Author 1, Article 3, Date: 9/16/2016.
Also Known as: Ad Hominem Abusive.
Description of Personal Attack
A personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.
Not all ad Hominems are fallacious. In some cases, an individual’s characteristics can have a bearing on the question of the veracity of her claims. For example, if someone is shown to be a pathological liar, then what he says can be considered to be unreliable. However, such attacks are weak, since even pathological liars might speak the truth on occasion.
In general, it is best to focus one’s attention on the content of the claim and not on who made the claim. It is the content that determines the truth of the claim and not the characteristics of the person making the claim.
Examples of Personal Attack
“This theory about a potential cure for cancer has been introduced by a doctor who is a known lesbian feminist. I don’t see why we should extend an invitation for her to speak at the World Conference on Cancer.”
[That is a personal attack. The fact that she is a lesbian feminist has nothing to do with her cancer research.
To correct it, the speaker can take lesbian feminist out and provide a reason related to cancer research, such as”testing this theory in a lab setting has failed to produce any meaningful results.”]
“Bill says that we should give tax breaks to companies. But he is untrustworthy, so it must be wrong to do that.”
[Attacking one’s character is a personal attack. Bill may be untrustworthy by some people, but it is still a personal attack because one’s belief that Bill is untrustworthy has nothing to do with the legitimacy of giving tax breaks to companies.
The speaker can correct it by saying “previous tax breaks to company have resulted in a significant loss of revenue on the state level which stressed state budget for development.”]
“That claim cannot be true. Dan believes it, and we know how morally repulsive he is.”
[Attacking one’s character is personal attack because one’s belief that Dan is morally repulsive has nothing to do with the truth of the claim. In other words, a morally repulsive might tell the truth on occasion.
To correct it, the speaker should provide enough grounds to show why the claim can’t be true.]
“Jane says that drug use is morally wrong, but she is just a goody-two shoes Christian, so we don’t have to listen to her.”
[Attacking one’s belief is personal attack.]
Bill: “I don’t think it is a good idea to cut social programs.”
Jill: “Why not?”
Bill: “Well, many people do not get a fair start in life and hence need some help. After all, some people have wealthy parents and have it fairly easy. Others are born into poverty and…”
Jill: “You just say that stuff because you have a soft heart and an equally soft head.”
［Using abusive words directly on someone is personal attack. In this case, the abusive words are “you have a soft head”.］
PA Cheat Sheet
Person L says argument A. Person L’s circumstance or character is not satisfactory.
Argument A is not a good argument.
Can you explain why following arguments are personal attacks?
- A prosecutor asks the judge to not admit the testimony of a burglar because burglars are not trustworthy.
- Francis Bacon’s philosophy should be dismissed since Bacon was removed from his chancellorship for dishonesty.
- Prof. Smith says to Prof. White, “You are much too hard on your students,” and Prof. White replies, “But certainly you are not the one to say so. Just last week I heard several of your students complaining.”
- I can’t see that we should listen to Governor Smith’s proposal to increase the sales tax on automobiles. He has spent the last twenty years in state government and is hardly an unbiased source.