The ad hominem fallacy is a fallacy in which a person discredits or rebuts an argument by attacking the speaker rather than the argument itself. In Latin, ad hominem means ‘to the man’ and this fallacy does exactly that. It targets the person rather than the argument.
The ad hominem fallacy forms part of a group of fallacies known as informal logic fallacies. These fallacies find faults in arguments that occur in everyday situations rather than strictly logical arguments in academic work. It is a very common tactic in many situations, particularly in politics.
There are three main forms of this fallacy to look out for:
- abusive ad hominem,
- circumstantial ad hominem,
- and tu quoque.
The abusive form occurs when the person’s character is attacked. The circumstantial form occurs when it is in the person’s self-interest for the argument or statement to be true. Tu quoque, also a Latin term, means ‘you too’. It is intended to discredit a person’s argument because their own actions or views contradict the argument they are putting forward.
The ad hominem fallacy deals with people’s character, circumstances, and opinions. It is important to keep in mind that they can occur in many forms because it occurs in so many different situations. For this reason, when looking out for the ad hominem fallacy make sure to follow the one golden rule and ask yourself: is the person engaging with the argument or the speaker? Below, the examples will be grouped according to the three main forms the fallacy can take.
Abusive ad hominem Fallacy Examples
1. A Checkered past
Scenario: A politician is campaigning for road safety in an area with bad traffic accidents. However, voters find out he has lied in previous campaigns so they decide that his campaign is a bad idea.
In this scenario, the voters don’t believe in the politician’s campaign because he has lied in the past. However, even though this may be true, the voters are not engaging with the politician’s proposal about road safety and instead are focusing on his character. This is an ad hominem fallacy.
2. Driving to work
Scenario: John sees his doctor driving very badly one day and decides that he must be a bad doctor because he is a bad driver.
John decides that his doctor is bad at his job because of his bad driving. John is committing the ad hominem fallacy because he is not basing his judgment on facts relating to the doctor’s professional skills.
Instead, John is basing his judgment on the driving abilities of the doctor which are unrelated to his capabilities as a doctor. It is logically possible to be a bad driver and a good doctor.
3. They must have done it!
Scenario: A bag is stolen from a classroom. A few students accuse William and Luke of stealing the bag because they are always late for school, even though William and Luke claim they are innocent.
The students are making the assumption that William and Luke are capable of stealing because they have a tendency to be late. This is an ad hominem fallacy because the students are not relying on evidence that relates to theft or the stolen bag in the classroom for their conclusion about William and Luke. They are using unconnected aspects of William and Luke’s character as evidence for the theft, which is illogical.
4. Here comes the mail
Scenario: Teresa, the postal service worker assures Fred that his package will be delivered in time. Fred sees a stain on Teresa’s shirt and thinks to himself, I can’t trust her she has a dirty shirt.
Fred is committing the ad hominem fallacy because he thinks that Teresa’s dirty shirt is evidence of her being untrustworthy as a postal service worker. However, having a dirty shirt has nothing to do with the efficiency of the postal service or Teresa’s ability. Therefore, Fred is making an assumption based on an unrelated aspect of Teresa’s character.
5. You don’t really care
Scenario: Caroline is arguing for more green areas around the city to improve air quality in the city. Her colleagues say that if she is really worried about air quality, she should not drive her car to the office every day.
It is true that because Caroline drives to work every day she is polluting the air and decreasing air quality. However, even though her colleagues are correct they are still committing the ad hominem fallacy. This is because green areas would improve air quality and in this scenario, they are a good idea.
Therefore, Caroline’s colleagues are not engaging with the argument about green areas in the city but they are rather choosing a different aspect of Caroline’s character and finding fault with it. In this case, they are pointing out that Caroline might be not doing everything she can do to reduce her impact on the environment.
The argument “you don’t really care!” is also often used in appeal to emotion fallacies.
Circumstantial ad hominem Fallacy Examples
6. Trusting the salesman
Scenario: Tyrone is looking to buy a car. The salesman is giving him all the details about the car and says what great quality it is. Tyrone does not believe him because it is the salesman’s job to sell the car.
Tyrone is committing the ad hominem fallacy in this scenario because he believes that the salesman will lie about the car’s quality just to sell it. He is basing his judgment on the self-interest of the salesman, However, it is perfectly possible for the salesman to want to sell the car but also tell the truth about what good quality it is.
7. The gardener’s troubles
Scenario: Claire really believes in fighting for climate change and she is having a discussion with her family about it. They tell her she only thinks it is important because she loves to garden.
Claire has a passion for gardening and loves all plants. Because of this, she has a clear self-interest in avoiding climate change so that she can save all her plants and keep doing the thing she loves.
Her family takes Claire’s self-interest to discredit her argument about climate change. They believe that Claire’s argument is only based on self-interest and is therefore wrong.
Claire’s family is committing the ad hominem fallacy. Even though Claire is self-interested they have not engaged with arguments or reasoning about climate change or the environment that Claire is putting forward.
8. Innocent until proven guilty
Scenario: Philip is convicted of a crime but says he is innocent and has evidence proving it was someone else. The police don’t believe him because they think he just wants to get out of prison.
