Monday, March 10, 2008

Faulty Reasoning: Ad Hominem Reasoning

"Ad hominem" is Latin for "against the man." Ad hominem reasoning is an attempt to discredit or dismiss an argument or assertion by pointing to the person (or something about the person) who is making that argument or assertion.

For instance, suppose you make a statement (or offer an argument in favor of something). You say that something-or-other is a good idea. And then suppose that I try to prove that what you say is flawed by claiming that you:

  • "are an extremist";
  • "are employed by or on the payroll of such-and-such company";
  • "are a member of such-and-such organization";
  • "have an agenda"
  • "are politically motivated, or have political motivations";
  • "are saying this just to get elected," etc.

Now, some of these things may be true. But, even if they are true, none of them are sufficient to prove that whatever it is you supported isn't a good idea. Sometimes bad people (supposing that you are one) tell the truth. Sometimes people who are biased tell the truth. Sometimes people who have sinister motivations tell the truth. The mere fact that someone is an extremist, or on the payroll of this or that group or whatever isn't sufficient to prove that what they say is false or that the argument they're offering is flawed.

Ad hominem reasoning is an instance of fallacious, invalid reasoning. You cannot discredit or dismiss an argument or assertion on the basis of its source (i.e., the person who offered it). For this reason, ad hominem reasoning is sometimes referred to as "the genetic fallacy" (i.e., the fallacy of evaluating a statement or argument according to its genesis, or who or where it comes from).

In order to show that someone has said something false, you have to point to facts relevant to what they've said, not to something about the speaker. If someone has put forth a bad argument, point out what's wrong with that argument regardless of who makes it. Is one of the premises flawed? Is the reasoning not valid? That's what you have to get at.

Ad hominem reasoning is sometimes difficult to distinguish from name-calling, even though the two are distinct (go to the page on name-calling for more on this distinction). They do have similarities, though, to such a degree that it is possible to engage in both name-calling and ad hominem argument at the same time. (This sort of multi-tasking is not something to be proud of, however.)

To keep this distinction clear, I tend to avoid using the term "ad hominem attack," which I think is sometimes used to refer to name-calling, or at least doesn't clearly refer to the kind of flawed reasoning outlined on this page. Instead, I use the terms "ad hominem reasoning" or "ad hominem argument."

The author of a new tell-all book about Hillary Clinton could never have seen any of what he claims — he was too low-ranking — say several high-level members of Secret Service presidential details, including the president of the Association of Former Agents of the United States Secret Service.

On Tuesday, AFAUSSS, which is strictly nonpartisan, is set to release a statement blasting Gary Byrne author of “Crisis in Character,” saying members “strongly denounce” the book, which they add has made security harder by eroding the trust between agents and the people they protect.

“There is no place for any self-moralizing narratives, particularly those with an underlying motive,” reads the statement from the group’s board of directors, which says Byrne has politics and profit on his mind.

Vanessa Oblinger, Byrne’s publicist for the book, said the claim he didn’t witness the events he describes in the book was “a nonsense charge.”

“He was posted directly outside the Oval Office for three years,” she said.

She cited Byrne’s performance awards and positive evaluations, as well as a letter of appreciation he received from the Secret Service in 1996 for his “commitment, dedication and professional performance.”

“The Clintons always trash the messenger,” Oblinger said, adding later, “This is the first of many Clinton-directed media attempts at character assassination.”
-- From a June 21, 2016, story in Politico by Edward-Isaac Dovere.

Comment: First, what is the importance of AFAUSSS being "nonpartisan"? Is this supposed to make them more credible? Isn't that an appeal to false authority? Second, both the AFAUSSS and Byrne's publicist seem to be making ad hominem arguments: even if it's true that Byrne has some sinister "underlying motive", that doesn't prove anything he's said is false; and even if it's true that the Clintons always "trash the messenger", it doesn't prove that none of their criticisms of Byrne's statements are valid.

"I don't care where the judge comes from or where judges come from. I just want to get a fair shake. And we've had some very unfair [judicial] opinions coming down. And you wonder, what's going on? And I will tell you, it's a little disappointing, some of the Republicans – and, in all fairness, they're some of the people that I went through war with – and I won – and there's a lot of, there's a lot of anxiety there, there's a lot of, you know, there's a lot of anger, I guess. Anger. They just can't come back, they can't get over it. So they have to get over it, ideally. As to whether or not they endorse me, it's OK if they don't. But they have to get over it. They shouldn't be so angry for so long."
-- Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, June 7, 2016. Trump was responding to criticism of his demand that U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel recuse himself from a civil case concerning Trump University, given that Curiel was of Mexican heritage, was a member of a Latino lawyers' association, and that Trump had pledged to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to stop illegal immigration from Mexico.

Comment: Yes, maybe some of the people criticizing Trump for his remarks on Judge Curiel are angry because they lost to Trump in the GOP presidential primary (the "war" Trump refers to). But that doesn't mean their criticism is invalid; to argue that way would be ad hominem reasoning.

"Why is the economy slowing? The usual suspects wasted no time blaming President Obama. But you need to remember that these same people have been warning of imminent disaster ever since Mr. Obama was elected, and have been wrong every step of the way. They predicted soaring interest rates and soaring inflation; neither happened. They declared that the Affordable Care Act would be a huge job-killer; the years after the act went into full effect were marked by the best private-sector job creation since the 1990s."
-- Pundit Paul Krugman, June 6, 2016.

Comment: This is ad hominem reasoning. Yes, many of Obama’s critics have made false predictions about Obama’s policies. But that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong now. After all, Obama and his supporters have made false predictions and been wrong from time to time, as well; the fact that they were wrong in the past doesn’t guarantee that they’re wrong now. Also, is it really true that Obama’s critics have been wrong “every step of the way”? Not once have they ever made an accurate criticism of Obama? That sounds like a distortion.

