Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK?
Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK?
You aren’t supposed to make ad hominem arguments in academic papers — maybe not anywhere. To get us on the same page, here’s a quick blurb from Wikipedia:
An ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Ad hominem reasoning is normally categorized as an informal fallacy, more precisely as a genetic fallacy, a subcategory of fallacies of irrelevance.
Some initial thoughts. First, there are some clear cut cases where an ad hominem argument is plainly worthless and simply distracting: it doesn’t help us understand things better; it doesn’t wend toward truth. Let’s say that a philosopher makes an argument, X, concerning (say) abortion; and her opponent points out that the philosopher is (say) a known tax cheat — an attempt to discredit her character. Useless. But let’s say that a psychologist makes an argument, Y, about race and IQ (i.e., that black people are less “intelligent” than white people), and his opponent points out that he used to be a member of the KKK. Well, it’s still useless in one sense, in that the psychologist’s prior membership in the KKK can’t by itself disprove his argument; but it does seem useful in another sense, in that it might give us at least a plausible reason to be a little bit more cautious in interpreting the psychologist’s results.
So we have to zoom in on what exactly the fallacy is–or at least what the problem is. On the Wikipedia definition above, a claim or argument has to be “rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the … person presenting the claim or argument” in order to count as truly fallacious. This can be broken up. First — “rejected” … What if I don’t outright reject an argument by (merely) referring to some ad hominem information, but rather share this information as a way of, say, priming the reader or the listener for doubt? Then if I go on to give some “proper” arguments, am I in the clear?
Second — “on the basis of” … What if I reject the argument on some other, non-fallacious, basis, but I think that adding in the ad hominem information will really “seal the deal” in terms of convincing my reader that the argument is no good? Is it OK to “seal the deal” in this way, since I’m not rejecting the argument on that basis alone?
Third — “irrelevant” … What if the information is, in some sense, relevant? In the KKK example, the relevance might be that the psychologist is likely (or at any rate, likelier than others) to have extra-scientific motivations for arriving at the conclusion he supposedly “found” with his research. This might have biased him in terms of study design, statistical fiddling, etc. While this won’t suffice to invalidate his arguments, it is certainly pertinent to our decision-making process about how to go about evaluating his work (i.e., more skeptically or with a finer-toothed comb than we otherwise might do). So is it OK to bring it up? And if so, where and how? In a formal academic paper? In frustrated emails with my colleagues?
There are of course more and less subtle ways of introducing “personal” information into an argument. One ubiquitous trick is to casually reference your opponent’s university or research institution, if it’s not particularly prestigious, or your supporter’s institution, if it is. Is that information strictly relevant? Probably not. Might it shift the reader’s perspective in terms of how they intuitively receive the argument? Probably yes. So, is this OK to do?
Some take-home questions:
1. Must the ad hominem fallacy always be avoided? If so, on what grounds? In what contexts?
2. When is it OK (or not OK) to introduce “personal information” into an academic argument — even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a fallacy? When is this information useful for getting at the truth? When is it rhetorically useful? When does it backfire?
3. When does avoiding personal-contextual angles actually undermine our ability to understand an argument or phenomenon?
I look forward to your thoughts and stories.
6 Responses to Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK?
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- Nathan Whitmore on “Whoa though, does it ever burn” – Why the consumer market for brain stimulation devices will be a good thing, as long as it is regulated
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