The police are committing the ad hominem fallacy because they believe that Philip is lying just to get out of prison. Even though it is true that Philip does want to get out of prison this does not mean that he is guilty.
Philip could very well have good evidence proving it was someone else and still want to get out of prison. However, the police just assume that he is lying because it is in Philip’s self-interest to get out of prison.
9. Bad service
Scenario: Clarissa complains about some cold food at a restaurant and she asks to see the manager. The manager thinks Clarissa is just complaining to get a free meal.
The manager is assuming that Clarissa wants a free meal and is not engaging with the issue of the food being cold. The manager believes that it is Clarissa’s self-interest in getting a free meal that is motivating her complaint about the food.
However, because the manager does not assess Clarissa’s complaint about the food he is committing the ad hominem fallacy. Even though it is in Clarrisa’s self-interest to not pay for the food that does not mean that she was lying about the food being cold.
10. First place
Scenario: George and Mohammed are running a race. George has a bad pain in his knee and Mohammed suggests he should stop so he does not injure himself further. George suspects that Mohammed is just saying that to get him out of the race.
George is committing the ad hominem fallacy by assuming that Mohammed wants him to stop racing so that Mohammed can win. George makes this assumption because he thinks Mohammed is acting in his own self-interest – if George stops racing, it will be easier for Mohammed to win.
However, It is possible for Mohammed to really care about if George gets injured while he wants to win the race. Furthermore, it is true that George has a pain in his knee. Therefore, George is committing the ad hominem fallacy.
Tu quoque ad hominem Fallacy Examples
11. But you got a fine!
Scenario: Chantel’s father is explaining to her that it’s bad to get a speeding fine when she responds: ‘but you used to get them all the time!’
Chantel accuses her father of also getting speeding fines all the time. By doing this she attempts to discredit his argument by focusing on the fact that he is also guilty of getting traffic fines.
However, Chantel is committing an ad hominem fallacy. She is not engaging with the argument her father is putting forward, that it is wrong for her to get speeding fines. Rather, she is trying to discredit his argument by focusing on something he has done in the past.
12. You are just as bad as me.
Scenario: Helen is giving her friend advice about her marriage, but her friend ignores her because Helen is experiencing marital difficulties of her own.
Helen thinks that her friend’s advice on marriage will be bad because her friend is also having marital issues. Helen is using her friend’s life to discredit the advice her friend is giving, instead of engaging with the advice on its own merit.
In this scenario, the logical thing to do is to engage with the advice and assess if it is good or not. Helen does not do this and yet she comes to the conclusion that she should ignore her friend’s advice. Helen is therefore committing the ad hominem fallacy because she used evidence irrelevant to the argument to come to her conclusion.
This also happens to be a false analogy fallacy because the two marriages are not the same, and the problems are not analogous.
13. Once a liar, always a liar.
Scenario: Dario got caught lying once at work. A few years later he is accused of lying at work again and his boss tells him ‘once a liar always a liar’ without listening to his side of the story.
Dario’s boss thinks he does not even need to listen to Dario’s side of the story because Dario has lied in the past. For Dario’s boss, this past action discredits anything Dario could say.
While Dario’s boss has some right to be suspicious he is also being illogical. Lying once does not mean Dario will lie every time. Therefore, by not engaging with Dario’s side of the story his boss is committing an ad hominem fallacy.
14. Broken promises.
Scenario: Shaun promises to be at his family event on time. However, his parents expect him to be late because he has been late before.
The crucial thing in the ad hominem fallacy is to engage with the person’s argument or statement. In this scenario, the argument or statement is Shaun’s promise. However, we see that Shaun’s parents expect him to be late – not because of the type of promise or the contents of the promise, but because he has been late before.
Shaun’s family is therefore committing the ad hominem fallacy. They are using a past event as evidence for Shaun’s promise rather than the validity of his statement.
15. You did it first!
Scenario: Mathilda is playing with her friend Zara. Mathilda decides she wants the toy Zara has and so just takes it without asking. Zara says: ‘Hey! Why did you do that, I was playing with it. Mathilda responds that she took it because Zara ate her chocolate earlier.
Mathilda is committing the ad hominem fallacy because her excuse for taking the toy is based on her friend Zara’s past actions. Mathilda claims that it is fine to take Zara’s toy because Zara had taken her chocolate earlier.
Mathilda is not offering an apology or reason for why she took Zara’s toy without asking, instead, she uses Zara’s past actions as an excuse. By doing this she is not engaging with the situation at hand but instead is relying on past events which are unrelated to her current actions.
Other Logical Fallacies
- Gambler’s Fallacy
- Straw Man Fallacy
- Equivocation Fallacy
- Appeal to Tradition Fallacy
- Begging the Question Fallacy
The ad hominem fallacy is especially useful for us to understand. It is so commonly used and so it is valuable to know how to spot it. It is commonly used because a person’s character, actions, and motivation are important considerations when interacting with them.
However, this does not mean that a person’s character, actions, and motivation are the only thing that we should take into account. When we are trying to determine if a person’s statement or argument is correct we must look at it logically. In order to do so, it is the contents of their statement which must be assessed. Their character can be a consideration, but not something we make our final conclusion on.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]