"A longtime opponent like me knows there is an ocean of difference between her record and her rhetoric. … So why should we believe Hillary Clinton about Donald Trump when we can't believe her about her own assessment of her record, the facts of that record and her service?"
-- Pundit Hugh Hewitt, June 2, 2016, referring to a speech made by Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that criticized the foreign policy of Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Even if it’s true that Clinton’s assessment of her own record is flawed, that doesn’t mean Clinton’s criticisms of Trump are flawed. To reason from the former to the latter is ad hominem.

"As an independent, we gotta use equal standards on both sides. And, for example, the protests last night that degenerated into violence, that is a bad move for the Democratic party and Trump opponents. Because if they degenerate into violence – imagine what would have happened if the folks on the right had protested so violently and danced on police cars. There would be a totally different tone of conversation today."
-- Pundit John Avlon, May 25, 2016, referring to protests against Republican presidential contender Donald Trump that turned violent.

Comment: Avlon is saying that – had supporters of Trump resorted to the same behavior of as the opponents of Trump did – the criticism would have been much worse. In other words, he is saying the criticism has been hypocritical (though it's not clear if he's using this as an ad hominem argument to dismiss the criticism).

"All of this has been a political hit job from the beginning … Whether it’s the report being written in the State Department’s Office of Inspector General with the help of a former confidante of Chuck Grassley, at the same time Senator Grassley has been on a political crusade to hurt Hillary Clinton, or the final report of the discredited House Benghazi Committee, we will do as we have from the beginning: preempt, debunk and push back on these partisan lies."
-- Political operative David Brock, as related in a May 25, 2016, story by Josh Gerstein in Politico. Brock's comments regarded the investigations surrounding the use of a private email server by Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her time as head of the State Department.

Comment: Brock is using ad hominem reasoning. Even if it's true there are partisan motives behind the criticisms of Clinton, that doesn't mean the criticisms are false. What if we used the same reasoning against Clinton: "there are partisan motives behind the defense of Clinton, therefore the defense is false"?

"They're just words. She reads off a teleprompter. You notice, she's reading off a teleprompter. She always does. She really doesn't have her own words."
-- Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, May 22, 2016, responding to criticism of him made by Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Comment: Trump is accusing Clinton of using talking points. It would be ad hominem reasoning, if he's trying to say Clinton's criticisms are false because they are read from a script.

Of course, Republicans have known for a long time that Hillary Clinton is an unusually strong candidate, and this terrifies them. So they have seized on talking points like Benghazi (for which she bears little or no responsibility) and her email scandal.
-- Pundit Jay Parini, March 21, 2016, referring to Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Comment: First, this is "talking points" rhetoric. There's nothing inherently wrong with people using talking points (assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is what Republicans are doing). What matters is whether the talking points are true and relevant. Second, Parini is saying the Republicans have political motives for criticizing Clinton on Benghazi and her email server. Even that's true, it tells us nothing about whether or not those criticisms are true and relevant. To dismiss the criticisms because of political motives is flawed; it's ad hominem reasoning. Should we dismiss Clinton's defense against criticism because she has political motives to defend herself? No, because that would likewise be ad hominem.

"I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016."
-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, February 11, 2016, during the Democratic Party debate. Clinton was responding to remarks by Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who criticized Clinton for voting in 2002 to invade Iraq. "ISIS" is another name for The Islamic State.

Comment: Clinton is correct that whether her vote in 2002 was right or wrong doesn't determine whether she is correct in her policies regarding terrorism in 2016 (such an argument would be ad hominem reasoning).

"Just got an e-mail here during the break. "Dear Rush: I'm missing something here in this outrage. I'm missing something in this outrage directed at Cruz. Trump, Palin, Carson all sound whiny to me. What in the world do they think they're doing? What business are they in, here?" Folks, maybe that describes some of you, the (crying) aspect of this. What it means, is Cruz is the front-runner. And this is apparently the only way they can go after him. I guess they don't think they can go after him on issues. I guess they don't see any other way to go at him. You know they're gonna go after the front-runner. I mean, it's part of the race. It's the name of the game here. Now, it does matter, I think, what you go after the front-runner on. You do run the risk of sounding -- I don't know -- whiny. I don't know what it is, but you gotta realize what business you're in here. But if there were a way to solidly attack Cruz on issues or substance, I think they would do that, too, and so far it's just about whatever his campaign did with Dr. Carson."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, February 3, 2016, commenting on criticism of Republican presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Cruz was being criticized for his campaign's behavior during the Iowa Caucus, in which they spread the false word that Republican presidential contender Ben Carson was dropping out of the GOP nomination process.

Comment: The seems like ad hominem reasoning. Limbaugh is dismissing the criticisms of Cruz on the grounds that his critics are losing to Cruz. Perhaps they are motivated by "sour grapes", but that doesn't mean their criticism is false.

"However, the people have seen all the people come along for the last 15 years and say, 'I'm a Republican. We're going to have a humble foreign policy. We're going to cut back government spending.' And yet, they have run the tables on government spending and huge foreign entanglements that hasn't made our country very strong. So I think the people claiming that Trump is not a conservative, they haven't been very conservative. So everybody's credibility is shot and a couple of guys who have come around like Trump and Cruz and they turned everyone's consciousness upside down."
-- Pundit Laura Ingraham, January 26, 2016. Her remarks referred to the critics of Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Ingraham is saying that some of the critics of Trump are being hypocritical, accusing Trump of not being conservative while they themselves have also failed on that score. Is this an ad hominem argument?

"So from the get-go, the Republican establishment as well, mystifying me from day one, started making fun of and ragging on the Tea Party, right along with the Democrats. The Democrats led the charge on it along with the media. A bunch of hayseeds, bunch of hicks, you know, the usual ad hominem attacks."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, January 21, 2016.

Comment: Calling people "hicks" and so forth is name-calling, not ad hominem reasoning. Limbaugh appears to be conflating the two.

