David R. Henderson  

Ad Hominem

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Michael Kinsley gives us Exhibit A

Abusive ad hominem usually involves attacking the traits of an opponent as a means to invalidate their [sic] arguments. Equating someone's character with the soundness of their [sic] argument is a logical fallacy.

So says the entry on "Ad Hominem" in Wikipedia, and, grammar errors aside, it's good as far as it goes.

But here's the problem. When I look around to find smart, articulate people using straight ad hominem arguments, those are very hard to find. Why? Because when people say, "That argument is wrong because the person making it is bad," the problem with their case is pretty transparent. That, I think, is why you rarely see such straightforward ad hominem arguments. Oh, sure, you can find people on the street or in bars making straight ad hominems. But, as I say, it's hard to find them in the written word.

Parenthetically, I will add that Paul Krugman often comes close. But even he will usually actually make an argument, and his attack on the character of those he disagrees with is typically more of a "drive by." That is, he attacks the person's character along the way. That's consistent, by the way, with the New Yorker report on the fact that Robin Wells, Krugman's wife, will often add the nasty comments on his opposition. "Drive-bys" are easier when someone else adds them.

So how do relatively sophisticated people use ad hominems? I think Michael Kinsley's recent review of Glenn Greenwald's book, No Place to Hide, has a number of good examples all in one place.

On Greenwald:

It's a great yarn, which might be more entertaining if Greenwald himself didn't come across as so unpleasant. Maybe he's charming and generous in real life. But in "No Place to Hide," Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss, convinced that every issue is "straightforward," and if you don't agree with him, you're part of something he calls "the authorities," who control everything for their own nefarious but never explained purposes.

Now, I haven't read Greenwald's book yet, and so it is possible that Greenwald does come across as a sourpuss. Glenn and I spoke at the same event in 2008 (see here for his speech and see if you can identify that person in the audience wearing glasses at about the 4:19 part--and here's the start of my talk), and in my brief conversation with him, he seemed quite pleasant. Of course Kinsley allows for that.

But back to the issue. So what? Does Greenwald's putative "sourpussedness " undercut anything he says? Only if the point of Greenwald's book is that Greenwald is not a sourpuss. But, as all sides recognize, that is not the point of his book. But by putting this in the piece as early as he does, Kinsley sets it up for us to be suspicious of Greenwald. This is a clever use of ad hominem by a skilled practitioner.

Or consider how Kinsley manages to dismiss Julian Assange. Kinsley writes:

There are narcissists like Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. These are self-canonized men who feel that, as saints, they are entitled to ignore the rules that constrain ordinary mortals. Greenwald notes indignantly that Assange was being criticized along these lines "well before he was accused of sex crimes by two women in Sweden." (Two decades ago the British writer Michael Frayn wrote a wonderful novel and play called "Now You Know," about a character similar to Assange.)

That use of ad hominem is even more clever. First, Kinsley tells us that Assange is "self-canonized." How does Kinsley know? I have no idea. But even if Kinsley does know, would that undercut in any way what Assange has done to reveal U.S. government secrets? Of course not. Whether Assange's actions were wise or right is still at issue. But his alleged self-canonization doesn't help us resolve that. And notice also how Kinsley does a further "drive-by" by mentioning that Assange was accused of sex crimes. Finally, Kinsley tells us about a great novel "about a character similar to Assange." And? That is relevant how? That is one clever paragraph.


I hasten to add that Kinsley is wise enough to realize that, beyond his ad hominems, he actually must make an argument. He tries and I will leave that to others to judge. I will point out that his basic argument is pretty extreme and more than a little ironic.

Kinsley writes:

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making -- whatever it turns out to be -- should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can't square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

So let's see. It shouldn't be Greenwald, and it shouldn't be newspapers or their employees. Whom does that leave? I think it just leaves the government.

Where's the irony? That Kinsley published this in the New York Times, which, you might recall, published the Pentagon Papers. Surely, then, Kinsley would argue that the New York Times should not have been able to decide to publish the Pentagon Papers but should have deferred to the Nixon administration.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods

COMMENTS (20 to date)
twv writes:

Another possible irony: who decides in a democracy: the government or the newspapers?

Well, in theory, the people.

Who would be the readers of the newspapers. Who are the citizens. Who vote in the people "making the decisions."

At this point, bringing in Jefferson's great quote about government without newspapers or newspapers without government might be in order.

On the ad hominem, George Santayana somewhere makes the case that all ethical arguments involve the ad hominem.

Steve writes:

That actually just seems like a straightforward ad hominem. "I don't like this person" or "this person is X", where X is some unpleasant character trait or style of argument being deployed, has nothing to do with the arguments those people are making.

If other people of more "agreeable" character traits agree with those arguments then it becomes clear the argument isn't really about the people but rather than Kinsley (et al) doesn't like the idea but cannot defend against it adequately and therefore that anyone who raises it must be slimy or disreputable. That's fairly standard ad hominem. It is not as direct if it is accompanied with attempts to actually defend a position or argue against its opposing view but the intention and effect is the same.

billysixstring writes:

Sounds more like poisoning the well - which is a form of ad hominem.

Craig J Bolton writes:

I doubt that Kinsley's piece is, strictly speaking, an ad hominem. It is, however, a typical example of poisoning the well and circularity (watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat).

David N writes:

Kinsley's opinion of Greenwald's tone is relevant to how enjoyable the book is to read, not to whether its arguments are correct. Kinsley is dismissive and uncharitable, but there's nothing logically wrong with calling an author a "sourpuss" in book review, if that's how you see it.

