Abuse Of the Ad Hominem Fallacy

Trent Horn

In this episode Trent explains what the ad hominem fallacy is and how people often mistakenly think it is the same thing as genuine criticism. He also highlights where the fallacy was misused in one of his past debates as well as in a William Lane Craig debate.


Welcome to the Council of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

Trent Horn:

Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Council of Trent podcast. I’m your host, Catholic Answers apologist and speaker, Trent Horn. On the Council of Trent, I want to encourage anybody whether they’re Catholic or non-Catholic to reason well. Just to reason well. We all want to come together. Isaiah, Chapter one, it says, “Come, let us reason together.”

Trent Horn:

But in order to reason together, we have to reason well. And so we have to avoid fallacies or errors in reasoning. So I’m hoping over the next few weeks, I might cover different fallacies or errors in reasoning that pop up in conversations with one another. I’m going to focus on the fallacies that people misunderstand the most. Because there are a lot of people who will say, “Oh, I’m aware of fallacies. I want to reason well.” They’ll try to call out other people and say, “Hey, you’re making this fallacy” or “You’re making that fallacy.” But they’re actually mistaken. That’s not actually the fallacy that you’re looking for. These aren’t the droids, the fallacies that you’re looking for.

Trent Horn:

So in reasoning well, we want to understand fallacies and then understand when they occur and when we only think they occur. So today we’re going to talk about the ad hominem fallacy or against the man. But before we do that though, I want to remind everyone about our premium content at trenthornpodcast.com. If you want access to our 18-hour long video Catechism Study series. Goes through the whole catechism. Or the 18-hour long New Testament video study series. You can get all that at trenthornpodcast.com. Become a premium subscriber there. That helps to keep the podcast growing and reaching more people. So definitely go and check that out at trenthornpodcast.com.

Trent Horn:

All right, now, let’s talk about the ad hominem fallacy. What is it and how do people misuse it? Ad hominem is a Latin term that means against the man. The fallacy occurs when someone says person … well, Smith. In philosophy, it’s always Smith or Jones is the person. Smith’s argument is false because Smith is a bad person. When I put it that way, it’s pretty easy to see the flaw and the argument. You can be a bad person and still have a true argument. It also works in reverse. You could be a kind and caring and charismatic and winsome person and still have a bad argument.

Trent Horn:

An argument’s truth, the success of an argument, whether it is sound or not … By the way, let me get these terms out here. If an argument has no fallacies in it, no errors in its reasoning. We say it’s valid. It’s a valid argument. But just because it doesn’t have errors and reasoning, doesn’t mean that it’s a good argument. Because if a premise, one of the statements in the argument is false, then the conclusion is going to be false. So you could have a valid argument that has no fallacies in it, no errors in the reasoning, and still have a bad argument because one of the premises is not true.

Trent Horn:

For example, here would be an example of a valid unsound argument. Anyone from Texas is the President of the United States. Trent Horn is from Texas. Therefore, Trent Horn is the President of the United States. Now, that argument is valid. It doesn’t have any errors in the reasoning. It would be identical to this argument. Anyone who lives in Dallas, lives in Texas. Trent Horn lives in Dallas. Therefore, Trent Horn lives in Texas. The structure is the same so it’s a valid structure. Fallacies are about making sure our argument structure is correct. But to be a sound argument, the premises also have to be true. So our goal is to have no errors in the reasoning and no false premises or false statements in the argument.

Trent Horn:

The ad hominem argument comes up when you say, “Oh, that guy is bad” or “He has a faulty character” or “There’s something bad about him,” therefore his argument’s wrong. But this happens and you might think, “Well, how is this such a common argument when it’s so weak?” Well as human beings, a lot of times we take the low road. We attack or insult other people instead of engaging their argument. We say, “They’re a bad person. You don’t have to listen to them.” I’ll give you an example. I was on a college campus was once doing pro-life work and a heckler shouted at me, “How many children of you adopted?” I hesitated. I didn’t know how to answer the question. And he said, “I thought so.” Here, he’s making kind of a veiled ad hominem argument. Pro-lifers are hypocrites because they don’t adopt unwanted children. Therefore, pro-lifers are wrong about abortion. Therefore, abortion ought to be illegal.

