David R. Henderson  

Jimmy Carter's Ad Hominem

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One More Step toward Fascism... Why Aren't Government Employee...

Former President Carter Presents Us With a Teachable Moment

One of the terms most misused in recent years is the charge of ad hominem. Once, when I testified before the Food and Drug Administration and quoted an FDA bureaucrat, Dr. Louis Morris, and criticized his actions, another FDA official claimed that I was engaging in ad hominem. I wasn't. Often, when people attack the motives or character of someone they oppose, they are accused of engaging in ad hominem. We're getting warm. But the term "ad hominem" is narrower than that.

Here's what my undergraduate logic text, A Handbook of Logic, 2nd ed., by Joseph Gerald Brennan, says an ad hominem is:

We argue ad hominem when we try to refute an argument by arguing against the character of the man who brings it forward or his dubious motives in so doing. (italics his)

When Jimmy Carter made his charge of racism two days ago, he was not necessarily engaging in ad hominem. In the statement quoted in the media, he didn't argue that one can dismiss opposition to Obama's policies on the basis of racism. But was that his implicit message? Was he trying to get people to ignore opposition to Obama's policies on the grounds that the opponents are racist? If so, he was engaging in ad hominem.

Take the extreme. Imagine that every single person who opposes Obama's policies is racist, including those on the left who think his health care plan is not socialist enough. Can we dismiss their arguments based on their racism? That's where the power of the fallacy of ad hominem comes in. To coin a phrase, "No we can't."


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (9 to date)
giuseppe rionero writes:

I think what Carter meant is just what he said: We can not tolerate these kind of treatments to the President of the United States. And I think he is right. Beside any kind of disagreement over policy Americans owe him the respect due to his investiture.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Beside any kind of disagreement over policy Americans owe him the respect due to his investiture."

Respect is earned, not simply given.

Anthony writes:

We have no good reason to thank Carter for his indecisiveness over Iran, which lead to Khomeini, or his support of Mugabe, which lead to the state of Zimbabwe today.

I could mention others.

Don the libertarian Democrat writes:

In your last post, you argued that a particular policy is a step toward Fascism. Maybe you were exaggerating for effect, but that is also not fair, and attempts to argue against the policy by associating it with Fascism. Here's another quote from the essay that you quote:

"Fascism is to be distinguished from interventionism, or the mixed economy. Interventionism seeks to guide the market process, not eliminate it, as fascism did. Minimum-wage and antitrust laws, though they regulate the free market, are a far cry from multiyear plans from the Ministry of Economics."

The Welfare State, or Mixed Economy, isn't going anywhere fast or easily. It's a very stable arrangement. As well, the people putting forth these ideas about banker's pay are products and defenders of the Welfare State, not Fascism.

Guilt by Association, ad hominem arguments, poisoning the well, etc., although not always fallacious, are quite common today. So is the fallacy of the Slippery Slope, which, in order to be a fallacy, demands that the two terms being compared be indistinguishable.

Don the libertarian Democrat writes:

"in order not to be a fallacy.."

Don the libertarian Democrat writes:

Having said that, I should add that I am against the policy being advanced. It's just that I'm not afraid of Fascism here in the US in the near future.

I couldn't quite figure out what Pres. Carter was saying, so I'll pass on characterizing it, other than saying that it was hard to follow, of course.

Swimmy writes:

Indeed. The Ad Hominem Fallacy Fallacy guide gives some great examples.

Arnie writes:

@Don the Lib. Dem.: "The Welfare State....It's a very stable arrangement."

This addresses your side argument. I would agree that as social mechanisms go, it is stable arrangement. Fiscally however, all agree that medicare isn't stable long term.

Other than that quibble, you make a good point that the state of logical argumentation today is in a shambles.

El Presidente writes:

In the statement quoted in the media, he didn't argue that one can dismiss opposition to Obama's policies on the basis of racism.

Well, that settles it, unless there's some other instance in which he _did_ argue that. Is there?

My concern with Carter's remarks is not that he pegged racism as a motivation for opposition to Obama and his policy proposals, but rather his assessment that opposition was 'mostly' due to racism. I think that's a questionable assessment; not necessarily wrong, but debatable. There's no doubt in my mind, having seen images of the signs at rallies, that there are a good many individuals who fit the bill. Figuring out how much of it can be classified as racist sentiment influencing policy preference is important for political calculation and for understanding the state of health of the public discourse. I don't think painting Carter's remark as an ad hominem attack is wise or helpful since it is apparently accurate in many identifiable cases. Yes, a racist can have principled opposition to government involvement in healthcare . . . not that it really matters. If you were to call it a fallacy of composition I would be more inclined to agree, but his remark technically does not make that error either. I think we would do better to consider the degree to which racism is fueling opposition and what can be done to neutralize it and have a more principled debate rather than questioning the formal logic of people who point out the obvious.


Jayson Virissimo,

Respect is earned, not simply given.

If there's anybody who hasn't earned the slightest bit of respect, it would have to be Obama, huh? It would seem that sometimes respect is earned but not received.

Mature individuals realize that the more important question is not whether someone has earned respect, but whether they will honor it. I think he demonstrates daily that he honors the respect people afford him. He isn't perfect, but he endeavors to behave respectably as far as I can tell. You can trust him with your respect. That doesn't mean you would be obligated to agree with him.

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