ad hominem

A verse attributed to the thirteenth century Chinese Buddhist monk GaoFeng YuanMiao states: “The whole world is a pit of fire. What state of mind can you attain to avoid being burned?”

If the world is a pit of fire, the internet is surely the extra hot patch of coals right in the middle. What state of mind can you attain to avoid feeling that the arguments crafted by a great many netizens are the intellectual equivalent of discarded hypodermic needles in a public park? I use the terms “argument” and “crafted” loosely, though surely the degree to which some of our fellow online content producers remain doggedly impervious to points of reason, common sense, and general humanity approaches a craft of some sort.

In answer to GaoFeng’s question: we need a state of mind that can recognise people’s true motives and intentions; to discriminate between the sincere and the malicious, and distinguish those who are trying to understand from those who are merely trying.

The key lies in giving honest study to our own personal responses: to recognise how we behave when sincerely looking for answers, to admit to ourselves when we are merely seeking to score points against an “enemy”, to distinguish between genuine good-will and actual malice toward others in our own hearts. If you can see it in yourself, you will learn to recognise it in others, and, I hope, elevate the benevolent and magnanimous over the small, petty ugliness that too easily creeps in.

Once you establish a threshold for sincere, reasonable discussion, you may be dismayed by the volume of commentary that falls short. Of the many ways in which online debate and discussion diverge from the ideal, one of the most common and pervasive is the argumentum ad hominem.

An ad hominem argument is an argument “to the man”: an attack on the person rather than their argument. In sporting parlance, “playing the man instead of the ball”. Many people think that an ad hominem argument simply means an insulting or derogatory comment (ignore them, they’re idiots). In everyday language ad hominem arguments can be difficult to identify, but they become clearer when placed in a more structured logical context.

For example: I dimly recall stating in a philosophy class some years ago that the moral life of such philosophical luminaries as Friedrich Nietzsche (syphilitic, catatonic, generally insane), Bertrand Russell (philanderer, suspected of an affair with his daughter-in-law), and Martin Heidegger (Nazi) should make us wary of the theories they espoused – especially where they impinge on ethics.

Is this an ad hominem argument? In one sense it is, because it addresses the personal lives of the men behind the philosophies. But it is not a logical fallacy. If we consider that philosophy has relevance for the way life is actually lived, and that these philosophers lived their lives in either pitiable or contemptible ways, then it is potentially of great relevance to examine the lives of philosophers – especially when their teachings deviate markedly from traditional moral and ethical standards.

But if I were to say, “Heidegger’s theories on the nature of being and time are refuted by his being, for a time, an unrepentant member of the Nazi party,” or, “Russell’s rejection of the First Cause argument is invalid on account of his having had numerous affairs,” or, “Nietzsche’s depiction of Christianity as a ‘slave-morality’ was shown to be false when he finally descended into madness,” then I would be committing obvious logical fallacies.

Genuine ad hominem fallacies such as these are crude, clearly illogical, and comparatively rare. Far more common are what UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh calls “ad hominem heuristics”. An heuristic is a “rule of thumb”, a principle, method, strategy or rule that works well in practice even if it is not absolutely true and binding in all circumstances. The ad hominem heuristic takes into account a person’s views, reputation, past conduct and circumstances as relevant information, while still acknowledging that actual arguments must be addressed on their own merits. The ad hominem heuristic is a basic premise of political life: when workers’ unions support a piece of reform, it is all but guaranteed that business groups will be immediately wary. For most of us the quickest way to form an opinion on an issue is to see where our enemies stand.

Heuristics are guides, but they cannot replace real knowledge. It is very easy to go from suspicion of one’s opponents on account of the views they hold, to suspicion of certain views on account of who holds them. Yet these days it seems as though ad hominem heuristics are the first resort in our online and public debates. For example, in 2009 Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini gave evidence before a Tasmanian Parliamentary Committee on the subject of euthanasia. Professor Tonti-Filippini was asked for his opinion on surveys which suggest that a significant proportion of Australian doctors have administered excessive doses of drugs with the intention of hastening a patient’s death. Tonti-Filippini’s response and the ensuing exchange indicate an ad hominem heuristic at work:

Prof. TONTI-FILIPPINI …it does worry me that it happens. I do not see, though, that because what in fact is a criminal offence is happening we should then change the law. If it is a bad thing to do it, changing the law because some people do it would not make anything any better.

Ms O’CONNOR – Professor, I am interested in the John Paul II Institute. Is that a Catholic academic institution?