Trent Horn:

When you run it out like that, when you stretch out the ad hominem arguments or tease them out, it’s easy to see why they’re wrong. When you’re the victim of an ad hominem argument, your goal is to get away from the hominem part, from you, and back to the argument. One of the ways you can do that is by just saying, “Okay, let’s say that you’re right,” even if they’re wrong about the personal attack on you. “Let’s say that you’re right. What does that have to do with my argument?”

Trent Horn:

A friend of mine, David, he actually got this as well on campuses. People would say to him, “How many children have you adopted?” And he’s actually adopted four children, but he would say to them, “You know what? Let’s say, let’s imagine you’re right. That I’ve never adopted children. Let’s say, I really, really dislike children. I’m mean to them. How would that in any way refute my argument that abortion is wrong because it kills an innocent human being?” How does me being a bad person suddenly make abortion a good thing. And so this is successful because it gets you off of yourself, the hominem part, and off of trying to defend yourself or your character and back to the argument that you want to talk about.

Trent Horn:

So now you see what the fallacy is and how to respond to it, but it’s important to know when it’s misused. For example, if I say “Smith is a jerk.” That’s not an ad hominem argument. Some people will say that if you criticize them in any way, by saying that they are obnoxious, they are rude, they are inconsiderate, that to point out any character flaw in someone, the person will say, “You are making an ad hominem argument.” That’s the ad hominem fallacy. No, it’s not. Now I could be incorrect. What I’m doing is I’m making a character assessment of the other person or a criticism. My criticism might be true or it might be false, but it’s only an ad hominem argument if I say “Smith is a jerk, obnoxious, inconsiderate; therefore, Smith is wrong about position X.” If I do that, that’s ad hominem. If I just say “Smith is a jerk” or “Smith is mean” or “Smith is being ridiculous,” that’s not ad hominem. It is a critique or a character assessment that might be true or false.

Trent Horn:

Another example of the misused ad hominem is to say “Smith is untrustworthy; therefore, you shouldn’t believe what he says.” That’s subtle, but it’s different than the ad hominem. The ad hominem, it says, “Smith is a bad person; therefore, his argument is bad.” Arguments stand or fall apart from the person who’s making them because Jones could come along and make Smith’s exact same argument and borrow the premises and reach the same conclusion. So, the argument has no dependence on in your character.

Trent Horn:

But an argument is different than testimony. Testimony is when you say, “Here is what I saw, here is what I did, here is what I know.” And so, for testimony, you are relying on the other person to communicate something to you that you don’t know. This is different than the premises in an arguments. So the premises are something we can check independently. We can agree or disagree about. But when you have testimony, someone who says, “Here’s what I saw, here’s what I know,” you can say, “Smith’s testimony about X is unreliable because Smith is a known liar. Smith is inconsistent. Smith is hypocritical.” Whatever it may be, you can say, “Look, there are reasons to not trust Smith. Therefore, these are the same reasons to not trust Smith’s testimony.”

Trent Horn:

Saying somebody is not trustworthy and so their testimony may not be reliable, that is not an ad hominem. Because we’re talking about testimony, not an argument that they’re making that is separate from them as a person. That the strength of an argument is not dependent in any way on the person making it, but only upon the truth of the premises that can be established objectively, and the truth of whether the conclusion follows, whether you’ve reasoned correctly.

Trent Horn:

Now, the trustworthiness could come in if one of the premises is essentially Smith’s testimony. If one of the premises is based on testimony that only can be found in Smith and Smith isn’t reliable, that could infect the argument. So I hope you see the difference here in saying someone is not trustworthy so we can’t trust their testimony, that is not the same thing as the ad hominem fallacy. Arguments stand or fall apart from the people who make them.

