Philosophy 105: Philosophical Thinking
Theodore Gracyk


Ad Hominem (Personal Attack or Attacking the Person)

The fallacy of responding to an opponent's argument by changing the subject to the person who gave the subject, introducing the false assumption that a person of this sort cannot offer an argument worth considering. One can deflect attention from the arguer's position by shifting to discussion of the arguer's personality, character, associates, motives, intentions, qualifications, and so on.

Example: "Ignore what Professor Schiff says about the origins of the Old Testament. I happen to know that Schiff is an atheist."

When we attack the person, we ignore the content of the argument. But an argument is a relationship between premises and conclusion, and the argument's soundness (or lack of soundness) is completely independent of who is giving the argument. "There is nothing to what Smith says about the Nazi death camps; just remember that his family included prominent Nazis" may sound convincing, but this refusal to look at Smith's evidence is a refusal to evaluate the soundness of the argument. (After all, Smith may be ashamed of her relatives and might be confirming the existence of the death camps against anti-Semitic opponents who argue that the camps are a hoax.) 

Given this definition, the fallacy is restricted to cases where there is an opponent and where one is responding to that opponent. 

Recognition of the fallacy of attacking the person DOES NOT DENY OR CONFLICT WITH the legitimate need to evaluate the source of information that is put into an argument. Consider these two cases: 

  • "In thinking about Green's conclusions about human impacts on the Amazon basin, don't accept Green's claim that the region has only two million people. Green used an encyclopedia from 1955 that he bought in a junk store." 
  • "Don't accept Johnson's predictions about productivity in her report. I work at the desk next to her and I heard her saying she couldn't get the research done on time, so she just made up new numbers after looking at last year's report." 

These responses to Green and Johnson are perfectly appropriate, since they are calling arguments into question by questioning sources of information in the arguments. They are pointing to flaws in the argument by discussing sources of specific premises, not dismissing the whole argument by appeal to facts about Green and Johnson.

Similarly, discussing someone's trustworthiness or expertise is always relevant if we are evaluating testimony. 

A special case of Ad Hominem is phony refutation, in which one dismisses an argument or position by citing inconsistency between the speaker's words and actions. Inconsistency is a fallacy when the inconsistency is between two parts of an argument, but inconsistency between words and actions may be due to understandable moral weakness or to a legitimate change in one's position. 

Example "How can you advise me to wait until I'm older? I happen to know that you were pretty wild at my age." 

Example: "How can you tell me not to smoke? You smoke two packs a day."

Example: "How can support a crackdown on underage drinking? I remember at time when you thought that such policies were a waste of money." 

Yes, and the first speaker may regret that "wild" youth and may be offering you hard-earned advice that is worth your consideration. The smoker who advises you against smoking may have tried to quit many times, and is warning you of what you face if you make the mistake of starting. The third speaker may now understand, through personal experience, that underage drinking is a serious social problem, and has revised their thinking about the topic. 

The Latin name for phony refutation is Ad Hominem Tu Quoque. Informally, it's known as the "You Too Fallacy."

Shifting Conclusions 

The problem of being unclear about what you are actually attempting to prove in an argument, or stating your conclusion in slightly different ways, so that arguments supporting one version do not really apply to others.

Changing Meanings or Equivocation

As with many of the fallacies, equivocation is only a fallacy if we first establish that it takes place within a context of reasoning! People equivocate all the time, but it doesn't have the status of a fallacy unless they are engaged in reasoning (in leading someone to a conclusion).

The fallacy requires the following:

  • A word or phrase is used that has two distinct meanings.
  • We can state paraphrase both, that is, we can say how the two uses differ.
  • The word or phrase clearly means one thing the first time it is used, but means the other thing the next time that it is used. (This shift in meaning can be a shift from the meaning between the first premise and the second, or between a premise and the conclusion.)

The fallacy can be intentional or unintentional. In the former case, the person giving the argument misleads the audience by exploiting the equivocation. In the second case, the speaker does not try to mislead, but the audience draws an unsound conclusion by misinterpreting statements that can be taken two different ways.

