How many times have you seen a variation of this exchange?
Person A: “That argument’s been disproven repeatedly, you blithering nincompoop.”
Person B: “Oh, sure, bring out the ad hominems when you haven’t got a leg to stand on.”
That’s by far the most common use of the phrase ad hominem, to mean “personal insult.” In this case, Person B is using it to indicate that Person A‘s argument is obviously without merit.
That is, in fact, the opposite of what ad hominem means.
The term ad hominem means “to the man”, and refers to the logical fallacy of addressing not the argument being made, but the person making the argument. Arguing the person, not the point. The classic form is something like “Why should we believe you about economics when everyone knows you cheat on your spouse and/or follow an unpopular religion?” Those things have nothing to do with this unfaithful Mennonite’s points about economics, but they cast him in a bad light, hopefully making him sound less credible.
In other words, “Your argument is wrong because you’re a dumbass” is an ad hominem. “Your argument is wrong, therefore you’re a dumbass” is absolutely not.
To return to our original example, A is in fact, addressing the argument being put forth by B, stating that it has been repeatedly proven false. A is also suggesting, correctly or not, that B is a blithering nincompoop. B, however, is ignoring the point that his argument is false, and instead using A‘s rude language to supposedly prove that A must be wrong. B‘s argument is that A is a rude person, ergo A must be factually wrong. In other words, the one using an ad hominem argument in this example is B.
By now you may be asking “Isn’t this a silly technical point? Aren’t you just being a linguistic prescriptivist, saying that a term can only have one meaning forever and ever amen?” It’s a reasonable concern; on a certain level, this is just a terminology quibble. The reason it’s important, though, is that we really, really need the correct meaning of ad hominem. We have a hundred phrases for “personal insult”, but only one for “you are changing the subject from the point being made to the person making it.” We can’t afford to lose that one.
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