Is ad hominem always a fallacy?


In a series of recent social media posts, I've criticized Sam Harris for his horrendous strawmannning of idealism in a recent podcast interview:


As part of that series, someone tagged me on, and I re-tweeted, a link to an essay of anonymous authorship castigating Sam Harris. Although there is no denying that the essay was filled with ad hominem attacks, there was also substance in it that I considered relevant enough to share, particularly regarding alleged methodological errors in Harris's PhD thesis and criticisms of Harris's positions by renowned intellectuals:


A number of comments followed, some expressing interest in the re-tweeted essay and others criticizing me for amplifying what they considered to be an unfair hit-piece. That made me re-think our modern attitudes about ad hominem: is it always a fallacy to bring up questions about someone's motivations, integrity, qualifications or past actions? The very words "ad hominem" seem to have become synonymous with error and unfairness, regardless of circumstances, which strikes me as a somewhat unexamined attitude.

There obviously are circumstances in which ad hominem is just fallacious. Specifically, if the points in contention have been clearly identified and are not related to the character or background of any of the participants in the discussion, then to attack a participant during one's argument, as if it helped make one's point, is obviously illogical: the argument must be relevant to the points in contention. For instance, if the discussion is about whether idealism is a tenable metaphysical position or not, to argue that a participant in the discussion is dishonest, as part of one's argument for or against idealism, is obviously fallacious: idealism either is or isn't tenable, regardless of the honesty (or lack thereof) of the participants.

Sometimes, however, the legitimacy of one's participation in a discussion, or the relevance of one's background to the discussion, or even the reliability of one's assertions of fact during the discussion, are the points in contention. This happens often in both business hiring decisions and political elections, for instance. In those situations, ad hominem is obviously not a fallacy, for it is precisely the point in question.

Often, of course, circumstances will be such that we will have shades of gray to deal with, not clear black or white: although the points in contention may not be directly related to character or background, the ebb and flow of the discussion can go in a direction that lends some legitimacy to questions of character and background. This may happen, for instance, when a participant appeals to his or her own authority as a key logical bridge in the weaving of an argument. Is an attack on the person's character or background—that is, an ad hominem—then a fallacy? It's impossible to answer this reliably a priori, as only the specific circumstances of the case can allow for a fair assessment.

In the specific case of my re-tweet, I believe that not only were there substantial, non-ad hominem points made in the anonymous essay (whether they are true or not is another question entirely), but even some of the ad hominem attacks were legitimate in the context of my original tweet: I argued precisely that Harris displayed a surprising lack not only of basic understanding, but also foundational knowledge, of the metaphysics he was criticizing. Insofar as the re-tweeted, anonymous essay laid out an admittedly ad hominem case for Harris's lack of solid background in both neuroscience and philosophy, I think sharing a link to those particular ad hominems was not fallaciously out of context. As a matter of fact, I confess to having had a feeling of 'this-explains-it' when I read those parts of the essay (which, of course, doesn't mean that those parts are actually true!), for they provided some sort of account, tentative and unreliable as the case may be, for what I had hitherto considered an incomprehensible lack of knowledge on Harris's part.

Indeed, idealism is one of the foundational topics in both Eastern and Western philosophy. A basic understanding of idealist claims—the claims of Berkeley, Swedenborg, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and arguably even Plato, Parmenides and Empedocles—is part of the 'ABC' of philosophy. That someone who "received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA" (quote from Harris's website) can fail so resoundingly at such a foundational level is, well, quite amazing. Harris conflates very basic concepts. For instance, he conflates personal consciousness with consciousness as ontic category, something no self-respecting philosophy freshman would do (it's like conflating a wooden table with wood). Parts of his 'argument against idealism' also imply a direct conflation of idealism with solipsism, two entirely different metaphysics that, again, no self-respecting freshman in philosophy would conflate. How is that possible?

