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Why Writers Should Avoid the Ad Hominem Fallacy

If you’re writing a piece criticizing someone else’s position – a perfectly legitimate piece to write – the best way you can delegitimize your own argument is by employing an ad hominem fallacy.

That’s because ad hominem fallacies don’t actually criticize someone’s position. They criticize someone, belittling them in order to devalue what they believe.

It can be an exceptionally effective way of operating. But it’s far from an ethical or intellectually honorable one.

It therefore makes sense that it’s categorized as a “logical fallacy” – a way of arguing that scores points through misdirection rather than an honest meeting of the minds. That’s why you’ll often see crooked politicians, dishonest media members, unethical lawyers and emotional arguers employ ad hominem attacks.

I include emotional arguers – a personal and often temporary classification – in the same category as such well-recognized and unlikable professional subsets because they fit far too well together in this case. Each and every one of them is putting their agenda above their character.

Whether it’s because they’re flustered in the moment or natural pros doesn’t matter. They’re still trying to win without putting the necessary intellectual effort into actually proving their point.

Here are three very basic examples of ad hominem fallacies:

  • You can’t dispute this medical opinion. You’re not a doctor.

  • The defendant says the evidence points toward guilt, but she was kicked out of Yale.

  • He’s a man. Therefore he doesn’t have a say in the matter.

Now, in the first case, the person might not be as informed about the medical opinion without a medical degree. But that’s not an automatic definite.

In the second, being kicked out of Yale doesn’t prove or disprove the defendant’s statement.

As for the third, the conclusion is that, because of physical characteristics the “he” in question was born with, he can’t have an opinion about anything female related.

None of those points address the actual arguments, which means they can’t really refute or even counter them. No matter how they sound like they are.

Writers should always strive to avoid using ad hominem attacks. They’re beneath us as intellectuals and as decent human beings.

As intellectuals, we should always seek to build the most logically unassailable arguments we can. In short, we should use our brains. And getting petty by making it needlessly personal is about as emotion-based a tactic as we can possibly stoop to: the very opposite of academic.

As for the decent human beings angle, well… that entails seeking to build our fellow humans up, not tear them down.

To be clear, it is okay to question someone’s qualifications, character or perspective. But we need to do so in a relevant way. Taking the three ad hominem fallacies from before, we can easily employ those arguments without straining our own credibility by making a few changes.

For instance:

  • Since you’re not a doctor, you probably didn’t get the hands-on experience that lends credence to this medical opinion.

  • The defendant was kicked out of Yale on repeated credible charges of plagiarism, indicating that she does have a history of lying.

  • As a man, he cannot understand exactly what it’s like to go through this female-specific situation.

Those points could be genuinely relevant given the circumstances. In which case, fair enough – just as long as they’re also followed up or preceded by other points. They can’t be the only arguments we employ.

I’d even suggest that they shouldn’t be the main ones we employ. Ad hominem arguments should be secondary.

And ad hominem fallacies shouldn’t be put into play at all.

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