Bryan Caplan  

Why Not Wrestle With a Pig?

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I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.
--George Bernard Shaw

"The advocates of X are jerks; therefore, X is false" is the classic ad hominem argument. But most of what we usually call ad hominem attacks simply argue that "The advocates of X are jerks." Only the former is a logically fallacy, but high-quality thinkers usually avoid both.

Why is this?

The simplest theory is that ad hominem arguments are inherently weak, so if you have high standards, you won't make them. Perhaps, for example, it is extremely difficult to know if a person is a jerk. High-quality thinkers will therefore realize that they don't have enough evidence to deem someone a jerk, and refrain from claiming that he is. Alternately, high-quality thinkers might suspect that "all publicity is good publicity," so trying to discredit people by pointing out their character flaws is counter-productive.

But there is also a signaling explanation for why high-quality thinkers would refrain from arguing that someone is a jerk. Anyone can argue that someone else is a jerk, but many people can't do better. So if you CAN do better, you can raise your status by showing that you've got the Right Stuff to make more sophisticated arguments. (A slight variation: By refraining from ad hominem arguments, you are signaling that "I don't have time for this silliness.")

Personally, I avoid ad hominem arguments, but I'm not too clear about my motives. In part, I believe the simple theory. It's usually hard to know if someone is a bad person. This also explains why I have spent many hours denouncing people like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao; in cases like these, we know enough to fairly condemn them. But I'd be lying if I denied that signaling doesn't play a role. I wouldn't want to denounce someone because it would hurt my reputation.

Introspectively, though, the main reason I avoid ad hominem arguments is just that I dislike making them. How about you?


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The author at Modeled Behavior in a related article titled Why Not Ad Hominem writes:
    Byran asks why serious scholar eschew ad hominem augments. First, I think that most ad hominem attacks are not in fact a logical fallacy. By ad hominem I mean attacking an opponent's character, qualifications, motives or experience rather than add... [Tracked on April 2, 2007 10:32 AM]
COMMENTS (24 to date)
liberty writes:

Aren't people usually implying the latter (that X is false)?

Otherwise it isn't an argument that someone is a jerk - its just a claim.

Just because someone is a jerk doesn't mean that they are wrong. If you want to prove somebody wrong you have to attack his argument, not his character.

High quality thinkers avoid any semblence of making the mistake that a person's character is a substitute for his argument.

Bill writes:

A sign of a low-quality thinker is the use of "What about X?", where X is any hot topic. It is almost always a sign of ignorance.

SheetWise writes:

The implied fallacy is that the character of a speaker doesn't reflect on the strength of his argument. There's a fine line there -- where you have to distinguish what's knowable -- because character certainly can reflect on opinion.

For example -- when public employees fail to enforce standards in their own ranks for known incidents of corruption and dereliction, it taints the entire group. I can and do judge people by association, and I use it when weighing their opinions.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Interesting Bryan! One mode of argument I dislike entirely is fisking. Just yesterday, I was reading a post on Out of Control (link) by my old college buddy Ted Balaker, and it ends with a fisking of some obnoxious light rail proponent by some guy who is on our side. And I was just instantly embarrassed for the guy who's on our side and couldn't bring myself to read it. I can tell you exactly why I had that reaction. At the beginning of the decade, I had a boss who would routinely fisk a five sentence e-mail into a seven page diatribe. What it showed was no ability to look at a whole argument, instead relying on blowing up an insignificant out of content "fault" to score points in the debate. What I learned about fiskers though is that they expect to be fisked right back. Nothing drives them more batsh*t crazy than someone who won't engage. Summarize their argument in one sentence (or two) then make your point. Guaranteed to cause the fisker to punch their wives and kick their cats. How can you get the same kind of reaction out of someone who goes ad hominem on you?

Rick Gaber writes:

I don't like using ad hominem arguments either.

I sometimes judge people by their associations, but much more so by their attitudes -- on a scale from sincere and civil to hostile and malicious. Guess which ones I don't make time for.

John Goes writes:

This whole blog was funded with oil company money. Just so you guys know.

Bill writes:

This whole blog was funded with oil company money. Just so you guys know.

Thanks! I'm glad to know that it's funded by companies that actually sell something useful. Also, it's funded with their own money. I suppose you like it when things are funded by the government, with money obtained at gunpoint.

dearieme writes:

Those arguments that are based on "facts" that you are asked to take on trust - there, ad hom arguments are entirely legit.

Jo Esperanto writes:

Ad homs are like fart jokes, their simple charms decline with age.

John Goes writes:

Bill, I was trying to be ironic...Oh, nevermind.

PJens writes:

I use ad hominem arguments, but mainly in the positive. I.e. if Caplan says it, he is a smart man, so therefore it is probably true. It is far easier for me to believe someone I trust about a subject that has a positive review. If my daughter says the movie was great, I may go see it without further input. If my daughter says a movie sucks, I definately get a second opinion.