Donald Trump is crude and vulgar. He’s every “-ist” in the book: racist, sexist, narcissist, for starters. His dis about Hillary Clinton getting “schlonged” in the 2008 campaign and the accompanying tirade about her “disgusting” bathroom break were weird and juvenile. But he has a point about Clinton playing the “woman’s card,” and about the male behavior that’s more concerning: her husband’s.
-- Pundit Ruth Marcus, December 28, 2015. Marcus was referring to criticisms Trump had made about Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Comment: Marcus is accusing Trump of bigotry, but refusing to use that as an ad hominem argument to dismiss Trump's criticism of Bill Clinton.

"For Trump to get out there and call her a liar and get on his high horse about that is a little ridiculous, given that this is a guy who said he predicted [Osama] Bin Laden when he didn’t, that he saw thousands of American Muslims on video celebrating 9/11 when that didn’t happen, and when he said he made friends with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in the green room at “60 Minutes” when he was in New York and Putin was in Moscow. So, when it comes to lying, Trump is really not in a strong position to make an that accusation against anybody else in this race."
-- Pundit David Corn, December 22, 2015, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump. Trump had accused Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of lying when she said that the Islamic State was using Trump's rhetoric against Muslims to recruit fighters.

Comment: Corn is using ad hominem reasoning to dismiss Trump's accusation against Clinton. Just because Trump himself has made falsehood statements in no way proves that he is wrong when he claims that Clinton has done the same.

"What you all did with the President Obama doesn't even come close -- doesn't even come close to what you guys are trying to do in my case. And you're just going to keep going back, trying to find, he said this 12 years ago. You know, it is just garbage."
-- Republican presidential contender Ben Carson, November 6, 2015, referring to the media investigating his claims about being offered, in 1969, a scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Comment: Carson is accusing the media as a whole – rather than specific people in the media, as he doesn't mention any – of being hypocritical in investigating his accounts of his past compared to the lack of attention (as Carson sees it) to President Barack Obama's claims about his own past. Even if Carson is correct about the hypocrisy, that doesn't mean the media's attention to Carson's past is wrong (that would be ad hominem reasoning).

Iranian FM Spokeswoman Afkham said the Saudi FM is not qualified to comment on Iran’s regional role when his country has taken a military approach toward current crises in region.

“The Saudi foreign minister [Adel al-Jubeir] whose country has adopted a military, security and extremist approach toward the current regional crises, and has been targeting the neighbor Muslim country of Yemen with relentless bombardment is not qualified to speak of Iran’s regional role,” said Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham on Monday.
-- Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Afkham, October 19, 2015, as related in a story by AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA).

Comment: This is ad hominem reasoning. Just because Saudi Arabia is engaging in misbehavior doesn't mean it's wrong when it accuses Iran of misbehavior. Saudi Arabia's criticism may be hypocritical, but that doesn't prove it's false.

GUTHRIE: You mentioned your Republican rivals making hay of this.


GUTHRIE: I have to ask you, if the tables were turned and it was Dick Cheney or Karl Rove who had a private e-mail account and a private server on which they conducted all their government business, would you be as understanding?

CLINTON: I would never have done that. Look at the situation they chose to exploit to go after me for political reasons, the death of four Americans in Benghazi. I knew the ambassador. I identified him. I asked him to go there. I asked the President to nominate him. There have been seven investigations led mostly by Republicans in the Congress, and they were non-partisan and they reached conclusions that, first of all, I and nobody did anything wrong, but there were changes we could make. This committee was set up, as they have admitted, for the purpose of making a partisan political issue out of the deaths of four Americans. I would have never done that, and if I were president and there were Republicans or Democrats who were thinking about that, I would have done everything to shut it down.
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, October 5, 2015, during town hall event hosted by Savannah Guthrie of NBC News.

Comment: First, notice that Clinton is answering a hypothetical question. Second, she is accusing Republicans of being partisan and exploiting the attack in Benghazi. She is doing this on the basis of remarks by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), on September 29, 2015. But, just because McCarthy says the investigation had a certain motive doesn't mean everyone else supporting the investigation had that same motive. More, just because there are sinister reasons for a certain course of action (e.g., investigating Clinton) doesn't mean there are no legitimate reasons for performing the same action; to suggest otherwise (as Clinton seems to be doing) is ad hominem reasoning.

SHARPTON: Let me raise another issue. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, he said this week, quote -- I'm quoting him -- "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers Friday? What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping." That's the quote.

CLINTON: Um-hmm.

SHARPTON: You're expected to testify before the Benghazi Committee on October 22. What's your response to McCarthy's comments?

CLINTON: I have to tell you, I find them deeply distressing. I knew the ambassador that we lost in Benghazi. Along with him, we lost three other brave Americans who were representing us in a very dangerous part of the world. There have already been eight investigations in the Congress. One independent investigation. We have learned all we can learn about what we need to do to protect our diplomats and our other civilians and we need to be enforcing and implementing those changes, which is what I started and what Secretary Kerry has continued. So when I hear a statement like that, which demonstrates unequivocally that this was always meant to be a partisan political exercise, I feel like it does a grave disservice and dishonors not just the memory of the four that we lost, but of everybody who has served our country. We've had lots of different situations, as you know so well. We've had embassies run over. We've had them blown up under Ronald Reagan, under Bill Clinton. We've had lots of attacks where we lost Americans or foreigners working for America, under George W. Bush. We can go back and there's a wall in the State Department, there's a wall in the CIA where we lost those civilians we lost. It's never been turned into a partisan political battle by the majority in Congress the way the Republicans in this Congress have done. And I just wish that they would really start tending to the people's business, deal with the many problems that we face and figure out how we're going to move our country forward. You know, I -- I really regret the way that they have treated this serious matter.
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, September 30, 2015, during an interview with Al Sharpton of MSNBC, concerning remarks made earlier by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

Comment: Just because McCarthy says the investigation into Benghazi hurt Clinton's poll numbers doesn't mean that was the reason he supported the investigation. Even if it was the reason he supported the investigation, that doesn't mean other Republicans supported it for that reason. Finally, even if every Republican supported it for "political" reasons, that doesn't mean there are no good reasons for the investigation. Just because someone has bad reasons for performing a certain action doesn't prove there are no good reasons to perform that same action; it's ad hominem reasoning to conclude otherwise. McCarthy's remarks in no way dismiss the investigation as "partisanship" or "politicizing" or "negative politics".

