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The Ad Hominem

The term “ad hominem” is a Latin phrase that translates to “against the man” (Hacker, 2003, p. 53). It is one of several logical fallacies that may appear (intentionally or otherwise) in the rhetorical mode of writing or speaking known as Argument. The use of the ad hominem indicates that an argument (or counter-argument) is focusing not on the issue or cause, but on the issue’s presenter, and it generally takes the form of a personal attack of the presenter’s character.

The soundest ad hominem attacks are made up of two steps. The first step is to discredit the speaker/presenter/sponsor, and the second step is to imply that because the speaker/presenter/sponsor is a “bad” person, the issue or cause must be bad as well. For example, two politicians are debating a public school bond issue, and the facts prove that the bond’s cost will far outweigh the anticipated minimal benefits—benefits that have not been shown to occur in other similar communities.

There is no logical argument the opponent can find for citizen’s to support the bond issue, so he turns to a personal attack of his opponent. He points out that his opponent had no school-aged children, and that because of this, his opponent has no vested interest in the success or failure of the community’s public school system. The hope is that people will equate one’s lacking school-aged children with one’s inability to access a public school bond issue properly. The ad hominem fallacy may also infiltrate the average person’s decision making process absent obvious prompting.

For example, famous people—athletes, movie stars, etc. —are often used to promote products or to sponsor events. The presumption of the part of the advertiser or event promoter is that fans of the famous person will become fans of the advertiser’s/promoter’s product or cause based (almost exclusively) on that famous person’s appeal as a performer—not on the strength of the product or the validity of the cause.

Reference

Hacker, D. (2003). Ad hominem. In A writer’s reference (5th ed. ). Boston: Bedford. p. 53

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