Example: John has catholic interests: he likes sports, science, mystery novels, and silent films. Most Catholics go to mass on a regular basis, so John probably goes to mass on a regular basis.

Analysis: The first premise uses 'catholic' with a lower case 'c', meaning broad or universal. The second uses an upper case 'C', meaning the religion. Since the two premises are true according to different interpretations of the term, there has been a change of subject and the two premises do not connect to make a strong pattern. It is unsound.

Example: In this country, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. Since my trial has not yet reached the verdict stage, I'm innocent.

Analysis: Pretty silly! In reality, one is or isn't innocent quite apart from the jury's verdict. One is merely treated as innocent until proven guilty (it's a statement about the burden of proof in law, not a statement of fact). One can't go from the legal principle to a claim of real innocence.

When the equivocation is created by a punctuation error or error in grammatical construction, the fallacy is technically known as the fallacy of amphiboly.

Real example: Jared Blair, manager of a Hooters Restaurant in Panama City Beach,  told the waitresses at the restaurant that the company would reward the one who sold the most beer during April with a "new Toyota." At the end of April, Blair told employee Jodee Berry that she'd won. When Berry was led blindfolded to the parking lot to claim her prize, she got a new "toy-Yoda" Star Wars doll instead of the promised car, the suit contends. Berry has sued the Restaurant. (For the complete news article, click here.)

Analysis: Berry alleges breach of contract. If her claims are true, it is clear that Blair is guilty of the fallacy of equivocation, for choosing wording that would mislead the waitresses. 

Red Herring (Lack of Relevance)

The fallacy of introducing, as reasons for one's position, a topic that is not directly related to the issue originally being debated. In effect, the arguer starts on one topic, changes the subject, and then proceeds as if there has been no change in subject.

Supposedly, the fallacy is known as "red herring" on an analogy with escaped convicts who might smear herring (a smelly fish) on themselves to throw bloodhounds off their trail.

Real Example: "No, no, he's a friend of mine. He's not a moron at all -- he's a friend. I had a good time with him today." Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, responding to reports that his chief spokesman had called President George W. Bush a moron. (Newsweek, 2 Dec. 2002)

Analysis: Perhaps it's true that Bush is his friend. Perhaps it's true that they had a good time together. What has that information got to do with answering the charge that Bush is a moron? Chretien is changing the subject instead of talking about Bush's intelligence.

Since a great many fallacies involve giving reasons that lack relevance to the issue under debate, we reserve the accusation of "red herring" to those cases where the argument fallacy is a simple change of subject, apart from one of the specialized tactics (e.g., Appeal to Pity, Appeal to Force, Straw Man, etc.)

Pseudo-Question or Loaded Question 

The fallacy of biasing an exchange by asking a question that has an unjustified assumption built right into the question, influencing the answer given to it.

Real Example: A newspaper asks the following question of its readers:

Do you think the Fargo City Commission should meddle in private property matters?

  • Yes

  • No

  • I'm not sure

The Forum - 05/01/2002 Daily Poll 

Another version of this problem is known as complex question, where two unrelated topics are combined in a single question, so that answering on part will seem to answer the other, as well. 

Example: "Do you support our constitutional freedoms, such as the right of individuals to possess handguns?"

Loaded question is often done by introducing a false dilemma: 

Example: "Are you going to support me on this in the meeting today, or are you siding with those spineless worms on the other side?" 

Dubious Authority 

Often called Appeal to Authority, I prefer a title that doesn't suggest that there's a problem with appealing to authorities! It is often appropriate to defend the truth of a claim, or a recommendation of behavior, by citing the testimony or advice of some authority. The fallacy consists in citing someone who is not really an authority on the subject at issue.

The Latin name for this fallacy is ad verecundiam.

