Character Attack
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KSU   -   English 1101/55 & 57   -   Mr. Hagin   -   Fall 2002   -   Revised: 27 November 2002
CRC
 

§   DEFINITION

Character Attack – attacks that are directed against a person rather than his/her arguments.
 

Ad hominem is a Latin term meaning “against the man,” suggesting that these attacks are directed at the character of a person rather than at his argument (ad rem —Latin for “to the thing”).  Ad Hominem arguments attack the source or presenter of an argument, not anything within the argument itself, therefore making them both invalid and distracting.  This is not a reasonable argumentative approach because an argument’s validity does not depend on the character of their advocates (also see the genetic fallacy).
 

FOR  YOUR  INFORMATION

The theory behind using a character attack is simple: destroying the credibility of the opponent inhibits him from presenting reasonable appeals.  If the public is urged to dislike an opponent before he speaks, then the attacker has the greater chance of victory.

Clearly, this type of thinking is childish and self-serving.  It also distracts from the successful and valid arguments that the opponent may offer.  Attacking another person’s motives, backgrounds, or unchangeable traits is a dirty tactic, although it works in almost every political campaign.  We must avoid confusing someone’s private life with his professional record.  Accusations against a person do not constitute a fallacy, however, if the character attacks are truly and directly relevant to the argument.

 
EXAMPLE 1

A suspicious groom says: “What can this priest tell us about marriage?  He’s never been married himself!”

This attack ignores the validity of the advice that the priest may offer.  Of course, marriage counselors who are themselves married have a better understanding of how a marriage really works, but even single people can offer sensible marriage advice (such as open communication, sharing, and thinking of others before oneself).  If this couple were to only be counseled by the priest, then this statement increases its validity somewhat, since many realities of marriage fall outside the boundaries of the priest’s expertise.  Anyone who has been married knows, however, that everyone seems to have advice on marriage: family, friends, books, etc.
 

EXAMPLE 2

Kim argues: “Las Palmas is the best Mexican restaurant in town. They make their own tortillas, they only use the freshest ingredients, and everything I've had there has been delicious.”

Art replies: “Kim is Japanese, so we can ignore his opinion on Mexican food!”

Art’s response, obviously, does not address any of the reasons Kim has offered for his claim that Las Palmas is the best Mexican restaurant in town; Art has only attacked Kim as the source of the claim (and contrasting his heritage with his meal).  One does not need to be Mexican in order to evaluate the quality of a Mexican restaurant.  To do so also commits the invincible ignorance, circular reasoning, and false cause fallacies.