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When personal attacks aren’t fair

At his blog, the philosopher Edward Feser said there was a “fallacy” which had “eclipsed rational public discourse”: the ad hominem fallacy. Not only is it unhelpful, it is often a sin.

The ad hominem fallacy does not simply mean calling someone a name. “Sometimes a person merits a nasty description, and sometimes what is at issue is precisely his moral character.” But if you attack someone’s character when what is at issue is truth or falsity, that is a fallacy.

“If I call Charles Manson a murderous, sadistic and lying scumbag, I have not committed an ad hominem fallacy, but simply stated the facts.

“If Charles Manson gives me an argument purporting to show (for example) that Amoris Laetitia is hard to reconcile with Christ’s teaching on marriage or that immigration laws need to be enforced, and in response to that argument all I do is call him a murderous, sadistic and lying scumbag, then I have committed an ad hominem fallacy.”

The ad hominem argument can be a sin against truth; it can also involve “sinful presumption”. “If someone is to all appearances sincerely trying to engage with you at the level of sober rational argumentation, it is, morally and spiritually speaking, very dangerous glibly to dismiss that as a cover for some hidden evil motive.” And it dehumanises one’s opponents by treating them as less than rational beings.

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