"Over the past five and a half years, our businesses have created more than 13 million new jobs. The unemployment rate is lower than it’s been in over seven years. Manufacturing is growing. Housing is bouncing back. We’ve reduced our deficits by two-thirds. And 16 million more Americans now know the security of health insurance. This is your progress. It’s because of your hard work and sacrifice that America has come back from crisis faster than almost every other advanced nation on Earth. We remain the safest, strongest bet in the world. Of course, you might not know all that if you only listened to the bluster of political season, when it’s in the interest of some politicians to paint America as dark and depressing as possible. … There’s nothing patriotic about denying the progress you’ve worked so hard to make."
-- President Barack Obama, September 19, 2015.

Comment: In saying that it's "the interest of some politicians to paint America as dark and depressing as possible", Obama sounds like he's accusing his critics (Republicans) of rooting for failure. If Obama is trying to dismiss the criticism on the basis of the motive he says the critics have, then he's also engaging in ad hominem reasoning. Last, Obama suggests his critics are unpatriotic.

"Former Vice President Dick Cheney: Wrong Then, Wrong Now"
-- From a video released September 8, 2015, by The White House under President Barack Obama. The video was a response to Cheney's criticisms of the Iranian nuclear deal, supported by the Obama administration.

Comment: At no point does the video mention any details about the Iran nuclear deal, it only points out errors Cheney made with respect to the Iraq War. It is ad hominem reasoning: if the Iran deal is a good idea, that will be determined by the facts about the deal itself. If we're supposed to judge the Iran deal by whether people have been right or wrong about other foreign policy or military actions, then should we think less of the Iran deal, given that Obama (who supports the deal) was wrong about the Iraq Surge and about whether Iraq could manage its own security after the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011?

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz clashed with Fox News host Megyn Kelly on Tuesday night over whether the Texas senator would deport immigrants who came to the United States illegally if their children were born in the country.

When Kelly pressed the Texas senator on what he would do as president, Cruz said that he’s “not playing the game” and declined to answer the question.

“What would President Cruz do? Do American citizen children of two illegal immigrants, who are born here, the children, get deported under a President Cruz?” Kelly asked.

Donald Trump, she said, “has answered that question explicitly.”

“Megyn, I get that that’s the question you want to ask,” Cruz said. “That’s also the question every mainstream media liberal journalist wants to ask.”

Asked whether it is an unfair question, Cruz said that it is “a distraction” from solving the issue.

“You know, it’s also the question that Barack Obama wants to focus on,” Cruz retorted.

“Why is it so hard? Why don’t you just say yes or no?” Kelly asked.

Cruz’s response: “Because, Megyn, we need to solve the problem. And the way you solve the problem is you focus where there’s bipartisan agreement first. Once we’ve secured the border, once we’ve proven we can do this, once we’ve stopped the Obama administration’s policy of releasing 104,000 violent criminal illegal aliens in one year. Once we’ve solved that problem, then we can have a debate, then we can have a conversation.”
-- Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), August 25, 2015, as related in a story by Nick Gass of Politico.

Comment: Cruz is evading the question, and he never actually answers it. He insists that we should first focus on areas of "bipartisan" agreement before we decide what would happen to the children of illegal immigrants who are U.S. citizens. But that doesn't mean he can't state what his preference would be to deal with that situation, even if his preference doesn't have bipartisan support. More, Cruz engages in "distraction" rhetoric. Finally, he tries to undermine Kelly's question (using guilt by association) by noting that "liberal" journalists want to ask the same question. This is ad hominem, however: just because liberals are posing the question, too, doesn't mean it's an unfair question.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign, under fire over the ongoing emails controversy, is pointing a finger at House Republican Benghazi investigators, accusing the panel of having classified documents on an unsecured system just like Clinton did.

On a phone call Friday afternoon, campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said the House Select Committee on Benghazi had on an unsecured computer system at least one Clinton email that State did not consider classified — but which the intelligence community now considers classified.

“[Benghazi Chairman] Trey Gowdy treated emails, in this case, in the same way Hillary Clinton did, considering them unclassified and … storing them on unclassified computer systems,” Fallon said. “So in light of this I don’t really see what leg Congressman Gowdy has to stand on in his criticisms of Secretary Clinton on this point.”
-- From an August 21, 2015, story in Politico by Rachael Bade.

Comment: Clinton's campaign, through Fallon, is accusing Gowdy of hypocrisy. This is essentially a "Tu quoque" – or, "you too" – argument in this case. But it is ad hominem reasoning: just because Gowdy may be doing the same thing as Clinton with emails doesn't mean that what Clinton is doing is acceptable.

"Today, I want to speak to you about this deal, and the most consequential foreign policy debate that our country has had since the invasion of Iraq, as Congress decides whether to support this historic diplomatic breakthrough, or instead blocks it over the objection of the vast majority of the world. Between now and the congressional vote in September, you’re going to hear a lot of arguments against this deal, backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising. And if the rhetoric in these ads, and the accompanying commentary, sounds familiar, it should -- for many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal."
-- President Barack Obama, August 5, 2015, speaking on the proposed deal on Iran's nuclear program.

Comment: What is the point of noting that some of the same people who argued for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq are opposing the nuclear deal with Iran? If the argument is, "they were wrong then, therefore they're wrong now", that would be ad hominem reasoning.

