hester Prynne is a fit mother to raise a child in the church, and thus in this case the Puritans of the day would consider argument based on Prynne’s moral character to be quite relevant.

Example #3

As [Tom] left the room again [Daisy] got up and went over to Gatsby and pulled his face down kissing him on the mouth.
“You know I love you,” she murmured.
“You forget there’s a lady present,” said Jordan.
Daisy looked around doubtfully.
“You kiss Nick too.”
“What a low, vulgar girl!”
“I don’t care!” cried Daisy…

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This is a light example of tu quoque reasoning. When Jordan Baker professes to be embarrassed to witness Daisy and Jay Gatsby together, Daisy retorts that Jordan kisses Nick too. This is irrelevant, as neither Jordan nor Nick is married, unlike Daisy. The impropriety of Daisy’s actions has nothing to do with the courtship between Jordan and Nick.

Example #4

“And so a quiet, respectable, humble Negro who had the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman has had to put his word against two white people. I need not to remind of their appearance and conduct on the stand—you saw them for yourselves. The witness for the state, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption that one associates with minds of their calibre.”

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

In his closing speech to the court, Atticus Finch points out the unfair ad hominem arguments being used against his client, Tom Robinson. The prosecution used arguments that involved, as Atticus says, “the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption that one associates with minds of their calibre.” As a lawyer, Atticus had put up with many types of arguments in his career, and loathed the illogical and fallacious reasoning that his opponents used.

Test Your Knowledge of Ad Hominem

1. Which of the following statements is the best ad hominem definition?
A. An argument that is backed up by evidence and logic.
B. An argument that attacks a person’s character rather than the validity of his or her point.
C. An argument that is a lie.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following is not a type of ad hominem attack?
A. Pathetic fallacy
B. Abusive
C. Ad feminam

Answer to Question #2 Show

Which of the two people in this argument use ad hominem?

Person A: You should really wear a helmet when you go out bicycling.
Person B: I’ve never seen you wear a helmet.

A. Person A
B. Person B
C. Both A and B

Answer to Question #3 Show

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