Prof. TONTI-FILIPPINI – Yes, we are associated with the Lateran University in Rome, which is a Catholic university. We do teach a program that is advised to us from that university. I am employed here as a philosopher but obviously I am a Catholic and I do not pretend to be anything else. We teach our students a program that is approved by the Commonwealth national protocols and the Victorian standards body that accredits higher education providers, so our programs have to cover the same sort of curriculum and material that you would find elsewhere doing the same program. I teach bioethics, so if they were doing bioethics at Monash or Melbourne – and I taught at both places – I am covering the same range of material that I would cover at either of those places.

Ms O’CONNOR – I understand that, but would you not agree that your Catholicism has influenced your ethical approach to this issue?

Prof. TONTI-FILIPPINI – There’s no doubt, and when you listen to me you’re listening to a Catholic. All I would ask is that you evaluate what I say on the basis of what I say, not by some sort of discriminatory measure that says, ‘He’s a Catholic so I won’t listen to him’.

Ms O’CONNOR – No, I am certainly not doing that.

An impartial observer might wonder about the relevance of Professor Tonti-Filippini’s religious identity to the issue of euthanasia, or his testimony to the committee. Ms O’Connor does not offer an explicit argument or an explanation of why she raises the issue. What is the relevance of Professor Tonti-Filippini’s Catholicism to the issue at hand?

We can only wonder what Ms O’Connor had in mind. Perhaps she was admiring the quality of the Professor’s ethical discourse, and wondering if it was representative of Catholic thought in general? We can only hope that she was not thinking the crude and illogical thought that the Professor’s arguments regarding euthanasia and the law were rendered false on account of his being a Catholic.

We cannot know what this individual had in mind, but we do know that a prevalent and persistent line of argument does indeed seek to dismiss objections to euthanasia on the grounds of religious affiliation. Australian proponents of euthanasia have often employed this ad hominem heuristic against their religious proponents. In a speech to parliament in 2001, then Member of the South Australian Legislative Council Sandra Kanck introduced her Dignity in Dying Bill with an ad hominem argument against all religious opponents of euthanasia:

“We live in a multicultural society. Jewish people believe that we should not eat pork, but they do not try to push that view onto the rest of society. We have Hindu people in our community who say that we should not slaughter cows. Most of us in this place are not vegetarian, we eat beef, and we would be most upset if members of the Hindu religion tried to prevent us from eating beef.

Some Christians believe that it is wrong to access right-to-die legislation, but it is a belief system. They have their right to their belief: others have their right to their beliefs. To deny the right to access voluntary euthanasia under the guise of religious authority is to deny freedom of religious expression in our society.”

Such an argument conflates religious teachings with the beliefs of religious adherents. It fails to distinguish appropriately between teachings that apply to Jews, Hindus, and Christians, and the beliefs of people who happen to be Jewish, Hindu, or Christian. It also fails to distinguish between religious teachings that are intended to apply only to religious adherents, and those which encapsulate the best philosophical or ethical teaching of an entire culture.  

But more importantly, it treats our social and intellectual culture as a set of hermetically sealed “belief systems”, sitting together on the kitchen shelf of mutual tolerance and respect without any danger of mixing or intermingling, or the chance that one might go bad and spoil the whole lot. With such a perspective, the ad hominem heuristic becomes a matter of putting people in their boxes (or hermetically sealed jars). Like an educational puzzle designed for children ages 3 through 5, this perspective invites us to match each of the participants in our public debate with their corresponding belief system so we can safely ignore them.

But don’t get me wrong: ad hominem heuristics do have their place. On a basic level they are related to what phenomenologists used to call “empathy”, and cognitive scientists now call “mindreading”: our natural tendency to try to make sense of the motives and intentions of other people. If I have arrived at a conclusion, naturally I want to know why other people disagree. Do they lack the intellectual capacity to follow the arguments? Are they biased? Do they have ulterior motives?

But these questions can only be asked after we have pursued as far as possible the issue itself. We must make an honest effort to put aside our own perspective and examine the issue from different angles. Have I missed something? Settle that question; honestly settle it with a level of scrutiny beyond anything your opponents might muster, and then you can muse to your heart’s content on the motives and the madness of those who cannot or will not grasp the truth.

Because, when we engage in these ad hominem heuristics it means we have – rightly or wrongly – ceased to address or investigate the truth of the issue itself. We’ve moved on from the actual argument to secondary questions such as how much of a pillock you must be to hold opinions contrary to our own.

When we determine, for example, that Holocaust deniers have insufficient evidence to support their claims, we can then move on to the interesting psychological question of what drives an individual to invest time and effort in denying such a terrible historical event.

But Holocaust denial is a “safe” example broadly condemned across society; when it comes to the truly controversial issues such as euthanasia, religion, and everything else that divides our community we are obliged more than ever to ask ourselves the most basic question: have I missed something?

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...