"Now, if you're asking me about the politics of Washington and the rhetoric that takes place there, that doesn’t always go great. The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are, I think, part of just a general pattern that we've seen that is -- would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad. We've had a sitting senator call John Kerry Pontius Pilate. We've had a sitting senator who also happens to be running for President suggest that I'm the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are leaders in the Republican Party. And part of what historically has made America great is, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, there’s been a recognition that these issues are too serious, that issues of war and peace are of such grave concern and consequence that we don't play fast and loose that way. We have robust debates, we look at the facts, there are going to be disagreements. But we just don't fling out ad hominem attacks like that, because it doesn’t help inform the American people. I mean, this is a deal that has been endorsed by people like Brent Scowcroft and Sam Nunn -- right? -- historic Democratic and Republican leaders on arms control and on keeping America safe. And so when you get rhetoric like this, maybe it gets attention and maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines, but it's not the kind of leadership that is needed for America right now. And I don't think that's what anybody -- Democratic, Republican, or independent -- is looking for out of their political leaders. In fact, it's been interesting when you look at what’s happened with Mr. Trump, when he’s made some of the remarks that, for example, challenged the heroism of Mr. McCain, somebody who endured torture and conducted himself with exemplary patriotism, the Republican Party is shocked. And yet, that arises out of a culture where those kinds of outrageous attacks have become far too commonplace and get circulated nonstop through the Internet and talk radio and news outlets. And I recognize when outrageous statements like that are made about me, that a lot of the same people who were outraged when they were made about Mr. McCain were pretty quiet. The point is we're creating a culture that is not conducive to good policy or good politics. The American people deserve better. Certainly, presidential debates deserve better. In 18 months, I'm turning over the keys -- I want to make sure I'm turning over the keys to somebody who is serious about the serious problems the country faces and the world faces. And that requires on both sides, Democrat and Republican, a sense of seriousness and decorum and honesty. And I think that's what the voters expect, as well."
-- President Barack Obama, July 27, 2015. Obama was referring to remarks made about the Iranian nuclear deal by Republican presidential candidate and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). They described it respectively, as marching Israelis "to the door of the oven", a "jihadist stimulus bill", and as negotiated by someone who "acted like Pontius Pilate" (referring to Secretary of State John Kerry).

Comment: In the face of remarks that are exaggerations and/or demonizing, Obama is calling for setting a higher standard of political debate. However, by failing to note how he and fellow Democrats contribute to name-calling and incivility, Obama is engaging in the "only my opponent" caricature. Obama also conflates ad hominem reasoning and name-calling. Plus, aren't domestic issues too important to play "fast and loose" with rhetoric?

Liberals who still refuse to condemn Planned Parenthood — which is almost all of them, with rare exception — have announced, either explicitly or implicitly, that they categorically do not care about what is right, true, humane, or moral. They have laid all of these concerns as burnt offerings on the altar of Liberalism, and in the process become morally indistinguishable from Nazi sympathizers. Thus, all of the rest of their opinions are worthless, and no rational person ought to respect their point of view or take any of their perspectives about anything seriously. If you are too selfish, obtuse, indifferent, brainwashed, or cruel to unequivocally condemn the trafficking and murder of infants, then you forfeit all intellectual credibility.
-- Pundit Matt Walsh, July 22, 2015. His remarks concern a video of a Planned Parenthood official discussing what is done with fetal tissue after abortions.

Comment: Walsh is demonizing liberals, saying they don't care about what is good. He is also using ad hominem reasoning, arguing that, because they are wrong on abortion, they are therefore wrong on everything else.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), reflecting nervousness in his party over the issue, read from a prepared statement when he was asked about the controversy by reporters Tuesday afternoon.

“These politically motivated videos raise questions, but nothing I’ve seen indicates Planned Parenthood violated federal law,” Reid said. “These edited videos should not take away from the important work that Planned Parenthood does on behalf of women.”
-- Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), July 21, 2015, from a story by Rachael Bade and Jake Sherman of Politico. Reid's remarks concerned a video of a Planned Parenthood official discussing what is done with fetal tissue after abortions.

Comment: The fact that the videos are politically motivated doesn't mean they are false. To argue otherwise is ad hominem reasoning. If the videos were edited to distort their content, they would be false regardless of any political motivation.

"It does not give me pause that Mr. Assad or others in Tehran may be trying to spin the deal in a way that they think is favorable to what their constituencies want to hear. That’s what politicians do."
-- President Barack Obama, July 15, 2015, during a press conference in which he defended the deal reached on Iran's nuclear program.

Comment: Does Obama mean that, because the leaders in Syria (i.e., Bashar Assad) and Iran are politicans, therefore what they're saying about the nuclear deal is false? That would be ad hominem reasoning. And it would also apply to Obama, as well, since he's a politician, too. Is he, in this press conference, "trying to spin the deal in a way that he thinks is favorable to what his constituents want to hear"?

“I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
-- Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), June 16, 2015. Bush was referring to opinions expressed by Pope Francis in an encyclical titled "Laudato Si".

Comment: This is ad hominem reasoning. Why should anyone be disqualified from giving sound advice on economic policy (or any other policy, for that matter) simply based on being clergy? We should evaluate claims based on the content of what is said, not based on who says it.

CHRIS WALLACE: Pope Francis will release an encyclical on the environment... You suggested the holy father should stay out of the debate on climate change...

RICK SANTORUM: The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. And we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we do -- what we're really good at, which is -- which is theology and morality.

CHRIS WALLACE: Two points, if he's not a scientist, and, in fact, he has a degree in chemistry, neither are you. That's one point. The second point is, somewhere between 80% and 90% of scientists who have studied this say that humans, men -- human activity, contributes to climate change. so, I guess the question would be, if he shouldn't talk about it, should you?
-- Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), June 7, 2015, during an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News.

