(Argumentum) ad Hominem
Latin for: “(argument) against the person”. Refers to an unfair attack on the person presenting an argument; This stands in contrast to a factual argument (ad res/rem), which is directed against the argument itself.
In most circumstances, such ad hominem attacks are considered unobjective and unfair (for exceptions, see below).
Ad hominem-attacks usually serve as red herrings, i.e. rhetorical devices intended to distract from the actual topic of discussion.
- Personal attack
- Argument against the person
In a factual discourse, one should talk about the matter at hand, not about the people presenting a position. In fact, to evaluate an argument, in most cases (exceptions see below) the person presenting it is entirely irrelevant.
Therefore, anyone who tries to discredit a position by attacking the person himself is arguing, quite literally, unobjectively.
As a matter of principle, ad hominem-arguments should be regarded as unfair rhetorical devices, since they do not contribute to a factual discussion distract from the matter that is discussed. There are certain circumstances, however, where this is not universally true. I.e. there are subject areas or specific arguments against the person, which an attack on the person may be justified.
The person as part of the argument
There are situations in which the persons presenting an argument can be (directly or indirectly) the subject of the discussion; For example, when the credibility of a witness is at issue, or the expertise of an expert, or even the suitability of character for a task (such as for political office).
In such cases, an argument against the person may be a justifiable means of discussion: showing that the witness has lied in the past, or that an “expert” does not actually have the qualifications he claims to have in the first place is relevant to the discussion in this case.
But even in these circumstances, there can be no carte blanche for arbitrary personal attacks: Any objection to the person must always be factual, pertinent to the topic, and of course fair and proportional. Under no circumstances are insults, insinuations or unsubstantiated allegations (e.g. rumors) an appropriate means of fair discourse.
One can also frequently encounter persons who seem to perceive any form of contradiction against their views or positions as a personal attack and thus try to reject arbitrary arguments as ad hominem and thus unfair.
This especially concerns views that touch fundamental ideological principles – especially religious or sometimes political principles – which seem to be regarded by many as part of their personality. This should be reason enough to approach such topics with a little more sense of diplomacy. However, this is by no means a justification for anyone to feel personally attacked if they experiences factual (!) contradiction.
In other words, even if one feels a position or a worldview as part of one’s own personality and feels provoked (or as it is nowadays often called: “triggered”) by contradiction, factual contradiction is nevertheless fundamentally valid and not an ad hominem-attack.