The fallacy takes many forms:

  • The person cited is not an authority in any way. (Example: An advertisement shows a famous movie star endorsing an automobile. For an example, click here.) 
  • The person cited is an authority, but not about the subject at issue. 
    (Example: An advertisement shows a famous scientist endorsing a computer company, as when Apple uses Albert Einstein's photo in an ad for its computers. But he died before there was such a product! A real authority on this issue would be a product testing lab, such as Consumers Report.) 
    (Another example: "There must be life on other planets, because my history professor says so.")
  • The subject matter does not call for authority, but one is cited. (Example: An advertisement shows a famous actor endorsing the taste of fried chicken. We can all judge for ourselves which fried chicken is tasty.)
  • The person cited has expertise, but there is no consensus on the particular question that is at issue. (Example: We cite Dr. X's views on the origins of the HIV virus, but since there is no consensus about this topic, Dr. X's authority settles nothing.)
  • The source is out of date but we pretend it is still reliable. (Example: Citing the encyclopedia figure of one million people as the population of Minnesota, without noting that this edition of the encyclopedia is 40 years old.)
  • There is not enough detail about the supposed authority to be able to specifically identify the source of the information. This is an appeal to anonymous authority. (Example: Weight loss advertisements that say that "A double-blind study showed the product to be 98% effective," without telling us who did the study, etc.)

The Latin name for this fallacy is ad verecundiam.

Variations of this fallacy appeal to other kinds of bogus authority, among them:

Slippery Slope 

There are two versions of this fallacy. They are both given this name because they share a common idea that taking a first step will lead us to something we don't want. It is the unjustified assumption of this idea that is the fallacy. (When the assumption is justified, there's no fallacy, even if the argument otherwise looks like any other slope.)

The assumption in question is that choosing one thing leads to, or is equivalent to, choosing a second thing. But the move from the first to the second is not immediate: one leads to the other (or is shown equivalent) by a series of small, plausible steps. The result is then noted to be undesirable, and therefore (by the valid move of modus tollens), we are advised to avoid the first.

Hence, the name "slippery slope," which conjures up a picture of sloped ground that is slippery. If you take even one step onto the slope, you will find yourself down on the bottom, where you may not want to be!

        CLICK HERE for another illustration.

         Oh, no! Watch out for that first step!

The first type (where the first step leads to the second by causing it) is the causal slope. The second type (that one leads by equivalences to the second) is the semantic slope. 

When there no justification (no good reason to believe) that the first step must cause the second or that the first is really equivalent, then the argument contains a fallacy. 

Example of causal type:

You shouldn't see any "R" rated action movies. If you do, you will expose yourself to situations that glamorize violence, and exposure will lead to your accepting it, which will lead to your own willingness to act out your violent impulses. Before you know it, you'll find yourself in court for some senseless violence that you've committed.

Example of semantic type:

You should always be generous when tipping in a restaurant. If you skimp at all, you may fail to adequately compensate your server, and to fail to compensate someone for their time is the same as stealing their time, and stealing someone's time is no different than forced servitude, which is just another name for slavery. If you're not generous when tipping, it's morally equivalent to participating in the slave trade.

Why are these fallacies? Because in each case we can point to a "break" in the chain, a place where one step really does not take us to the next. In the first example, acceptance of fake violence does not necessitate acceptance of real violence, at least for those of us who distinguish fantasy from reality. In the second example, even if we "steal time," that's not equivalent to forced servitude. The server's job is to serve even if the customer does not tip, and the server knows that when taking the job. The customer doesn't force the server to be a server.

Slippery slope is closely related to scare tactics, the difference being that the slope argument tries to hide the threat by following a series of steps before arriving at the "scary" result.

Straw Man 

This fallacy consists of misrepresenting an opponent's position in order to make your own position look more reasonable. To be blunt, it involves putting words into your opponent's mouth that your opponent would not recognize as theirs. By substituting a different position (usually much weaker than their real position), one fails to genuinely engage the opponent, and thus one hasn't really done anything to support one's own position. 