Comment: Wallace is accusing Santorum of hypocrisy for disqualifying Pope Francis from scientific commentary, but not himself, though he doesn't use it as a basis for an ad hominem argument. Both Wallace and Santorum make an appeal to authority – "scientist should determine what's true in science" – which is flawed reasoning. Whatever the topic, scientists and non-scientists have to abide by the same standards of providing good reasoning behind their beliefs. Scientists shouldn't immediately be believed simply because they are scientists, and the ideas of non-scientists shouldn't immediately be dismissed simply because they are not scientists.

"Lysenkoism, by the way, if you look it up... Let me spell it for you 'cause I know a number of you want to research these things on your own. L-Y-S-E-N-K-O. Lysenko. Lysenkoism is also synonymous with scientific fraud? How could it not be? It traces back to communism. It traces back to a mass murderer, Josef Stalin. So if you want to look it up on your own, you will see that."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, May 13, 2015, remarking on the theories of Soviet biologist and agronomist Trofim Lysenko.

Comment: It's ad hominem reasoning to dismiss the ideas of someone simply because they were a communist. That's not to say Lysenko's ideas are sound; many of them are not, but that's determined by scientific inquiry, not guilt by association.

Pope Francis’ closest adviser castigated conservative climate change skeptics in the United States Tuesday, blaming capitalism for their views. Speaking with journalists, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga criticized certain “movements” in the United States that have preemptively come out in opposition to Francis’s planned encyclical on climate change. “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits,” Rodríguez said, according to the Boston Globe's Crux blog.
-- From an article in The Hill, May 12, 2015, by Timothy Cama.

Comment: Rodriguez is demonizing climate change skeptics as being greedy. Also, if his argument is that climate change skepticism is based on greed, then he's engaging in ad hominem reasoning,

Whom we seek advice from reveals a lot about ourselves, our judgment, our common sense. So it was a shock over the past week when presidential candidate in training Jeb Bush divulged that his closest adviser on Mideast and Israeli affairs is George W. Bush. … And today, many look at George W. Bush and see the man who launched a disastrous war in Iraq that killed thousands and squandered trillions. But not his brother Jeb. “If you want to know who I listen to for advice, it’s him,” Jeb said of George W. last Tuesday at a secret meeting for fat-cat investors in New York. Which leads me to wonder just how many times Jeb was dropped on his head as a child. … So to fully appreciate the importance of Jeb’s revelation that George W. will be his chief adviser when it comes to the Mideast, you’ve got to keep in mind that Jeb’s entire campaign is built around one selling point: Jeb is the smart one in the family.
-- Pundit Roger Simon, May 12, 2015.

Comment: This is name-calling, with Simon saying that somebody would have to be mentally deficient to take President George W. Bush's advice on Mideast affairs. Assuming the Iraq War was a mistake (which people will debate along with, say, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or even the War on Poverty), is it correct to conclude that all Mideast advice from George W. Bush is mistaken? Isn't that ad hominem reasoning, or at least a hasty generalization? Should we distrust advice on the Mideast from all those who supported the Iraq War, regardless of its content (or even if it's the same advice?)?

"I don't really understand how Hillary Clinton can be marching forward with a progressive reform agenda that tackles income inequality as a sort of central tenet, while Bill Clinton is having very splashy events around the world with big dollar donors who are standing onstage taking photos of him and bottles of Coke as basically product endorsement. I just think it dramatically complicates the optics of this, and that may be surface, but it's also going to dog her throughout the year and next year if it continues. Do you think he stays on in the same public role that he has right now with the Clinton Foundation?"
-- Pundit Alex Wagner, posted May 11, 2015.

Comment: Wagner is saying that, because of her wealth, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn't know what it's like to be poor (i.e., on the losing side of income inequality). Is this a suggestion that Clinton therefore cannot represent the poor (which would be ad hominem reasoning)?

"See, at the center of this, folks, is religion and a hate for it, a fear of it. The left wants no part of organized religion. That's why global warming exists and all these other issues. They take the place of organized religion. They're doing their best to tear it down. That's what the assaults on the Catholic Church are about. These never ending, constant assaults on Christianity in general are about that, because Christianity is morality, they think. They view it as judgmentalism. They view it as definitive. "This is what's right; this is what's wrong." They don't want any part of that. They don't want to have to be conscious of right or wrong. They don't want to be reminded of right and wrong. They don't want it in their own consciousness, right and wrong, 'cause it's all shackles. Morality is shackles. The idea of right and wrong, shackles, limits on freedom and behavior and so forth. So there's been a concerted effort by interest groups on the left -- not just gay activities, but a whole bunch of different fringe groups on the left -- to attack religion and what it stands for and the people of it. So now here comes this Indiana law on the trail of Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A and a number of other examples, and it turns out now that private citizens are able to use a law enacted by Democrats to protected themselves from the militant leftist agenda."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, March 30, 2015.

Comment: This is demonizing, saying that people have adopted certain causes (such as global warming) because they don't want to have to abide by moral rules. It's also an ad hominem argument against those causes: just because someone might have a bad reason for opposing organized religion doesn't mean there are no good reasons for the adopting the same position.

OBAMA: The challenge on something like climate change is, there comes a point of no return. And you do have to make sure that we get at this thing quick enough and with enough force to be able to make a difference.

SMITH: Why is the resistance so strong?

OBAMA: Well, some of it's economic. If you poll folks, they're concerned about climate change, but they're even more concerned about gas prices. You can't fault somebody for being concerned about paying the bills or being able to fill up your tank to get to your job. In some cases, though, you have elected officials who are shills for the oil companies or the fossil fuel industry, and there's lot of money involved. Typically, in Congress the committees of jurisdiction, like the energy committees, are populated by folks from places that pump a lot of oil and pump a lot of gas.
-- President Barack Obama, posted March 17, 2015, during interview with Shane Smith of VICE News.

