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This is the thirty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVI: Machiavelli, More, Luther

It has been said there is no surer sign that an intellectual adversary is defeated than when he stops attacking your ideas and starts attacking you. Martin Luther writes in his Letter to Pope Leo X, “when we can repel the truth by no other pretence, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries.”

Anybody who follows political news should be aware that this is the standard tactic of all of the most prominent politicians and pundits. (Obviously not the ones that you like and support. You are far to intelligent to fall for such an obvious logical fallacy. And your favorite politicians and talking heads are too upright to stoop to such petty tactics.) Rather than throughly rebutting and defending ideas, these people simply attack the ideas’ proponents. Consider this representative hypothetical:

A: “We should have a flat tax.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”

It is easy, in such a case, to identify the ad hominem and dismiss it as irrelevant. So what if A is a philanderer? That tells us nothing about whether his proposed tax policy is good bad or indifferent. B’s attack is totally unrelated to A’s proposal.

However, one of the most popular forms of ad hominem can be harder to spot. The appeal to hypocrisy (also known as tu quoque or whataboutism) often appears to be on point. For example:

A: “We should support traditional family values.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”

In this case, B’s statement seems relevant. The fact that A is a philanderer certainly appears to bear on the topic of family values. This appeal to hypocrisy is so attractive precisely because it has the semblance of logical refutation. But on closer inspection, the response does not actually refute A’s statement. Rather, it simply attacks A personally. It is totally possible that A’s statement about family values is right, no matter how bad of a spouse A is personally.

The biggest problem with analyzing ad hominem attacks is that if they are true, they may actually have some decision-making value. Whether A is a philanderer does not directly bear on the merits of his tax plan, but it does call into question whether he can be trusted to direct public funds. If his spouse cannot trust him, how can the voters?

(By the way, this example is particularly fertile ground ground for the appeal to hypocrisy. Politicians across the spectrum have bashed opponents for marital infidelity while defending members of their own ranks on the grounds that their personal lives do not effect their ability to govern. Whether they are right when they bash or right when they defend is not important for our purposes. At best, the very fact that they are inconsistent calls into question their motives. At worst it calls into question their reasoning powers. But in any event, it doesn’t really tell us anything about any substantive arguments, only about the people making them.)

And of course, this is true of most ad hominem attacks. Calling somebody a hypocrite, racist, or misogynist is not a refutation of any of their particular ideas or positions; it is merely a personal attack. But if the allegation of hypocrisy, racism, or misogyny is true, it (quite reasonably) makes us question their motives, reliability, and capacity.

The key, as I see it, is to readily identify ad hominem attacks, and give them the weight that they deserve. In the context of a debate of actual issues, that weight extremely low. When possible, ideas should be assessed on their own merits, not on those of their proponents.

Beer of the week: Julius Echter Hefe-Weissbier – This wheat beer from Würzburger Hofbräu is named for Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, a leader of the Counter-Reformation, who used his power as Prince-Bishop of Würzburg to combat Lutheranism. I doubt he’d like me pairing this beer with a reading in which Luther writes that the Catholic Church “stinks in the nostrils of the world.”

As for the beer, it is hazy and orangish. The foam consists of large, quickly dissipating bubbles. The aroma has some of the classic banana notes of a German hefeweizen. Ultimately, the flavor is a bit underwhelming. This beer is pretty good, but not great.

Reading of the week: Martin Luther to Pope Leo X – It is no mere coincidence that this post was inspired by a Luther reading. Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post addressing a particular ad hominem criticism of Luther. In this letter, he follows up his statement about ad hominem attacks with several paragraphs of blatant ad hominem criticisms, ending with calling the Catholic Church “the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.” What a hypocrite!

Question for the week: Do you know of any politicians or pundits who consistently stick to the issues and avoid the ad hominem tactic?

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