If you cannot attack the argument, attack the arguer. While an insult itself is not fallacious, it is if made in a way calculated to undermine an opponent’s argument, and to encourage an audience to give it less weight than it merits. When this is done, the famous argumentum ad hominem abusive is committed.
Dr Green argues very plausibly for fluoridation. What he does not t is that he is the same Dr Green who ten years ago published article favour of both euthanasia and infanticide.
(Unless his argument is that fluoride will kill off the old people and infants more effectively, it is hard to see how this bears on the arguments for or against fluoride.)
The fallacy here, as with most fallacies of relevance, is that the argument is not treated on its merit. Arguments should stand or fall by their own qualities. Strictly speaking, the merits of the arguer do not come into it. Even the public relations industry is not always in error. It is only because we are reluctant to suppose that a good and sensible argument can come from a bad and stupid source that the ad hominem abusive has any effect.
Now I come to Professor Robinson’s argument in favour of amalgamating the two colleges. Far be it from me to reopen old wounds by referring to the Professor’s conviction three years ago for drunk driving, but we have to ask ourselves…
(Note the ritual denial. It is usually the signal for an ad hominem abusive, ‘I don’t wish to be catty, but – miaow.’)
There are many forms of this fallacy, some so specialized that they are identified and named as separate fallacies. Effective use demands a bold attempt to make the abuse appear to have some bearing on the issue under consideration. The use of personal attacks to cast doubt on the arguer’s judgement gives one possible avenue.
Lawyers when cross-examining hostile witnesses tread a fine line between ‘establishing the character of a witness’ and a simple ad hominem abusive to discredit the testimony. Similarly, the use of witnesses on the character of the accused can often venture over the line into the territory of the fallacy.
The political arena is fertile territory in which some fallacies grow like weeds and others like carefully cultivated blossoms. The ad hominem abusive is one of the staples of parliamentary question time.
I would remind the House that when my questioner was in office unemployment and inflation doubled, and wages went down almost as fast as prices went up. And he has the temerity to ask me about the future of the mining industry.
(No comment, which is what he is saying in a more circumlocutious form.)
Some of the poor quality of parliamentary debate can be laid at the door of the press. So long as there are sycophantic journalists prepared to praise an ordinary ad hominem abusive as a ‘splendid riposte’ there will be politicians labouring through the midnight hours to compose such gems as ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’. They perform to their audience.
The rules to remember when committing this fallacy are that the hostile material should, wherever possible, be introduced with apparent reluctance, and it should be made to bear on the question of whether your opponent deserves consideration by such a worthy and serious audience as you are both addressing.
It is with a heavy heart that I release copies of these photographs and letters. I ask you whether this council can be seen to be influenced in its policy toward the new suspension bridge by a man whose behaviour with an 11 -year-old girl flouts every standard of public and private behaviour which we, as a council, have a sacred duty to uphold.
(Look out below.)