Comment: At no point in this discussion of beliefs about global warming does Obama allow that someone might legitimately disagree with the science of climate change, or the cost-benefit analysis of fighting global warming, etc. Perhaps some climate change opponents are "shills" (i.e., "special interests"?), but it would be ad hominem to conclude that they are therefore wrong in their position. Plus, isn't there a lot of money to be made in the energy industry, regardless of whether that energy is made by oil, gas, wind, solar, etc.? Does that mean proponents of wind and solar power can be dismissed as "shills" on the same ad hominem basis?

STEWART: Now, Congressional subversion vis-a-vis foreign policy, how new is that?

NBC NEWS: Defied White House objections to her visit, Pelosi met this week with Bashar al-Assad, an attempt to open a dialogue with a leader the president has sought to isolate.

STEWART: Oh, (bleep). Democrats did the same thing to President Bush. You know what this means. Juxtapositional Soundbite! Juxtaposition Soundbite Theater! Yeah, we do work hard to make this (bleep) Interesting. So… How did the Democrats feel about Pelosi’s interference in foreign policy in 2007?

HILLARY CLINTON: I applaud Speaker Pelosi. I have long advocated engagement with countries in the region including Iran and Syria.

FEINSTEIN: Time has come for members to begin to go to some of these countries and establish their own dialogue.

MATTHEWS: Why did “The Washington Post” trashing Nancy Pelosi for doing basically what Jim Bakker and Lee Hamilton said to do, engage the neighborhood over there in the Middle East?

STEWART: And how do they feel about the Republican letter now?

HILLARY CLINTON: Either these senators were trying to be helpful to the Iranians or harmful to the Commander-in-chief.

ANCHOR: Democratic senator Diane Feinstein called it “A highly inappropriate and unprecedented incursion.”

MATTHEWS: Is this where we stand in this country where the opposition Republicans will try anything to scuttle a noble president’s effort to avoid a war?

STEWART: Both look like exactly the same people!
-- Pundit Jon Stewart, March 11, 2015, showing clips of politicians and pundits, contrasting their position on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2007 during the Iraq Surge (when Syria was aiding – or at least abetting – the Sunni insurgency in Iraq), with a letter sent by 47 Republican senators in March 2015 to Iran's leaders, declaring that the US Senate might not support an agreement made by President Barack Obama regarding Iran's nuclear program.

Comment: Stewart is pointing out the hypocrisy of several of these individuals, noting that they've taking inconsistent positions, though Stewart doesn't attempt to draw any conclusions about which position they've taken is the correct one (which would risk ad hominem reasoning).

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: Isn't it time for Hillary Clinton to speak out? If you were advising her, should she address these issues?

JAMES CARVILLE: I wouldn't -- I don't know exactly -- it was legal. It wasn't against regulations. Colin Powell and Jeb Bush did the same thing, but oh, my God. Do you remember Whitewater? Do you remember Filegate? Do you remember Travelgate? Do you remember Pardongate? Do you remember Benghazi? All of this is just the same cockamamie stuff that we go through. The Times got something from right-wing talking points. They print the story. They've got to walk the story back. And everybody -- the chin scratchers go 'Oh, my God. The story's not right, but it says something larger about the Clintons.' This is never going to end. We've lived with this for 20 years. We'll live with it for the rest of the campaign. It's all about nothing. That's my view of the whole thing. … If I were a member of the press and I realized that right-wing talking points helped get us into a war, I would probably rethink the way I get my information.

MITCHELL: Isn't this a distraction that she does not need and that the Democrats are very concerned about?

CARVILLE: First of all, there is always going to be a distraction in Clintonland. There never is a time when there's not. I've lived through this for 20 years. Don't you think that next week there will be some other thing that they'll crop up?
-- Pundit and political strategist James Carville, March 9, 2015, being interviewed by NBC News' Andrea Mitchell regarding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a non-governmental email server while she was in office.

Comment: What is the relevance of the claim that these accusations are "talking points"? What does it mean, and what does it tell us about whether the accusations are true? Just because an accusation is scripted or comes from a person's enemies doesn't prove that the accusations are false. Mitchell suggests the issue is a "distraction", but a distraction from what? Does being a distraction imply that the accusations aren't well-founded? Finally, Carville resorts to ad hominem reasoning, saying that, because Republicans (i.e., "right-wingers") were wrong about WMDs in Iraq, therefore they shouldn't be believed on the accusations about Clinton. But being wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in no way guarantees that they are wrong about Clinton. Think: how would Carville's argument work against someone who took the same position as the "right-wingers" on Clinton but not on WMDs? Would the accusation about Clinton suddenly stop being false?

A recent Bloomberg report noted that major pizza companies have become intensely, aggressively partisan. Pizza Hut gives a remarkable 99 percent of its money to Republicans. Other industry players serve Democrats a somewhat larger slice of the pie (sorry, couldn’t help myself), but, over all, the politics of pizza these days resemble those of, say, coal or tobacco. And pizza partisanship tells you a lot about what is happening to American politics as a whole. … The pizza lobby portrays itself as the defender of personal choice and personal responsibility. It’s up to the consumer, so the argument goes, to decide what he or she wants to eat, and we don’t need a nanny state telling us what to do. … free-market fundamentalists don’t want to hear about qualifications to their doctrine. Also, with big corporations involved, the Upton Sinclair principle applies: It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. … At a still deeper level, health experts may say that we need to change how we eat, pointing to scientific evidence, but the Republican base doesn’t much like experts, science, or evidence. … Pizza partisanship, then, sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. It is, instead, a case study in the toxic mix of big money, blind ideology, and popular prejudices that is making America ever less governable.
-- Pundit Paul Krugman, March 6, 2015.