Trent Horn:

So let me give you two examples of the misused ad hominem argument from debates. The first one would be William Lane Craig’s debate with Hector Avalos. Hector Avalos is an atheistic biblical scholar and Craig and Avalos were debating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, Craig had seen Avalos in a previous debate engage in an underhanded tactic. Avalos was debating Rubel Shelley on the same issue. Avalos asked Shelly to identify by sight a new Testament manuscript. He made fun of him in the debate saying “Professor Shelley, if you think these manuscripts are so reliable, you can’t even tell us which manuscript this is.” Which is not fair because that’s not how New Testament scholars recognize or work with manuscripts. Most of them work with copies or reproductions of the manuscripts, not the original ones that are locked away in a museum somewhere.

Trent Horn:

And so Craig was concerned Avalos would make try a similar trick with him. He wanted to undercut Avalos before he had a possibility of doing that so he brought this up in his opening statement and talked about how inappropriate it was. Apparently, one of the students in attendance, I guess an Avalos fan, he was not happy about Craig doing this. He gets really worked up about it and you can hear him accuse Craig of engaging in the ad hominem right here.

Student:

I’d first like to thank you for coming, but I’d like to question you on your tactics. I kept tally of the number of logical fallacies you committed and it was 25, the highlights of which were four occurrences of shifting the burden of proof, three occurrences of argumentum ad populi, and I’ll skip over all the others to get to the highlight. Within 60 seconds of standing at the podium, you committed argumentum ad hominem. The equivalent of a five year old calling names. Shame on you.

William Lane Craig:

All right, yeah, shame on me. I’m also a professional philosopher as well as a New Testament theologian. I understand logic.

Student:

Well, obviously you have no self-control.

Moderator:

Allow the speaker to answer the question, please. Be quiet so the speaker can reply.

William Lane Craig:

I don’t think I committed any of these informal logical fallacies. I think all of my arguments are carefully formulated according to the canons of logical inference. I do want to say something though about the ad hominem point because I felt very uncomfortable about opening as I did. But I felt I had to do it in light of what I had seen in this earlier debate by way of preempting that happening in tonight’s debate. Because in front of an untrained audience of undergraduates, mis-impressions can arise and so that was why I did that. I didn’t like doing that, but I felt it was necessary in order that we conduct this debate according to professional rules of etiquette and decorum. But I don’t think that was ad hominem because I wasn’t saying that what Dr. Avalos said was false because of anything about him. That’s what ad hominem means. You say a position is false by attacking the person and I never suggested anything of that sort. So I think that the charge is not correct.

Trent Horn:

So, Craig is right. He was not saying that Avalos was wrong about the resurrection because he had engaged in this unprofessional behavior with Rubel Shelley. All Craig was saying is that Avalos was wrong to do this and anyone listening to the debate should not fall for it if Avalos were to do it again. He was not saying Avalos’ entire position is wrong because he did something that was inappropriate. Simply, he did something inappropriate so watch out for it.

Trent Horn:

Something similar happens when you address double standards sometimes. When I was debating Rafael Lataster in Australia several years ago. He was a Ph.D. student at the time. Now, I think he is a professor. We were debating the issue: Does God exist? At one point, Lataster criticized my argument that I was giving saying it relied on a theory of time that only a minority of philosophers hold. He was critiquing my argument saying that it relied on a theory that only a minority of people accept in academia. And so, when time came up for my rebuttal, I pointed out Lataster is a mythicist. He does not believe that Jesus even existed, which is a radical, radical fringe theory that I’m not aware of anyone with a Ph.D. in the relevant fields teaching at a major university who holds the view that Jesus did not exist. Or if there are, there might be like one or two of them. There were way more experts who held that my theory of time than held to Lataster’s mythicism about Jesus.