Bill writes:

Sorry, John. I suppose my irony meter is broken.

Gabriel M. writes:

I make them because I like making them.
And you're a dirty bastard if you disagree.

Paul Zrimsek writes:

Why even waste time arguing with people who use ad-hominem arguments? They're jerks.

Sean H. writes:

Don't forget the logically fallacious but rationally correct ad hominem:

"He would say that, wouldn't he?"

twv writes:

Is there a droll element here? The factual statement about "high-quality thinkers" embeds a judgment about a person's character and links it to a kind of argument made. Which is why the whole issue is touchy anyway.

I make a very different point on my website, regarding Rand's use, and my counter-use, of a more complex character-argument linkage.

Stephen Dawson writes:

Argument can be for two purposes: to try to convince someone (either the person with whom you are arguing, or a spectator) of something, or simply for pleasure. In most cases I have a large dose of both prompting me to argue.

In order to be pleasurable to me, the arguments I make have to have value. Ad hominem has no value in my view ('Hitler was evil. Hitler liked his dog. Therefore one should not like dogs'). So I don't use ad hominem because they would simply reduce my pleasure.

John Doe writes:

Brian Leiter must have realized what signal his blog was sending; this would explain his recent decision to focus on philosophy rather than politics, where his style of argumentation consisted of a few arguments surrounded by ad hominem rhetoric (as Mr. Kling well knows).

Steve writes:

I think Bryan avoids the ad hominem fallacy because he's a douche bag.

Steve writes:

Sorry that I forgot to end my post with a smiley face.

I have a question related to logical fallacies. Is the "slippery slope" argument a fallacy? My textbook from a logic and argument class listed it among ad hominem, straw man, non sequitor, etc., but I don't think it's the same.

Public policy often progresses in an incremental fashion. Can't one logically oppose Policy B, which is beneficial, because it makes Policy C, which is harmful, more likely to be enacted?

John T. Kennedy writes:

"Anyone can argue that someone else is a jerk, but many people can't do better. So if you CAN do better, you can raise your status by showing that you've got the Right Stuff to make more sophisticated arguments."

I don't see why you can't call a jerk a jerk, and then demonstrate you've got the Right Stuff in the next paragraph with a valid argument for why he's wrong. Of course you get points off if he isn't a jerk, but your argument he's wrong stands on it's own merits.

Not being sure is a valid reason to refrain from calling someone a jerk, but then on the other hand you probably assert all kinds of things you're not absolutely sure about.

Daniel Klein writes:

Bryan says that ad hominen argumentation looks like this:

"The advocates of X are jerks; therefore, X is false"

If he wants to consider the legitimacy of bringing considerations of a speaker's motivations into an interpretation of his words, he needs to get more serious.

How about this:

"We have reason to believe that X has commitments to arguing position A, commitments that quite possibly derive from causes unrelated to the worthiness of A. Those commitments to some extent undermine X's argument from ethos on the issue, and the argument from ethos is usually an important one on complex and controversial matters. Those commitments should be considered when you interpret and judge X's case for A."

To suggest that you do not work along the lines of that statement in quotation marks is naive. To suggest that we should not work along such lines is foolish.

When I explored whether the Social Sciences Citation Index had a social-dem slant, I investigated what journals were in (TNR, The Nation, for example) and what journals were out. But I also got into whether the man who created and managed it for 30 years, Eugene Garfield, is a soc-dem. (He is.) Undeniably, relevant, if only to learn that we CANNOT falsify the theory by showing the man in charge would NOT have such a slant.

See my discussion on "Eugene Garfield's Ideological Orientation" pp. 153-154 below, where I discuss the legitimacy of such argumentation and I cite a book that rejects the wholesale condemnation of "ad hominen arguments."

http://www.econjournalwatch.org/pdf/Klein-Chiang%20Investigating%20April%202004.pdf

Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

Since I am inclined to believe in the effective use of ad hominem arguments, I cannot agree with what you say. I would write more, but let me settle on one point about you Professor Caplan. You use ad hominem arguments all the time. When you said you didn't apply to grad programs in philosophy because of a left wing bias, this is an ad hominem argument against those arteriosclerotic minds who believe such things. When you claim that only certain people are worth arguing with, that you reserve your arguments for your friends and the educated, you're making and ad hominem argument. And lastly, all behavioral economic arguments are indirect ad hominem arguments. They claim that so and so is stupid.

Ad hominem arguments are not reserved for saying someone is a jerk. And even if they were, you are way too modest in your ability to point jerks out. I find in moral arguments especially, you'll find jerks making the same arguments. I cannot help but think this is not correlation but cause.

eensyweensy writes:

I refrain from ad hominem arguments because I don't care about the person, I care about the argument. An argument remains illogical whether the person who makes it is nice or a jerk. Ditto for an argument that is logical.

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