My openness to the potential legitimacy of certain ad hominems applies, of course, to me as well. If one of my dialectical adversaries were to think that I make misleading, sophist and ultimately incorrect points consistently, it would be valid for them to question and investigate my motivations, my background, my credentials, my education, my past. And if they were to find funny things during that investigation, an ad hominem attack would be appropriate, I think (notice that this is in no way a nod to libel or defamation, both of which are based on false accusations, and both of which I would respond strongly to, with all recourses at my disposal). I am not saying this just because I happen to know that no such funny things would be found—I'm not hiding behind my private knowledge of the relevant facts—but because I sincerely believe in what I am saying.

As a matter of fact, ad hominem attacks directed at my background and education have been made in the past, and I have taken them seriously. Years ago, a couple of scholars attacked my then-lack of a formal degree in philosophy. They argued that my PhD in computer science was rather irrelevant to the points I was making, as well as to the authority I was implicitly claiming while making those points. And although I knew that their attack was moot (I've been studying philosophy very seriously since early adolescence), I still took the time and trouble to publish—over three years—a number of papers in peer-reviewed philosophy journals and ultimately get myself a second PhD to address the original charge. No one in their sane mind would go to such lengths if they didn't take the original ad hominem to be legitimate, would they?

More generally speaking, I think we have to guard against irrational and runaway political correctness, which is a growing issue in our culture. Not all ad hominems are fallacies, even if you have grown to associate the very words "ad hominem" with unfairness and low blows. Sometimes it just isn't so. And the discernment to know when it isn't and when it is, is something I believe we must cultivate more carefully. For if our culture is being led by false prophets, emperors with no clothes, it is not only legitimate, but also a moral imperative, to point at them and scream in public: "before y'all listen to him, look and realize that the man has no clothes!"

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14 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. A good post. The point about ad hominems in the political arena being particularly relevant is so true, but these days seem to be brushed off by some political leaders like dandruff on their shoulders. Once, being found out in this way meant resignation. Worse, people don't seem to take dishonesty seriously anymore and continue to support flagrant liars. Such are the times we live in.

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    1. The political arena, namely U.S. (or further back the Continental) Congress, was originally quite the arena. Disagreements did not end with just ad hominem attacks, the "founding fathers" would break out into full physical assault, which included, but not limited to punching and knocking someone over the head with your cane. Clearly, since its inception, the American experiment has always been "all is fair in war and... Congress?" If you were lucky, you might even get to witness these political wrestlers in a duel, both shooting into the ground. Exhilarating.

      As for dishonesty and other values (oops, I mean vices), that's a whole different ball game, unless it resulted into a duel (then it was a bullet game). Folks in the 17th-19th century did not care as much about keeping accurate statistics as we do today. Statistics and buildings had the unfortunate tendency to get burned down, whether by accident or by war.

      But, not only will you be found out today, you will be recorded on a smartphone, maybe even recorded on a livestream, which will be released onto social media and grabbed up by the media within a few minutes of one person uploading your misdeeds onto the internet.

      I am speculating what time period you refer to when you speak about "being found out," but in the past, people were more concerned about maintaining their honor than in the present, where a politician is far more likely to be caught now for sending inappropriate pictures to young interns. So, despite that Americans throughout the history of the United States (and in the earlier days of the colonies) may find lying to be appalling, I doubt the amount of lying has changed much. Unfortunately, records were destroyed in a large number of fires. And today, we also have the advantage of online Fact Checkers just a swipe away.

      I think it should be duly noted that the exception was Trump administration's dishonesty, which felt like the entire administration was composed of pathological liars, who were hand-picked by the least convincing liar (he did love superlatives; no one has ever done better superlatives than...), Trump. More disconcerting than the incessant lying that we were all exposed to, is it appeared his base voters did not care whether or not Trump was lying to them--he had their unconditional devotion, which circles back to your point.

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  3. The key point is ascertaining if the ad hominem is relevant to the issue in question. If for example, Sam Harris's background or bias leads him to take an unduly prejudicial standpoint on the issues under discussion then we can say that the ad hominem critique is warranted. Of course, as Bernardo as pointed out, it cuts both ways...