Trent Horn:

So when I got up for my second rebuttal, I simply said, Lataster has criticized me for using a theory of time. His only argument is, “Well, it’s only embraced by a minority of scholars.” But that shouldn’t be a good argument because Lataster himself embraces a theory that a tiny, tiny minority of people hold, which is that Jesus never existed.

Trent Horn:

I also find it rich that someone says my argument relies on a fringe theory from someone who wrote a book that Jesus didn’t exist, which among historians is the fringe of the fringe of the fringe. So I think that’s very humorous. So, when it was time for Lataster to get up again for his response, he accused me of making an ad hominem.

Rafael Lataster:

I do want to say, I think it’s an ad hominem argument to mention my work on Jesus that’s been peer reviewed. I’ve been published in Cambridge on that. The University has supported me on that. I’m technically a Jesus agnostic as well. I’m not a fringe mythicist. But that’s irrelevant. We didn’t discuss Jesus here tonight so I think that was a very poor form to bring that up.

Trent Horn:

So, of course, when I got up from my rebuttal, I pointed out that no, I did not make an ad hominem. I was just pointing out an inconsistency here that if you are trying to make an argument against me based on something that I believe is only held by a minority of scholars, then that argument is going to undermine Lataster’s position on something like the existence of Jesus. I’m pointing out his inconsistency. I was not saying Lataster is a mythicist; therefore, he is wrong about the existence of God. That would be an ad hominem argument. Rather, I was pointing out an inconsistency as you’ll see here.

Trent Horn:

I’m also going to say that when I brought up your work with Jesus, I wasn’t making an ad hominem attack. I wasn’t saying there’s something bad about my opponent and that he’s wrong. I was just noticing it’s funny that his only argument against my first cause argument was that it relies on a theory of time that a minority of philosophers accept. Even though the majority of philosophers haven’t weighed in on theories of time. So he was critiquing my argument because only a minority of people accept it. But really, it’s not even that small of a minority. About 15% of philosopher, 25% for the competing theory. So, it’s still a very viable theory that many people accept.

Trent Horn:

I think it’s funny. That’s his only argument against my first cause is that a minority of scholars accept it. And yet, he’s written an entire book and defended a position that’s extremely fringe and extremely minority. I’m not denigrating his work. I’m just saying that just as Rafael would say, we can’t discover truth by counting heads with Jesus, we can’t do it by counting heads with God. We have to examine the evidence and the evidence tonight, I think, shows that God does exist.

Trent Horn:

Two points here as we kind of wrap everything up. First, that was a very fun debate. I think it was at the University of Melbourne, but I can’t remember. It was in Australia several years ago. And I think actually, some of my points that I made showed up later in Rafael’s completed dissertation, that’s now his Ph.D. and now he teaches down there. Maybe we’ll have another debate in the future. I will say, though, I could have been clearer about his position. I might have misunderstood it. But my argument still holds that even if he does not outright deny that Jesus exists, the Jesus agnostic position, the idea that, well, it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus didn’t exist or the evidence for and against his existence is equal. That itself is a fringe theory among historians and New Testament scholars. Bart Ehrman in his book, Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman, of course, is an agnostic scholar of the New Testament, says that virtually every expert on the planet holds that Jesus existed. But I could have been more precise, but the argument still holds.

Trent Horn:

Number two, I was really tired before that debate. My host, I think the day before, I was doing a speaking tour in Australia. And so I was traveling all over Eastern Australia. On my day off, they took me on a 10-mile long nature hike. Although I got to see wild kangaroos and that was a lot of fun. But I remember being super tired, but that debate, I had still enjoyed that debate and I thought I went very well. If you want to watch it, I’ll leave a link to it in the description below.

Trent Horn:

But I hope this was helpful for you so you can identify an ad hominem argument, know how to handle it when it’s thrown against you, and how not to misuse it when you’re engaging other people. So hey, thank you guys so much, and I hope you have a very blessed day.

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