Are ad hominem attacks always invalid?

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Valid Arguments

In order to be valid, an argument has to be based on evidence. For example, we might say:

“Tigers can produce milk…”

Or

“Wildlife brings tourism…“

However, these are not valid arguments unless we give some evidence, or cite a source:

“… Since tigers are mammals and all female mammals can lactate for their young.”

Or

“…Wildlife tourism brought £65 million net income to Scotland according to a report by the International Centre for Tourism and Hospitality Research (2010).”

Ad Hominem Attacks

So how do ad hominem attacks fit in?

Ad hominem in Latin literally means “towards the human”. This is because ad hominem attacks are directed towards the person you are arguing with instead of towards their argument.

Usually, ad hominem attacks are not valid arguments because they do not tend to draw on evidence. When ad hominem attacks give evidence they are technically valid arguments.

However, talking about a person is generally off topic, unless the topic of discussion is a particular person and not their ideas. Ad hominem attacks are usually used when the user is too lazy or too closed-minded to talk about an idea directly.

Examples

The previous president of the United States of America, George W. Bush was famous for having trouble with speeches. Sometimes he pronounced words incorrectly or in a surprising way. At the time, this was frequently pointed out by his political rivals to make him look stupid, and undermine his decisions. Of course, Bush’s decisions could be criticised in a valid way, but in the case of a president, talking about his accent instead of his ideas is an ad hominem attack:

Modern political cartoons also provide good examples of ad hominem attacks because they are often drawn in caricature style, which draws attention to imperfections in a person’s face.

caricatures of world leaders at g8 summit

Caricatures of the leaders of the G8 by Donkey Hotel, CC BY-SA 2.0.

This style, when used to make a people’s ideas look bad is an ad hominem attack.

Of course, ad hominem attacks do not have to include pictures at all.

So the answer to the article is no, ad hominem attacks are not always invalid. However they are usually invalid and they tend to demonstrate a laziness or an ignorance of how to properly make an argument.  

If you found this article useful you might enjoy our University Preparation Package. This course gives you a full grounding in Critical Thinking and how to make valid arguments before teaching you to apply those skills in practice with lessons in Academic Research and Writing.

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