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  4. Great article! I'm excited to apply this kind of nuanced analysis to other situations in which 'ad hominem' is brought up.

    Thanks Bernardo

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  5. Does it matter that the Preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, arguably the most succinct and elegant statement of Enlightenment values concerning the nature and role of government, was in large part written and endorsed by slaveholders? Have we forgotten that hypocrisy is the homage paid by vice to virtue, perhaps because (ever since greed became good) we no longer know how to distinguish them?

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    1. That hypocrisy runs deep. The nature and role of U.S. government is more than just signed by slaveholders, it is soaked in the blood of a slave economy. In the formative years of the United States, there absolutely were debates for manumission and even men arguing whether or not women had souls! (*Clutches pearls*) Of course, these men were exclusively white, Protestant, land-owning, adult men. Ultimately, we know how it unfolded. The enslaved were still enslaved and the status of women's souls were still up for debate. Some of these men freed their slaves in their wills, but none of this makes any of it okay. When folks argue that "it was a different time then and they did not know any better." I cannot let it slide. These "founding fathers" knew exactly what they were doing.

      I apologize, Newton Finn. I mean no offense and I clearly ran full-steam ahead into irrelevance. You brought up an example and my response is essentially the knee-jerk reaction of an independence-era museum employee in relapse. haha

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    2. No apology necessary, Likniteia, and thank you for responding. I only asked a question I, myself, find difficult to answer. Stated in less politically-charged terms, should our assessment of the literary value of "King Lear" be impacted if we found out that Shakespeare was a dirty rotten SOB with blood on his hands?

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  6. Although I don't think you say, there's another article by the same author on the same site entitled "Religion Never Killed Anyone; Sam Harris is Wrong About Everything" which seems to me to contain much less ad hominem and more rigorous logic. I found it a fairly good read -- it tends to indicate that the author bases his opinions on reasonably solid foundations, not just ad hominem.

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  7. Excellent stuff!!
    Sam's PHd in neuroscience underscores the doorbell theory of understanding consciousness. Like children who are fascinated by running up to random houses, ringing the doorbell, hiding in the bushes and watching people open the door. Blood flows to areas of the brain (or to a salmon) when reading The Book of Leviticus is not revealing the science of consciousness.

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  8. I'm sorry but this is unsound. You're argument from authority is simply saying: "Sam is making conflations that are so silly, so elemental, that I have no choice but to attribute it to a lack of credential on his part". The problem with ad hominems like this are not so much that they are fallacious, but that they are a waste of time. An adequate response to a fallacious argument cannot be "You're so wrong because you don't have enough facts." You have to actually make a rebuttal first, and THEN decide whether or not to speculate upon whatever else in the author you think motivates his repeated errors. The points "you were making" aren't any less/more correct before/after getting your 2nd PhD.

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    1. “Sorry”, but Mugo’s comment is largely an exercise in strawmanning.

      “You're argument from authority is simply saying: "Sam is making conflations that are so silly, so elemental, that I have no choice but to attribute it to a lack of credential on his part"”
      What argument from authority?
      Bernardo says no such thing. All he says if IF the claims about Harris’s credentials WERE true, that would explain the confusion about basic issues. He explicitly acknowledges that the claims may not be true, and provides reasons to be suspicious of them.
      The thrust of the piece is about ad hominem argument,not Harris’s credentials.

      “You have to actually make a rebuttal first, and THEN decide whether or not to speculate upon whatever else in the author you think motivates his repeated errors.”
      The rebuttals demanded are a secondary issue here, and are at any rate provided in Bernardo’s works, which it’s reasonable to expect the reader to be familiar with.

      “The points "you were making" aren't any less/more correct before/after getting your 2nd PhD.”
      Bernardo never implied that they were, he got the PhD to address ad hominem criticisms “although (he) knew that their attack was moot ((he’s) been studying philosophy very seriously since early adolescence)”

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  9. I especially enjoyed the MRI of the salmon.

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