Ad Hominem Fallacy: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Defining Ad Hominem Fallacy
  • 0:23 Example 1: Direct Name-Calling
  • 2:31 Example 2: Indirect Ad…
  • 5:23 How to Avoid Ad…
  • 5:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

The ad hominem fallacy is one of the most common ways that people make bad arguments. Learn what an ad hominem fallacy is, see why we should avoid making ad hominem fallacies, and see examples of what an ad hominem fallacy looks like in this lesson!

Defining Ad Hominem Fallacy

The words ad hominem are Latin for 'against the man'. In other words, an argument that resorts to using an ad hominem attacks a person in order to shoot down the person's argument instead of using research or logic to do so. This means that it is a fallacy, or an argument with bad logic and poor reasoning.

Example 1: Direct Name-Calling

Oftentimes, the most obvious example of a fallacy is a direct attack on someone. Calling someone a name or insulting his or her character is a quite common way of committing an ad hominem, especially when an argument gets heated. For example, listen to this argument:

Ginger: 'I think that we should continue to fund the military at a high level because there are a number of countries that could be military threats to us, and terrorist activity from different groups means that we must defend ourselves from terrorism as well.'

Mary Ann: 'Wow, you must be a warmongering idiot who loves to cause death and destruction to believe something like that! A smarter person might come up with a better way to deal with terrorism.'

Ginger takes a position on the topic of military funding. She says that she is for current military spending levels. She then goes on to give her reasons why, stating that there are a number of threats from countries and terrorist groups that the country needs to defend itself against.

Mary Ann may disagree, but she must actually address the points that Ginger makes to defend her position. Instead, Mary Ann just calls her a 'warmongering idiot' - these insults do not actually disprove Ginger's reasons for wanting to maintain current military funding levels. Note that this is an ad hominem because not only is Mary Ann calling Ginger names, she is doing so specifically to try and counter Ginger's points about military funding.

Mary Ann says that Ginger only holds her position because she is not smart and because she is a 'warmongering idiot'; when name-calling is used to shoot down someone else's points directly, it counts as an ad hominem attack. Furthermore, these insults make Mary Ann seem childish, as if she does not have a way to really argue intelligently against Ginger's position. Obvious insults can often turn off the audience altogether and make them assume that you know less about the topic than your opponent.

Hierarchy of Disagreement
hierarchy of disagreement

The example in the next-to-last section on this pyramid shows how an ad hominem fallacy fits into a hierarchy that shows ways to disagree. Note that ad hominem fallacies are slightly different from simple name-calling; name-calling may have nothing to do with the argument.

Example 2: Indirect Ad Hominem (Attack of Character)

Not all ad hominems are as direct as name-calling. Sometimes, an ad hominem can be a putdown that insinuates that the person making the argument is somehow deficient. Let's look at this example:

Thomas: 'I think there is far too much violence on television nowadays. Viewing violence repeatedly can desensitize the viewer to real-life acts of violence according to a number of studies.'

Freddie: 'I guess that might be true for wussy guys who don't believe in what it means to be a man anymore. Personally, I wish that there were more guys out there who were tough and that appreciated violence instead of soft guys who are mentally weak.'

Thomas gives his position about violence on TV clearly. He thinks there is too much. He gives a reason for his position as well; he has seen proof that viewing violence can lead to the viewer feeling less affected by real-life violence. This is a fair point and position to make.

Freddie disagrees. Now, if he wants to disagree with Thomas's point, he can. He can also dispute the findings in the studies that Thomas read - that would directly deal with Thomas's overall argument without resorting to ad hominems. However, note what Freddie does instead. He just says that people with Thomas's position are 'wussy'. He implies that people like Thomas are not real men and that they are instead 'mentally weak' and 'soft'.

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