If I wrote that Kinsley has been phoning it in for years, and cited this review as the latest supporting evidence, it would still just be my opinion, not a statement of fact or logic, therefore not ad hominem.

Tom Lee writes:

A bizarre example comes from Eliot Groll:

Ed Snowden Needs a Better Biographer Than Glenn Greenwald

But like the characters that populated the video games of Snowden's youth, the portrait of the whistleblower that emerges in Greenwald's book is flat. He exists in the background as a mere martyr. Having made this profound sacrifice, Greenwald and his colleagues must live up to Snowden's memory -- for once he disappears from Hong Kong to Russia, he is little more than a memory in the book.

Greenwald's account stinks because he's a lousy biographer. It's almost like Groll wants a novelist. Get over it -- Greenwald's a journalist with a particular point of view.

Steve Sailer writes:

You see this kind of ad hominem argument a lot with people who are connected to the Inner Party and thus have to follow Logic of Empire even when they are, like Kinsley, smart and logical.

Tim Worstall writes:

Clearly I need to go to remedial journalism classes, but what's wrong with the grammar there?

"Their" arguments looks fine to me.

what does anyone else think it should be? They? They're?

Am I just being amazingly thick here in not seeing it?

Hi, Tim.

Disagreement of number: "an opponent" is singular, so to my--admittedly curmudgeonly--ear, it should be "an opponent as a means to invalidate his arguments." Which, of course, is no longer PC.

Eventually my generation will die out and the word "their" will perhaps formally be deemed and naturally heard to be both singular and plural. Nothing wrong with that re-designation, and it probably beats the awkward "his/her." But it still makes me cringe.

Jameson writes:

The use of the word "they" as a third person singular gender neutral pronoun goes back at least as early as Chaucer, and has long been considered by many to be acceptable English grammar.


David R. Henderson writes:

@billysixstring and Craig J Bolton,
Thanks to you both. Somehow in my logic class in college, we didn’t get to “poisoning the well,” but that’s exactly what it is. I now have a term to use either, a la billysixstring, to elaborate when I accuse someone of an ad hominem, or a la Craig J Bolton, to replace my use of the term ad hominem.
@David N,
See comments by billysixstring and Craig J Bolton.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me. I will quit using that tortured his/her or he/she formulation.

Michael writes:

The character, reputation and demeanor of a person performing an act or making an argument does matter. Inherently, not knowing anything else,I would find an argument by David Henderson more valid than an argument by Paul Krugman. So diminishing the character of someone does seem to make their actions potentially less justifiable to me.

quadrupole writes:


Whether or not character is a valid consideration depends on the type of engagement with the argument.

If you are engaged with an argument at the level of logos, where you are independently Checking the facts asserted, and the chain of logic, character is probably not a consideration.

If you are engaging with the argument at the level of ethos, where you are deciding whether to accept an appeal to authority or expertise, then evaluating the person whose expertise or authority is being held forth, including their character, is key.

As someone else pointed out, Kinsley is making a literary judgment, not indulging in an ad hominem (to the man) with;

Greenwald was the go-between for Edward Snowden and some of the newspapers that reported on Snowden’s collection of classified documents exposing huge eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, among other scandals. His story is full of journalistic derring-do, mostly set in exotic Hong Kong. It’s a great yarn, which might be more entertaining if Greenwald himself didn’t come across as so unpleasant.

Kinsley is clearly referring to 'his story' and the 'yarn'. So, that Greenwald comes 'across as so unpleasant', is a legitimate point in a book review.

Further, as Greenwald does try to establish himself on the moral high ground, he makes his motives a legitimate target.

David N writes:

What is the name of the fallacy of expecting a book review to be governed by the rules of debate and not contain the opinions of the reviewer?

A well-executed well poisoning can convey useful information and be an enjoyable read. I didn't enjoy Kinsley's review, and I think his argument is extremely weak. Note those are two separate clauses.

If my editor says I must make my one sentence review a bit longer, I can dress up the first clause with opinion and the second with facts and reason.

What is the name of the fallacy of treating a clear statement of opinion as if it were being offered as part of a logical argument?

triclops writes:

The ACT and SAT disagree with you!
Really just another example that proper usage is democratically elected, and the grammar rules mostly justify them afterward.

I would like a fix that is better than just using "their" as singular. I'd also like something better than y'all for you (plural).

Daublin writes:

Well said, David.

To further the point, note that most authors will lead with what they consider to be their best point. If they lead with a discussion about how their opponent is some inferior sort of person, then that tends to be the best part of the article.

As David N says, it can be entertaining. It's unlikely to be enlightening, though.

Shane L writes:

I'm a bit torn; book reviews can be written as entertainment as much as education and sometimes scathing, even obnoxious, reviews can be amusing. It can be one job of a reviewer to comment on the tone of the text, which would include the reader's perception of the author. I find it pretty mean, though, and his talk of "self-canonized men" seems hyperbolic in a way that makes me doubt the reviewer's own judgement.

I'd also like something better than y'all for you (plural).

Triclops, growing up in rural Ireland we used to say "ye" - pronounced yee - for you plural. E.g. "What are ye going to do?" when addressing a group of people. I was well into my teens before I realised this was not standard English!

Yancey Ward writes:

For the Kinsley's of the world, Greenwald's real sin was writing while Obama was at the wheel. Had Snowden's acts been performed during the Bush Administration, I have no doubt Greenwald would have done exactly the same work he is doing now, but people like Kinsley would have been praising it instead of dismissing it.

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