& Thales' Press: In Praise of the Ad Hominem Argument...Maybe

Friday, September 08, 2006

In Praise of the Ad Hominem Argument...Maybe

I want to pass an idea by you for your consideration. You might be surprised by it. In fact, you might be a little shocked. But here goes: I'm not so sure the ad hominem argument is such a bad thing. I know what you're thinking...ad hominem...yessiree...you're not really into that kind of stuff.

Maybe I should explain a little more. Let's recall what Mrs. Jones taught us in our third grade logic class.

"Class, denying the truth of a proposition based on the character, principles, or passions of the person who made the assertion constitutes an attack 'to the man' [Editor's note: ad hominem is Latin for "to the man." University professors like to assign Latin or Greek names to concepts to add further to their already antiquated and musty odor.], a logical fallacy, as opposed to attacking the validity and soundness of the arguments that lead to the assertion."

So, for example, if the Devil said, "2+2=4", her [Editor's note: in fairness to the Devil, I'm now asserting the politically correct pronoun.] character should not cause me to deny this assertion.

But I think I'm questioning that way of thinking now.

In the example above, the Devil (who does wear Prada, by the way) simply states something that is known to be true independent of her character. We all know that 2+2=4 regardless of who says it or if anybody ever says it all. Our own unique rational experience confirms this statement independently of anyone else. We even confirm our own counting experiences based on this rational experience. If, per chance, you picked up 2 apples and placed them in your little yellow basket, then picked up 2 more apples, you would be astonished to find something other than 4 apples in your basket. You might look for a hole in the basket (if you had less than 4), or you might postulate that some weird, extremely rapid cellular mitosis had occurred (if you had more than 4). Your anomalous experience doesn't cause you to question the laws of number theory. Number theory causes you to seek explanations for the unexpected outcomes. I am beginning to digress a little.

But what about cases where a person asserts something that has an unconfirmed standing, and the assertion relates to areas that are very difficult to demonstrate empirically or require tricky bits of reasoning to affirm? Suppose that this person was one of a few if not the only person to have observed the phenomenon or had the insight into the questions for which he is bringing forth answers. And furthermore, what if that person were known to have made lapses of moral judgment, maybe really big lapses? Obviously, if such a person could compromise sound reasoning in one important area of his life, he quite clearly could compromise sound reasoning in others. In this particular case, it seems to me that the potential veracity of difficult arguments is dependent in some way on the character of the person making the claim. Doesn't that seem reasonable? Can't you see yourself thinking that since a person is a jerk in some areas of his life, you probably can't trust him in others? It's tempting, isn't it?

OK. I admit. I do think the ad hominem argument is a logical fallacy. I really honestly think that claims of truth should be accepted on the basis of logical or empirical integrity. When people of questionable integrity make claims of truth, we probably shouldn't deny the claims outright, although we should definitely add a grain or two of salt.

But I set this situation up to help you, you who are rational, see how many who are not rational think. Whether it's rational or not, our character is often regarded as a proxy for the truth. Decision making leadership requires credibility, and credibility requires sound character...whether that follows the rules of logic or not.


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