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The Argument Against the Person


One reason to learn about logic and logical fallacies is that you'll begin to notice the fallacies everywhere. Everywhere. This is particularly true in politics. Fallacies fly in political disputes like bullets in a gun battle. Take any given speech or debate, and you'll sometimes see multiple fallacies stringed together in a single sentence. I pick a political image like the one above for a specific reason. The argument against the person (otherwise known as an argument ad hominem, after the Latin words for "to the man") is easily one of the most common fallacies you'll hear in political disputes today.


Think back to the 2016 election (I know, a dreadful time). Think back to the policy positions of the two leading candidates: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. What were their arguments against the other's policy positions? Did you ever hear Clinton or Trump give detailed arguments for their positions and against their opponent's? Maybe once or twice. More likely, you heard a lot of yelling and insults. Between both candidates, you heard loud denouncements of the other's character as crooked, corrupt, fascist, elitist, racist, inexperienced, idiotic, adulterous or just plain evil. Both sides launched insults like these in equal measure. This drowned out sincere disagreements on both sides of the political aisle in dramatic spectacle but contributed practically nothing to the advancement of good policy and the avoidance of bad policy.


Why is that? This is because the argument against the person, like the bandwagon argument, is a fallacy of relevance. That is to say that an argument meant to denounce a person doesn't denounce his argument. Specifically, the argument against the person seeks to undermine one's position by attacking his character in some way.


Why is one's character irrelevant to one's argument? One's character is generally irrelevant to the truth or soundness of one's argument because arguments must be supported by the truth of relevant propositions. (Remember, a proposition is the content expressed by a declarative statement such as, "The sky is blue.") Let's take an example from natural theology that I've discussed before on this blog: the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The argument goes like this:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

  2. The universe began to exist.

  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This form of the argument, which is the form most discussed today among philosophers, was formulated by William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig has often presented this arguments in debates against atheists. Some atheists may retort (and have retorted) that we shouldn't trust in the validity or soundness of this argument because Dr. Craig, as a Christian, is biased and therefore personally invested in the truth of theism, which the argument supports.


Is Dr. Craig's bias a good reason to reject the Kalam Cosmological Argument? Some Christians, particularly those who are fans of Dr. Craig, might feel defensive enough to vouch for his credibility as a speaker. They may say that while, yes, Dr. Craig is a Christian, he is a good philosopher, and good philosophers try to philosophize as objectively and without bias as possible. While this might be a good objection to the claim that Dr. Craig is biased, in this case, the response is just as irrelevant as the argument it responds to.


For Christian apologists, there is often an impulse to defend every claim as it comes, rather than asking whether the claim made is relevant to any argument against his or her position. Once we take the extra step of examining whether the claim is relevant, we will often find fallacies. In this case, you, as the Christian apologist, can simply answer that Dr. Craig's possible bias has nothing to do with whether the Kalam Cosmological Argument is a good argument. This imaginary atheist has committed the ad hominem fallacy.


Does this mean that one's character is never relevant to the truth of one's claim? Not at all. In fact, there are certain claims that, when they are made, call upon us to assess the credibility of the speaker. In other words, whether we can trust what someone is telling us is directly based on that person's credibility. But there is an important caveat here. The problem presented by someone's credibility (or lack thereof) is an epistemological one. That is, it has to do with whether we can know that the claim is true on the basis of the speaker's testimony. If the speaker, for instance, is a compulsive liar, then this fact undermines his credibility as a speaker. But his lack of credibility doesn't imply that his claim is false. It simply implies that you should suspend judgement as to whether his claim is true. The speaker's lack of credibility could not be used as an argument against the truth of his claim for this reason.


(An interesting aside: there are perhaps situations in which the speaker is a compulsive liar who, you know, lies about a certain subset of claims that he commonly makes in certain select situations. When one of these situations presents itself and the speaker makes a claim of that subset, then this set of circumstances justifies you in concluding that the claim is therefore false. But I digress. This is a special circumstance, if such a circumstance exists. Even in this case, I doubt that it would be valid to argue that the speaker's claim is false. You'd be arguing for your own justification in believing his claim to be false.)


Excursus aside, it is easy to see how one's character is irrelevant to the truth of one's claims or the soundness of one's arguments. Why is it important that we understand the ad hominem fallacy? As I've already said, the ad hominem fallacy is a hallmark fallacy in public discourse today. You see it everywhere: between politicians, on social media and, yes, even between Christians. One reason for this, I think, is that social media incentivizes emotion without substance. And good argumentation simply goes the other way: substance without emotion. This means that, as Christians intent to love the Lord with our minds, we must practice self-control by not allowing ourselves to be caught up in the emotional whirlwinds on Twitter and other social media sites. Instead, slow down and intently listen when a case is made. Focus on the content of the argument, not on the person making it. Then you will be better able to examine the argument and respond substantively.


That's it for this post! These posts are intended to very short and easy to read. I want them to a helpful resource for reference and an introductory resource for people who haven't been exposed to these concepts. I hope that the content will be edifying to you. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!


Source


For the sake of full disclosure, this is the main resource that I will be using for this series. This is an excellent textbook and worth checking into if you want more information on the subject:


Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Twelfth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

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