I’ve noticed a growing resistance among some people to engage in rational discussion on certain topics online. For instance, I once claimed that human morality seems objective throughout human history and so points to God as its author. Someone asked me to justify my claim in an argument. While I was presenting my rational argument to them in support of my claim, what I got back was not so much counter argument. It was angry sounding and abusive words against me as a person. For example:
“you not only have a problem, you are one.”
“you … diminish humanity.”
“perhaps you have a basic lack or dysfunction.”
“you are deluded”
Now – a good argument is always about an issue, never about a person. When you make the argument about the person (e.g. you are stupid for presenting that argument), this ceases to be a good and constructive argument and instead just becomes logically fallacious and pointless.
In logical terms, when one person proposes an argument for an issue (like the moral argument for or against God), and the other person replies with personal insults, this is an example of the Argumentum ad Hominem. It’s an informal fallacy of relevance where the reply shows a “connection between premises and conclusion [which] is emotional.” The argument ceases to be about a point of view, and it begins to be “an argument against the person” who is having his character impugned.
You come across three varieties of this logical fallacy in the wild:
1 – ad hominem abusive
The responder decides to attack the person rather than the substance of their argument. Or, tries to bolster a weak counter argument with a personal attack. Either way, his response is largely irrelevant to the discussion, “the argument attacking him is fallacious.”
2 – ad hominem circumstantial
Rather than abuse the other party, the responder attempts to discredit him in an attempt to show that “the opponent is predisposed to argue the way he or she does … and should not be taken seriously.”
3 – tu quoque
This is the response which basically claims that the other party is a hypocrite because of their lifestyle. But again, “the details of … personal life are irrelevant to whether his premises support his conclusions” in a discussion (a trial in a courtroom is a different setting with different rules, so life style may very well be relevant in that setting).
This logical fallacy is a powerful strategy in an argument because it is designed to raise emotion in the debate with the purpose of shutting the debate down. Hey – it works brilliantly. I’ve been in a situation with someone where I’ve tried to logically lay out an argument, yet when their abuses start to fly my way, my mind goes into a whirl and I lose the ability to think straight. I start to wrestle with thoughts like, “Why are they being so mean? Is it my fault? Am I a bad person? I hate that they are shouting at me. Are they right – am I a problem to society?” I stop thinking about my argument, and start dwelling on how hurt I feel. Hey – it’s a great tactic. But you don’t win argument that way. You just shut the argument down. And perhaps risk losing friendships in the process.
So – what do we do when we receive ad hominem’s in our discussions with people?
1 – Remember it’s a sign that your opponent probably does not have a good counter to your argument. Lets face it, when people are on the ropes, they have nothing to lose and end up just flailing at you with whatever they have got left. Personal attacks are just this – the argumentation version of flailing. You aren’t failing here in this argument. They are.
2 – Reflect on the reason for their attack. It’s not happening because there’s something wrong with you or you are a bad person. Rather, it’s because you are presenting your opponent with a persuasive argument they do not want to follow. You aren’t doing a bad job here. Quite the opposite!
3 – Resist the urge to insult them back. Why? Well, to trade insult with insult just undoes all the good you’ve achieved so far from this discussion. Your argument has been persuasive up to this point. That’s why they are swinging for your character. Don’t go and spoil things by cursing them back.
Perhaps it’s time to step back from them and give them space. They may have hurt your feelings. Well, you’ve given them something important to think about once they have calmed down. As Koukl says, you have put a stone in their shoe.
4 – If you are a Christian who receives ad hominems, pray for your opponent. I’m assuming your argument would be a helpful one if they will only just accept it? They are clearly in a battle over the argument you are proposing to them. They need your prayers.
5 – If you are a Christian who is guilty of using ad hominems in your arguments, stop it. You are not being persuasive and you are undermining the (hopefully) good point you are trying to make! And – it is dishonouring to Christ.
 Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 11th Edition, (Wadsworth: Cengage Learning, 2012), 122.
 Hurley, 126.
 Hurley, 127.