Judge Amy Coney Barrett is wrong in her legal opinions because she prays with a charismatic Catholic group, we are told.
There’s enough illogic in these arguments to make an army battalion weep. Public discourse these days does little but sadden hordes of logic teachers—banging their heads against their blackboards and moaning, “How long, O Lord? How long?”
What’s interesting about the arguments we hear, however, isn’t their general grottiness. It’s that they tend to a particular kind of illogic, a specific fallacy. Over and over, they take the form of arguing that some defect in the speaker makes false the thing the speaker says.
We have a name for this kind of bad argument. Well, logicians have a name for it, as they have a name for almost everything. In Latin, more often than not. It’s called the “ad hominem,” “against the man.”
Thinking ClearlyFacts about the speaker aren't necessarily uninformative. If someone unqualified to give an opinion in a technical field—if I, for example, were to assure you that genetic analogues to frogs live long and productive lives on the planet Venus—you could make a reasonable riposte that my complete lack of knowledge of exobiology and planetary dynamics leaves me an unreliable oracle about Venusian frog people.
It wouldn’t prove me wrong, though. And that’s where identifying the ad hominem fallacy helps clarify logic. Here’s a notion: “The common good before the individual good.” Maybe it’s a good thought, maybe it’s a bad one—but neither is proved by the fact that an evil man, Adolf Hitler, said it.
“Often correct and good things have first been regarded ... as poisonous weeds,” seems quite possibly true, even though it was the monstrous Mao Zedong who offered it.
“The devil can cite scripture for his purpose,” Shakespeare warned, but it doesn’t cease to be scripture just because, you know, the devil quotes it.
The Fallacy of the TimeDon’t get me wrong: Unclear thinking has always been part of the human condition. There never was a golden age of reason. Whenever they live, people fall into fallacies and fantasies. In every era, we muddle on through misjudgments and mistakes.
But though every age is plagued by illogic, the specific fallacy to which people are prone varies in different times and different places.
If there was a fallacy endemic to bad thinking in the Middle Ages, it was circular reasoning: “petitio principii” (in Latin, naturally), or begging the question.
If there was a fallacy into which the early modern thinkers tended to fall, in their rush to make scientific breakthroughs, it would be the fallacy known as hasty generalization.
And us? We live in the age of the ad hominem, with the truth and falsity of propositions apparently measured by the moral purity of those who speak them. And something profound about the culture—its neuroses and its fantasies—is revealed by the tendency toward that particular fallacy.
It happens on the right, often enough. President Donald Trump loves a good ad hominem when it comes to hand. I once mentioned to a conservative audience that Cass Sunstein had an interesting study on group dynamics, and I thought I was going to be shouted out of the room, because, well, you know, Sunstein worked for the Democrats.
Identifying TribesI could be mistaken, of course. I am no more an expert on leftist rhetorical strategies than I am on the fauna of Venus. But look, for an easy example, at the reaction to Bari Weiss’s resignation from The New York Times in July, citing the toxic Twitter culture that had overtaken the newspaper.
“If Ben Shapiro and Ted Cruz are upset about Bari Weiss leaving the NYT, then that person must be a real piece of [expletive], so no loss,” one tweeter wrote—a kind of doubly-distant guilt by association, which is one the informal fallacies in the line of ad hominem: A speaker’s statements are praised by bad people, therefore the speaker is bad, and (by implication) the speaker’s statements are false. Praise for her resignation by conservatives “is all that really needs to be said about who Bari Weiss is and what she stands for,” added another.
“The white privilege of the white”—that’s poisoning the well, a form of ad hominem in which some aspect of speakers forever bars them from speaking on a topic. Meanwhile, we get straightforward abusive ad hominem: “You poor naïve fool,” one Tweet opines about a claim from Malcolm Gladwell.
The form of ad hominem known as “tu quoque” is another internet favorite, in which speakers are declared wrong about something being bad because they do the same bad thing themselves—despite the fact that even hypocrites can speak the truth.
But whatever the cause, every era is defined by its prevalent fallacies—and we live now in the age of the ad hominem.