Ad Hominem (Guilt by Association) Summary

Latin Name: argumentum ad hominem

(also known as:  association fallacy, bad company fallacy, company that you keep fallacy, they’re not like us fallacy, transfer fallacy)

Description: When the source is viewed negatively because of its association with another person or group who is already viewed negatively.

Logical Form:

Person 1 states that Y is true.

Person 2 also states that Y is true, and person 2 is a moron.

Therefore, person 1 must be a moron too.

Example #1:

Delores is a big supporter for equal pay for equal work.  This is the same policy that all those extreme feminist groups support.  Extremists like Delores should not be taken seriously — at least politically.

Explanation: Making the assumption that Delores is an extreme feminist simply because she supports a policy that virtually every man and woman also supports, is fallacious.

Example #2:

Pol Pot, the Cambodian Maoist revolutionary, was against religion, and he was a very bad man.  Frankie is against religion; therefore, Frankie also must be a very bad man.

Explanation: The fact that Pol Pot and Frankie share one particular view does not mean they are identical in other ways unrelated, specifically, being a very bad man.  Pol Pot was not a bad man because he was against religion, he was a bad man for his genocidal actions.

Example #3:

Callie: Did you know that Jake Tooten was a racist?

Chris: I know Jake well. Why do you say he’s a racist?

Callie: He was on a podcast the other day…

Chris: Did he say something racist?

Callie: No, but the podcast host did an interview two years ago with a woman who said she supported an organization that had a history of racism back in the 1960s. Jake clearly supports racism!

Explanation: In this case, Jake Tooten is the “source” who is viewed negatively (as a racist) because of his association with the organization referenced. Note that his “association” with this group says nothing about his beliefs, which makes this fallacious. It is even more fallacious due to 1) Jake being several steps removed from this organization and 2) the organization’s history of racism rather than the organization’s current position on racism.

Callie actually was right, but for the wrong reason. Jake runs a Nazi youth group.

Exception: If one can demonstrate that the connection between the two characteristics that were inherited by association is causally linked, or the probability of taking on a characteristic would be high, then it would be valid. In example #1, if Delores supported the “all men should be castrated” position, we can call her an “extremist.” In example #2, if we used “murdered children” instead of “against religion,” the claim of being a “very bad man” would be justified. In example #3, if Jake appeared on the podcast titled “I am racist, and you should be too,” Callie’s claim of Jake being a racist would be justified.

What Now: People change. Be forgiving of one’s questionable past associations, especially if they realize and admit those associations were wrong.

References:

Walton, D. (1998). Ad hominem arguments. University of Alabama Press.