You're Ugly and Your Mama Dresses You Funny

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The term ad hominem is much misunderstood these days. In popular usage, it’s a personal attack leveled against someone you disagree with. Many never use the term without appending the word attack. “It’s nothing but an ad hominem attack,” they complain, as though an ad hominem is a nasty species of attack that automatically disproves every claim the user ever made. (And is it just me or does just about everybody employ “ad homnem attacks” even though they insist nobody else should?)

My aim here is to clarify a few things about the much misunderstood ad hominem.

It’s an argument.

First, the ad hominem is an argument, a bit of reasoning employed to support or counter a claim. Specifically, ad hominem looks to some trait an individual possesses (usually a flaw) to show that a claim is false (or, less commonly, that a claim is true). Ad hominem means “to the man,” and as a form of argument it is not inherently invalid or improper—or even impolite.

Most of us would recognize the ad hominem in Jesus’ use of “brood of vipers!” (e.g., Luke 3:7) and His repeated “woe to you…hypocrites!” (Matt. 23). But He was also using ad hominem reasoning when He referred to the publican and observed that he, sinner though he was, went home justified rather than the Pharisee (Luke 18:14). Jesus basically argued that the publican had made a claim to repentance and that because he demonstrated humility, we should accept that claim as true. This is what repentant people are like.

The apostles frequently used ad hominem reasoning as well. The epistle we know as 2 Corinthians is packed with ad hominem reasoning, both positive and negative (though Paul expresses some embarrassment about using the method to praise himself).

And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (ESV, 2 Cor. 11:12–15)

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers (11:23–26)

It’s seductive.

Though the ad hominem can be a legitimate form of reasoning, sinners have a strong and twisted attraction to it. Our inclination to use it generally exceeds both utility and propriety. If we blindly heed its allure, we soon find that the argument we thought was so devastating is, in reality, embarrassingly self-defeating. We also quickly slip from pursuit of truth and defense of the right into all the ugly stuff the NT warns us to put away from ourselves.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Col. 3:5–8)

We only too easily convince ourselves that we’re doing something necessary and noble, when our words are really nothing more than pride and malice lashing out.

The ad hominem is frequently also the refuge of the intellectually lazy. The term “cheap shot” is well known in our language because we all recognize how easy it is to find some flaw in any human being then draw attention to that flaw instead of offering a relevant response to the claims on the table. It’s so easy to find fault with people we disagree with, we start doing it when we’re toddlers. As children, we’re told that sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us. The myth comes to us early because the experience of painful words comes to us so early.

Faced with an opportunity to let a juicy ad hominem fly at a foe, we do well to soberly ask ourselves some questions. Am I taking a legitimate point too far and making a fool of myself? Am I just being lazy? Am I simply revealing my inner ugliness?

It’s usually a fallacy.

In addition to the moral and spiritual hazards, the ad hominem is also usually a failure of logic. It has long topped the list of most common fallacies. But if it’s possible to use ad hominem reasoning in a way that is both morally right and logically valid, what distinguishes ad hominem arguments from ad hominem fallacies?

In a word, relevance. As with most fallacies, the ad hominem variety attempts to support a conclusion by means of premises that do not truly relate in a proving way. Simplified a bit, the ad hominem reasons something like this:

  • Jethro claims wire-rimmed glasses are of the devil.
  • Jethro is a self-serving egotist.
  • Therefore Jethro’s claim is false.

Stated that way, it’s evident that something doesn’t add up, but the error lies mostly in an unstated premise. (These unstated, often unrecognized, premises are usually the culprits in fallacies.) The chain of reasoning in this example actually goes like this:

  • Jethro claims wire-rimmed glasses are of the devil.
  • Jethro is a self-serving egotist.
  • Self-serving egotists are always wrong about wire-rimmed glasses (and/or what’s “of the devil”).
  • Therefore Jethro’s claim is false.

Forced out of hiding, we can see that the third premise is necessary to the argument as a whole, but is clearly shaky. Are self-serving egotists really incapable of saying anything true about glasses or the devil? Even if we consider probability rather than formal validity, are proud and selfish people less likely to utter true statements about glasses or the devil? Clear thinking requires us to acknowledge that though ol’ Jethro may still be wrong, his character problems are not relevant to the truth or falsehood of his claim.

These days, we often intensify the distraction value of the ad hominem by making a character accusation that is heavily emotionally freighted. If someone is a “bigot,” or a “racist,” or a “homophobe,” or a “sexist,” he can pretty much be counted on to have nothing true or important to say about anything. As a society, we’re often so dazzled by the accusation itself, we don’t even bother to find out if it’s true, much less consider whether it has any relevance to the question at hand.

It’s sometimes legitimate.

If ad hominem arguments are likely to be fallacious, when might it be legitimate to use one? At least three situations are evident.

1. When character is the whole point.

Sometimes character is central to the point in dispute, making ad hominem reasoning inherently relevant. In judicial confirmation hearings, for example, the character of the individual being considered for high office is crucial. When Anita Hill’s accusations came to light during the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings, opinions were strongly divided regarding the assertions and the evidence behind them, but few doubted their relevance.

2. When countering character-based arguments.

Whenever someone suggests that his or her claims should be accepted as true because they said so, they have taken the debate into ad hominem territory. It’s often appropriate to do that. “Take it from me; I know” is a strong argument coming from a brain surgeon who is discussing a characteristic of the human brain. Still, he has invited ad hominem counter arguments. Opponents may legitimately argue that the doc’s claims are false on the grounds that he has actually performed very few surgeries or that he’s actually a veterinarian.

Similarly, when Jesus publicly lambasted the Pharisees, their true character was not only relevant in the question of their fitness for leadership (scenario 1), but was also central to their claims about themselves. They claimed to be examples of righteousness whose teaching should be accepted on the grounds of their personal virtue. By using character-based arguments they opened the door for character-based rebuttals.

3. When rousing the already-convinced to action.

Though temptation abounds to misuse this method, pathos-heavy arguments such as the ad hominem are sometimes necessary to move people to do something about a problem or an evil. The ad hominem—especially in its usual negative form—evokes strong emotion by its very nature. It instantly provokes defensive responses from those in the verbal crosshairs, making it of little value for persuading the objects of criticism of anything (other than the need to fight back). But offered to observers who are already opposed to the ideas or actions of the criticism, the ad hominem can effectively motivate action.

The ad hominem can be used well. But because it is so easy to abuse and overuse, because it tends to stir up unfruitful emotional reactions, and because the Web and social media are so full of poorly-informed ranting and raving already (all in a culture dominated by sentimentalism), the Comment Policy at SharperIron discourages use of it (“Focus on ideas” and item C). I for one, believe we’d be better off if ad hominem arguments never appeared here at all. But we do not ban it outright. Here, as in “real life,” there is no substitute for wise self-regulation.

Aaron Blumer Bio


Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.

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