Anyone paying the least attention to this year’s election has probably heard the term “ad hominem” bandied about at least once. This Latin phrase, literally “to” or “at the man,” is the name of a famous and ancient logical fallacy where one criticizes an argument on the basis of the individual proposing or espousing it. This is often done covertly, where the original argument is never returned to and the person committing the fallacy is content to distract from the argument by pointing out flaws with the opponent’s person.
That is what an “ad hominem” looks like.
An insult, on the other hand, needn’t be argumentative at all. All an insult requires is some attack at a person, with respect to their character, their history, or just their face (making fun of Donald Trump’s tan, for example). While an “ad hominem” should constitute an insult, an insult does not have to be an ad hominem; rather, the fallacy is a subset of insulting.
This is a distinction that seems to escape much present political commentary. It seems that we chalk up criticisms of others’ characters indiscriminately as the fallacy “ad hominem”—which then reflects poorly on the person doing the criticizing. This is a serious misstep.
I grant that “ad hominem” fallacies are as misleading as any other fallacy, but they should not be confused with simple considerations of character.
So, what would an “ad hominem” look like? At the Detroit Republican debate, a moderator repeated some issues that Mitt Romney had raised about Trump’s policies and character, concluding, “He challenged you to answer with substance, not insults.”
The first words out of Trump’s mouth in response were: “Well, look, he was a failed candidate… he failed miserably, and it was an embarrassment to everybody.” He continued in this vein for a while before finally circling around to some domestic and trade remarks, letting the above response suffice for every other objection that Romney had raised.
On the other hand, consider the words, “I don’t want a president who can’t take criticism,” a sentiment expressed by Rick Yuzzi over at Red State in reference to Donald Trump. If taking criticism is considered an important part of governing well, then evaluating that and other character traits is entirely consistent with disavowing real “ad hominem” fallacies.
Marco Rubio voiced another valid consideration of character at the Detroit debate. In reference to Donald Trump, he said that, “We are not going to turn over…the party of Lincoln or Reagan…to someone…who has not proven that he has the principles that outline what the conservative movement has been about.” This is not ad hominem—it is a legitimate concern.
Such considerations of character, of course, may be inaccurate or, at a closer look, actually irrelevant. If someone is criticized of lying about taxes and they never in fact did, then we should ignore that objection – not because it is an “ad hominem,” but because it is not true. If someone’s face or mother is called ugly, that may well be true, but is almost certainly irrelevant in the question of who is best to govern.
Take for example Cicero’s Second Philippic: a sustained criticism of Mark Antony that ultimately calls for his assassination. In this speech, the Roman statesman brings up the fact that, because of his marriage, Mark Antony’s children have an ex-slave for a grandfather. I think everyone here would agree that that’s an irrelevant objection. It doesn’t even address Antony’s character itself.
Moreover, considering character does not mean that we should ignore candidates’ stances on particular issues. There is a world of difference between “soaking the one percent” and promising a flat tax, and it matters immensely which one is better policy.
When electing a human being for office, you need to consider more than their positions, however. Once someone is elected to office, the constituents should be able to trust that they are going to guide the state with proper ends in mind and with wisdom in the details, to say nothing of avoiding corruption or sheer incompetence.
After all, politics is a practical art. It is the government of human beings by human beings, and if that is ever to be for human beings, then the particular few at the helm need to be trustworthy. Our leaders need to be reasonably informed and have characters of integrity. They must, in office, put the good of the state above their own individual good. While people certainly change, history is our best general indicator of those traits. Concerns about character may be rightly oriented towards prudent consideration of candidates or fashioned as somehow influential to some argument the individual is making.
Consider the importance of character evaluations when watching a political debate, for instance. In a debate, a candidate could advocate an argument (A, A à B, therefore B) or a big conclusion (like “Capitalism”), or they could bring up mere facts, deeds, what someone did at some time or other.
The essence of fact is that it’s not open to debate and only open to interpretation. The USA’s GDP last year is on the books. (Again, there is a place for investigating definitions, such as “infant mortality” in the USA compared to Europe, but most facts are past question.)
Now, in an ideal world, such facts are readily available because everyone has a whole encyclopedic database at their fingertips. Failing that, if you’re listening to someone whom you know has a bad memory or has been wrong with numbers historically, then in the absence of being able to verify – which you should, if possible – then, holding their information in doubt is a legitimate position.
Note well, though: Such a judgment is not grounds for declaring that what they say is not true; it is okay merely to say that their evidence is not credible and, hence, (barring any other evidence) you cannot say for sure either way. It’s inconclusive. (If you’ve been living under a rock and your goofball friend tells you that the current Broadway smash hit is a hip-hop retelling of the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, for instance, you might not believe them, but you can’t up and say they’re wrong. You’d be wrong.)
Next time you watch political news, remember that merely criticizing a person’s character does not constitute an “ad hominem” fallacy, even if it takes place on a “debate” stage. Relevant character considerations – and detractions – have a place in our political discourse.