Comment: Krugman is demonizing the "Republican base", saying that they don't care about truth. More, though the quote from Sinclair may be true, it risks an implied ad hominem argument: just because it's in someone's interest to adopt a certain position doesn't mean their position is wrong.

"The prime minister, as you recall, was profoundly forward leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq under George W. Bush, and we all know what happened with that decision. He was extremely outspoken about how bad the interim agreement was during which time he called it the deal of the century for Iran, even though it has clearly stopped Iran's program, and more importantly, he has decided it would be good to continue it. So you know, he's -- I talk to him frequently. We work very, very closely together. We are deeply committed. We, this administration, I think we have done more to help Israel. I have a packet of 25 pages or more of things we have done on behalf of Israel in the course of this administration to stand up for it, stand with it, protect, fight back against unfair initiatives. So we won't take a backseat to anybody in our commitment to the state of Israel, but he may have a judgment that just may not be correct here. And, you know, let's wait and hear what he says. I'm not going to prejudge his statement anymore than he should prejudge this agreement. But when we have heard, if appropriate, I'll respond."
-- Secretary of State John Kerry, February 25, 2015, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's criticism of negotiations with Iran concerning Iran's nuclear program.

Comment: This is ad hominem reasoning. If Netanhayu was incorrect in his judgment regarding the Iraq War, how does that prove that he's wrong about negotiations with Iran? Shouldn't the quality of one's argument determine whether or not they're correct? Maybe Netanyahu had a bad argument back then, but now has a good argument. If Kerry was wrong on February 16, 2007, when he said the Iraq Surge would not end violence or rein in militias, does that mean his judgment on negotiations with Iran is also flawed?

The selective nature of taboos in American political and media culture has been exposed this week. Democrats are free to impugn their opponents’ decency and patriotism while Republicans never are allowed to do so.

Speaking at a “private” dinner for Scott Walker (note: only Democrats are permitted to have truly private events), Rudy Giuliani violated one of the taboos of American politics with these words:

"I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America."
There is a norm in American politics to presume that all issues and disagreements are between people who are patriotic and love America, except for Republicans and conservatives. In other words, only Democrats must be presumed to be patriotic and full of love of country. For example, Democrats are free to attack the Tea Party, which they have lumped together with terrorists. The Republican-controlled House was even called “terrorists” in White House offical communications. And when running for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama labeled President Bush “unpatriotic” for his deficit spending.

But Democrats must be presumed to be decent, patriotic, and motivated purely by love of country. And when they are not, they cry foul, as did Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who called Giuliani’s words “ugly.” For the record, Rep. Wasserman Schultz a few months ago agreed that the GOP is worse than Ebola and the Islamic State. But apparently that is not ugly in her mind. There was no widespread media controversy over her words, as compared to Giuliani’s.
-- Pundit Thomas Lifson, February 20, 2015.

Comment: Lifson is accusing the media of being hypocritical in its coverage of Giuliani's comments about President Barack Obama. Keep in mind it would be ad hominem reasoning to say that, because criticism of Walker's comments has been hypocritical, therefore the criticisms of Walker are unfounded.

"I don't think that net neutrality is net neutrality. … Here's the thing. I don't want to make this simplistic. I'm going to be accused of being simplistic. But who is it that wants to fix this? Who is it that wants to "reform" this? Who is it that's running around saying it's broken? Who is it that's running around saying it's broken so he can get his fingerprints on it? Who is doing this? Barack Hussein O. The One. That's all you need to know. As far as I'm concerned, that's all anybody needs to know. … Look it, all you need to know is Obama wants it; you should oppose it. It's that simple."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, February 20, 2015, referring to Internet reforms proposed by President Barack Obama.

Comment: Limbaugh is dismissing an idea simply on the basis of who is supporting the idea, which is ad hominem reasoning. As much as he predicts that he'll be criticized for being "simplistic", that does nothing to change the fact that his reasoning is flawed.

Politicians talk about the minimum wage because voters heart the minimum wage. … why is this administration obsessed with raising the wages of a fraction of 1% of the country that is already living above the poverty line? … Labor unions, like Trumka’s AFL-CIO, universally throw their support behind proposals to hike the minimum wage. … A hike in the minimum wage isn’t just a hike in the minimum wage. It’s a hike in the union wage. But, the progressive union slush fund giveaway act has a terrible ring to it- so minimum wage it is. … What was their goal? Unemployment and of course, eugenics. Sidney Webb, English economist and Co-Founder of the Fabian Society in the early 1900s, believed that establishing a minimum wage above the value of “the unemployables” as he called them, would lock them out of the market thus eliminating them as a class. “Of all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites the most ruinous to the community is to allow them unrestrainedly to compete as wage earners.” [attributed to] Sidney Webb … Many in America shared this belief as well. Around the same time, a Princeton economist said this: “It is much better to enact a minimum-wage law even if it deprives these unfortunates of work, better that the state should support the inefficient wholly and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind.” Who was that Princeton economist? Royal Meeker, U.S. Commissioner of Labor, under Woodrow Wilson.
-- Pundit Stu Burguiere, February 13, 2015.

Comment: Burguiere is making an ad hominem argument – using guilt by association – against the supporters of the minimum wage. Just because people have had self-serving or vicious reasons for supporting the minimum wage – for instance, to pad union paychecks, or to eliminate the lower class – doesn't mean there are no respectable reasons for supporting the same position. Even if the minimum wage is bad policy, is it really the case that everyone who is in favor of it is simply trying to fund unions or engage in eugenics? That's just demonizing.


Examples from 2012.


Examples from 2008.

"Joe Wilson is an unabashed liberal, which is all you need to know about him."
-- Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, September 1, 2006, regarding Wilson's comments concerning the Valerie Plame affair.

Comment: What Limbaugh is arguing is that, because Wilson is a liberal, any assertions or criticisms he makes that cast conservatives in a bad light can be dismissed as untrue. This line of reasoning is straightforwardly ad hominem.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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