Friday, April 10, 2009

In praise of ad hominem

"Feel superior. Feel smug. Feel clever." - Don Boudreaux against cheap shot ad hominem attacks.

There is no doubt that ad hominem accusations are fun and tempting - even rhetorical masters, such as Deirdre McCloskey, lean on this tool and pencil "opponents" into association with bad company.

But presumably there is more behind such attacks than simple smugness - we have finite resources & facts, so taking in the whole situation that the argument is embedded in is one additional source of information. Yes, often overused, yes often without thought, or without even trying to address the underlying issue - instead sweeping generalizations and insults are used. But I believe there is some information there, sometimes.

For example - professors, including those promoting free markets, have tenure. In one sense - big deal. We live in a society that has tenure as a characteristic. But it means that a tenure holder can focus on the long run without being as concerned about the short run - one of the key reasons for tenure, and in this case this fact is of interest as the free marketer prof does not have to worry about the pain of job dislocation involved with change. This is a fundamental fact - one that can be overblown, but there it is. Surely this is a legitimate consideration, is it not?

Strong libertarians also claim taxes are a moral evil, but the actions of strong libertarian professors suggest that the use of "evil" is hyperbole: they live off taxes. This suggests they think taxes are BAD but probably not EVIL. It makes it sound like they overstate things on purpose, or at the very least have not thought through their actions (or have a very low threshold of what "evil" is - diluting the use of the term). As such, it weakens the speakers statements in other regards: are they overstating again? Or do they really have righteous anger here? How much should I discount? In particular it undercuts their specific claim, in general it calls the level of their language and appeals into serious questions - like the person calling everyone a Nazi, racist, and homophobe: who takes them seriously? Have they actually met a person who actually was one of [insert hateful/hated group X]?

If taxes really were EVIL a strong libertarian would work for a private think tank, not a public university - they have the ability to do so, they write well, they have the bona fides, they are smart. But they choose to live off taxes as the position they have is very nice - their actions says "taxes bad, but not evil". Sure, they grudently pay taxes - otherwise serious consequences come down - but if they really believed it was EVIL they would not live off it. Instead they see the position of professor as sweet and rewarding to them, and the fact that it is tax funded a sad reality of our society but one that we must live with. I see no evidence they really belief in the rhetoric of "evil" they slopply use {if I am wrong, please let me know}.

For these reasons ad hominem is valid, sometimes, it brings in the context of the argument and adds information. True, the fact it is easy and fun makes this too often used, but as we have few resources and little data should why not use this - carefully, and prepared to explain the attack (which, if legitimate, is a shorthand for a bundle of evidence that can be pulled into the light for further discussion), like we judge and use all other data?

Discounting ad hominem is very "un-Hayekian"; Hayek recognizes that we should use all the information we can, and let the many consider all the information they have in judging. Ad hominem - when used honestly - is a short cut to pulling in the context. Like all rhetoric it can be misused, overstated, blah blah blah. So what? Isn't this a complaint about the listener (either who you are arguing against, or some 3rd party "listener" or "reader"?) and their intellectual honesty - not the tool as such?

I like ad hominem, when used honestly - and I think this is one reason that people tend to use it, they implicitly know that this brings in the context and more information. As long as "the shorthand" of ad hominem is backed up, when called on, this seems like both an useful, and legitimate, tool.

Note: this post is a slight mutation of a comment to the "Cheap Shot" Cafe Hayek posting mentioned above.


  1. Good post. I agree with you about ad hominem mostly, although they can easily be overused, and the primary danger is that people tend to infer more from them than is justified, so it is good that they are avoided and considered poor form. Another good reason to avoid them is that they are not "civil" - they can cut conversations short, or detract from more substantive conversation as debaters spend time defending their motivations and not their positions.

    One problem with ad hominem attacks is that the focus of the conversation has now shifted from the argument itself to the arguers, and you can now have entirely different conversations about what the arguer's characteristics are and what they imply. For instance, I disagree that we can imply that someone does not really think taxation is evil if he takes a job at a public university.

    Getting a job at a private think tank is nothing like being a professor. I'd say, if a professor turned down a job at a private university for a comparable one at a public university, he probably doesn't think taxation is evil. But taking the job even though you could have gotten another one implies no more about their moral beliefs than the fact that most of us take cars to work (on public roads) even though we are capable of getting jobs that allow us to work from home.

  2. "For instance, I disagree that we can imply that someone does not really think taxation is evil if he takes a job at a public university."

    I think we perhaps disagree on what "evil" means. I reserve this term for the most serious of offenses.

    I'll give two examples to illustrate what I mean.

    (i) if someone thinks the way we raise and slaughter animals is evil I would judge by their not eating meat, not to any talk they give. For example, tofu is nothing like beef - beef is (for most) tasty. But to the person who *really believes* that raising & killing animals the way commonly done they will, I would think, not eat "factory farmed" meat. If they did I would not talk them seriously, and would be surprised if anyone else did. Yes, the system is set up that way and that is the status quo, and you have to make sacrifice (perhaps socially, or otherwise), but if one actually thought this was evil would this not change their action? In their case forgoing the meat and eating the tofu would be the right thing to do.

    (ii) If public universities were paid for by literal slavery - say forcing people into sex work and keeping the profits - many would think this evil. One could make a good argument that it was. If however you argued this was evil, and then took the job - i.e. existed directly off the proceeds of evil - because it was a good job for you, well - I would not believe your claims that you thought this was evil. I would instead suspect that either you were indifferent to this, relative you want you got, or perhaps that you were evil. In this case a private think tank, like tofu, is not an ideal replacement - but it would be the moral one.