An ad hominem, or personal attack, is a logical fallacy. That is, according to common wisdom, you should never use one in formal debate. The reasoning is that a logical argument should stand on its own regardless of who makes it. After all, a great fool might stumble onto a brilliant argument.
Jordan believes that an ad hominem is never acceptable. I, however, have begun to disagree. I think that there may be certain situations, when arguing against an eminently unreasonable opponent, when the best thing to do is discredit your opponent and be done with it.
I think the most recent Slacktivist post illustrates a correct use of discrediting the opposition. Fred mentions the author of a book on the Illuminati, referenced by Tim LaHaye as a source on the worldwide Satanism conspiracy. He could spend hours painstakingly explaining why every supposed “fact” about the Illuminati conspiracy is wrong (you might think this is unnecessary, but there are fundamentalist types who actually believe it), but instead, he just mentions that the author’s other book is about the fluoridation conspiracy.
It’s tempting to use the same strategy against people like Christian Clarity Review (from my own comments). After all, he’s achieved a near-total disconnect between words and meaning, so there’s no point in trying to actually logically engage his arguments: there’s no logic to engage. Wouldn’t it be easier to point out that this person believes that Haiti deserved it and leave it at that?
Discussing the two situations with Jordan, we came to the conclusion that it was okay for Fred to use the strategy against that author but not for me to use it against Christian Clarity Review. The difference, as we saw it, was that Fred was not using a true ad hominem, but rather the logically valid strategy of discrediting an expert witness.
Appeal to an expert witness is an important strategy when logic intersects with real-world events. A purely logical argument doesn’t need any kind of outside validation; it can be evaluated on its own merits. You don’t need a professional logician to verify “If A, then B; A, therefore B.” You can verify it for yourself. However, when you start making arguments based on real facts, you need to prove the veracity of the facts. Hence the expert witness.
Say, for instance, that I argue that many other countries in the world have superior healthcare to the U.S. That’s initially an empty claim: I’m not a world healthcare expert, so why should you believe me? Thus, to support my claim, I present the fact that the U.S. is ranked #49 in life expectancy in the CIA World Factbook, behind no less than four countries I’d never even heard of. (Teeny island nations have good healthcare, I guess. While I was heartened to see that my husband was above the U.S. average, I was disappointed that his life expectancy is only 79. I could outlive him by 10 years or more.) Anyway, the CIA World Factbook is my expert witness. It’s an official thing compiled by the CIA, so it seems like a trustworthy source upon which to build my argument. As long as all the logical steps I made based upon that fact were valid–which, of course, they might not be; life expectancy is influenced by other factors than healthcare*–then my argument is valid.
But what if the CIA World Factbook weren’t a valid source? It would be a frustrating and time-consuming task to prove my statistic wrong by finding a preponderance of other sources that determined through valid methods that the U.S. has a different life expectancy. It’s easier to just point out that the CIA World Factbook says that Narnia is a country (before you go looking, no, it doesn’t) and therefore is not an accurate source of information. Additionally, you just discredited every fact I might reference from the CIA World Factbook, so you won’t have to go through and deal with them individually.
Fred is employing this strategy in his post. By mentioning that this author thinks that fluoridation is a government conspiracy to, presumably, sap our precious bodily fluids, he discredits the supposed expert, saving himself from the need to address each one of the expert’s facts (unless there’s a reason to believe that the author was mistaken in one area but is right in another, as sometimes happens when an expert in one field ventures out of his or her depth to comment on another field).
My post upon which Christian Clarity Review commented, however, was about theology, a field where there aren’t really any concrete facts to address. Thus, appeal to an expert witness is not a viable strategy, and neither is discrediting someone in his or her capacity as an expert witness. Being wrong about facts doesn’t make one’s logic wrong. Christian Clarity Review’s ignorance about Haiti doesn’t inherently discredit his thoughts about Arminianism.
This is frustrating to me because some people are so eminently not worth dealing with. In fact, sometimes the logic is so tortured that it’s difficult to even pick out a statement that one might argue for or against. Why can’t I just say “This person isn’t worth dealing with?” The answer, in this case, is that you don’t want to become your irrational opponent. After all, the only quasi-coherent argument Christian Clarity Review ever puts forth against non-Calvinists is that they’re unregenerate, totally depraved people without the free will to even realize how wrong they are. In other words, they aren’t worth dealing with (though he manages to spend a suspiciously long time saying this).
After all, on what grounds are you–or I–the judge of who is or isn’t a worthwhile opponent? It’s hard to be more despicable than someone who refuses to answer an intelligent argument by saying that your opponent isn’t worth your time. Jonah Goldberg, author of right-wing propaganda tome Liberal Fascism, made himself sound like a total jackass when he disdainfully wrote off a half-dozen of the leading scholars of fascism for taking the time to seriously refute his book.**
If you actually can’t make out enough logical structure to engage an argument, just say so. That’s attacking the argument, not the person making it: no ad hominem there. If your opponent is eminently unreasonable in another way, like he goes into conniptions and spouts profanity any time anyone disagrees with him, you probably don’t need to say anything. Not answering is a way of saying “You’re not worth my time,” and if he’s really so unreasonable, anyone else who reads the conversation will agree. I do say this with the knowledge that I would have a much harder time applying it in practice.
I suppose whether ad homines (that’s the plural of ad hominem, for the non-Latin speakers out there) are ever acceptable comes down to a semantic distinction. If you consider any attack on a person rather than an argument to be an ad hominem, then there are cases when they are a good strategy. If you distinguish between the invalid ad hominem and the valid strategy of discrediting and expert witness, then the former is never acceptable. In either case, though, there are times when you simply do need to address the speaker rather than the argument.
*For instance, a country with a very high incidence of HIV/AIDS would have a low life expectancy even with an excellent healthcare system. Of course, the U.S. isn’t plagued with any such extenuating circumstances. We also have the 180th highest infant mortality rate, with 44 countries doing better than us.
**If you have a chance, read the whole conversation. It’s an interesting look into what conservatives consider to be a valid work of serious scholarship representing the academic side of the neo-con movement–literally, this is the best they’ve got–and it’s still unfolding. Earlier I was apparently channeling Roger Griffin, who points out about people with attitudes like Goldberg’s:
Their insulting behaviour smacks of bad faith: they know they are in the wrong, but have not the honesty or moral courage to admit it.