The name comes from the practice of stuffing dummies and scarecrows with straw. When one attacks an opponent by putting words into the opponent's mouth, one makes up a "dummy" position. But just as beating up a scarecrow doesn't demonstrate any athletic accomplishment, beating up a "straw man" in an argument doesn't demonstrate anything.

Given this definition, the fallacy of straw man is restricted to cases where there is an opponent and where one is responding to that opponent.

The difficulty with spotting the fallacy is that one must know enough about the issue to know when an opponents is being misrepresented. 

Example: If you vote for Smith, you're voting for a candidate who supports continuing government waste and inefficiency, continuing decline in our nation's schools, and a weakened military.

Real example: "As North Dakotans, we are incensed by researchers at Rutgers University proposing that our state be turned into a part of "Buffalo Commons." Now our state legislature is in the process of placing an official seal of approval on this concept by voting to maintain a 1000-strong buffalo herd along I-94 in the hope of creating a tourist attraction. Surely, a legislature that is intent on cutting education and social services has more worthy projects for our tax dollars." (Opening of a letter to the Fargo Forum)

Analysis: Staw man, twice! The Rutgers researches did not PROPOSE a Buffalo Commons (where large stretches of the plains would become nature preserves, virtually devoid of human occupation). They PREDICTED it as trend in the region. Here, a small change completely misrepresents the opponent. Then the arguer misrepresents the legislature by claiming their action will be "an official seal of approval on this concept." The real issue appears to be impending cuts in education and social services, but the straw men have no clear relationship to that issue (red herring!).

Emotional Appeals 

Any evaluation of an IDEA based on how it makes us FEEL is inappropriate. I may not like it that gravity limits my ability to fly without an airplane, but my disliking the truth is no argument against it!

False Dilemma (Limited Options Fallacy)
The fallacy of arguing by offering someone a false or implausible set of choices. In other words, an excluding possibilities argument with a false disjunction. A false dilemma is always unsound.

We show that the fallacy has taken place by pointing out one or more plausible but overlooked options.

Example: "Either Pat should study harder or take easier classes. Pat won't study harder, so Pat should take easier classes." 

Analysis: This argument has a false dilemma because it ignores the plausible alternative that Pat might change majors, or perhaps leave school.

Example: My opponent wants to extend the hunting season by starting it a week earlier. But that isn't fair to the young animals, cheating them of time to develop and making them easy targets. Instead, we should extend the season by a week. 

Analysis: Fails to consider the option of "none of the above," for example, by just leaving the dates of the season alone.

In this fallacy, the argument is usually valid. So this is not a "formal fallacy" (the problem is not the form of the argument). 

One variation of this fallacy is known as the Black-and-White Fallacy. In this case, the arguer oversimplifies a complex situation by seeing the situation as "black and white," putting all cases into one of two extreme categories. The arguer ignores "shades of gray." (Shown the color yellow, the arguer classifies it as white because it's more like white than black!)

Example: He can't be a Christian. Look, he's got tattoos! 

Analysis: Implicit but false assumption: You conform to a certain "dress code" or you're not a Christian.

Example: You're either a patriot or you're one of those radicals criticizing the war! 

Analysis: Implicit but false assumption: there is no middle ground.

Another variation is the middle ground fallacy (a.k.a. the split-the-difference fallacy). In this variation, the arguer begins the argument with a false dilemma by proposing two extreme options. Based on their extreme nature, the arguer then proposes that the reasonable option must be in the middle ground between the two, and proposes a specific third option as that middle ground. Yet this remains a false dilemma if the arguer has ignored additional options that would be alternatives (such as none of them).

Example: Smith thinks that all the faculty should use Mac computers, because that's what they use in her department. Jones thinks that all the faculty should use PCs, because they're more common in industry. But neither of those plans can work. PCs lack the capacity for graphics needed by the art department, and Macs don't run all the accounting software needed in the business school. So the university should adopt the compromise: half of future computers will be Macs, and half will be PCs.


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     Last updated Aug. 24, 2012