Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The ad hominem fallacy is a sin


An argumentum ad hominem (or “argument to the man”) is the fallacy committed when, instead of addressing the merits of an argument someone presents you with, you attack the person himself – his motives, some purported character defect, or the like.  This disreputable tactic has, of course, always been common in public controversies, but resort to the fallacy seems these days nearly to have eclipsed rational public discourse.  A large segment of the country has made it a matter of policy never to engage its political opponents at the level of reason, but only ever to demonize them and shout them down.  Even in the Church, recent years have seen the ad hominem routinely deployed against even the most respectful and scholarly critics of Pope Francis’s doctrinally problematic statements concerning divorce and remarriage, capital punishment, and other matters.
 
This is not a mere foible in those prone to it, or merely a regrettable aesthetic defect in a polity.  It is sinful, sometimes gravely so.

 What the ad hominem fallacy is (and is not)
 
To see why, it is important first to understand what an ad hominem fallacy is – and what it is not.  As all logicians know, and as I explained at length in a post several years ago, merely calling someone a name, or calling attention to his character defects, is not an ad hominem fallacy and it is not necessarily morally objectionable.  Sometimes a person merits a nasty description, and sometimes what is at issue is precisely his moral character.  There is no ad hominem fallacy in judging someone to be dishonest, or feckless, or incompetent, or simply a scumbag, and then going on to say so.  Those may just be the facts, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with calling attention to such facts.

An ad hominem fallacy is committed when what is at issue is not a person or his character, but rather the truth or falsity of something he said or the cogency of some argument he gave, and instead of addressing that, you attack him or his character.  If I call Charles Manson a murderous, sadistic, and lying scumbag, I have not committed an ad hominem fallacy, but simply stated the facts.  If Charles Manson gives me an argument purporting to show (for example) that Amoris Laetitia is hard to reconcile with Christ’s teaching on marriage or that immigration laws need to be enforced, and in response to that argument all I do is call him a murderous, sadistic,  and lying scumbag, then I have committed an ad hominem fallacy.  

The ad hominem fallacy can take different forms.  The best known is the abusive ad hominem, which involves simply flinging invective at someone rather than addressing the merits of his claim or argument.  Again, it is not the invective per se that is fallacious.  Invective may or may not be appropriate, and even when it is wrong, the reason, sometimes, is not that it involves an ad hominem fallacy but rather a lack of charity, or discretion, or whatever.  What is fallacious is substituting invective when rational analysis and argumentation are what is called for.  Hence, if someone tries to give you an argument for some claim and in response you merely label him with an epithet like “bigot,” “fascist,” “Nazi,” “racist,” “homophobe,” “sexist,” “commie,” “cuck,” “neocon,” etc. and pretend that the alleged appropriateness of the label suffices to show that his argument can be dismissed, you are guilty of a textbook example of the abusive ad hominem.  

Sometimes people who are aware of the nature of the fallacy try to rationalize committing it by looking for legalistic loopholes.  Academic philosophers and other intellectuals sometimes do this when engaging opponents in non-academic contexts, such as Facebook exchanges, combox discussions, blog posts, etc.  Suppose I routinely demonize a certain opponent or group of opponents without ever addressing the substance of their arguments, and you accuse me of committing an ad hominem fallacy.  Suppose I respond by saying: “But I wasn’t even trying to address the arguments, so I’m not guilty of the fallacy.  I’m just expressing my low opinion of these people.”  The problem with this is that even if I am not explicitly claiming to address the arguments, my behavior does have an implicature to the effect that the arguments are somehow bad.  I am “sending the message” that the arguments of the people I am demonizing should not be listened to, even though all I’ve really done is thrown abuse at them rather than explaining what is wrong with those arguments.  So I am still guilty of an ad hominem fallacy, even if I have not committed it in a blatant way by explicitly saying something of the form: “You are a [bigot, Nazi, commie, etc.], therefore your argument is no good.”

Another form the ad hominem can take is the tu quoque fallacy, which involves rejecting someone’s claim or argument merely because he does not himself behave in a way that is consistent with it.  An enormous amount of online “debate” amounts to nothing more than this endless, dreary flinging back and forth of accusations of hypocrisy.  Now, accusing someone of hypocrisy is not in itself fallacious.  What is fallacious, again, is the pretense that such an accusation suffices to refute a claim or argument that the person has given.  If you assert that p is true and in response I point out that you nevertheless behave in a way that seems to imply not-p, that does not by itself show that you are wrong.  It may be that p really is true, and that the problem is not that you believe that p, but rather that you don’t practice what you preach.  Or it may be that there is another way to interpret your behavior so that it is compatible with your belief that p, and that you are not in fact guilty of inconsistency.  I would have to provide arguments to rule these alternatives out before I could claim to have refuted you.  Merely flinging an accusation of hypocrisy does not cut it.

A third form the ad hominem can take, and one that is also depressingly common in online discussion, is the poisoning the well fallacy.  This is committed when, instead of addressing the merits of an opponent’s claim or argument, you question his motivation for giving it.  The reason this is a fallacy is that the truth or falsity of a claim and the cogency of an argument by themselves have nothing whatsoever to do with the motives of the person giving it.  A person whose motives are bad can nevertheless give a good argument, and a person whose motives are good can nevertheless give a bad argument.  

Here too it is important properly to understand the nature of the fallacy.  Calling attention to someone’s motives is not by itself fallacious.  Sometimes we should consider someone’s motives.  For example, if our only reason for believing that Smith committed a certain crime is that Jones said so, and we know that Jones has long had a vendetta against Smith, then we have good reason to doubt Jones’s testimony.  What is at issue in this case is precisely Jones’s veracity, so that consideration of his motives is appropriate.  A fallacy of poisoning the well is committed when what is at issue is not a person’s veracity or some other aspect of his character, but rather the truth or falsity of some claim he makes or the cogency of some argument he gives, and instead of addressing that, we change the subject by accusing him of having bad motives.

A version of the poisoning the well fallacy that is extremely common today is the tactic of dismissing the arguments of an opponent on the grounds that they are allegedly motivated by “hatred.”  You think Amoris Laetitia is problematic?  You must be motivated by hatred of Pope Francis!  You disapprove of homosexual behavior?  You must be motivated by hatred of homosexuals!  You favor border enforcement?  You must be motivated by hatred of immigrants!  And so on.  Part of the problem here, of course, is that hatred is not necessarily the motive in any of these cases.  But the reason that poisoning the well is fallacious is that, even if hatred were a person’s motivation, that would be completely irrelevant to whether his claims are true and his arguments cogent.  Logically speaking, motives don’t matter.

Why the fallacy is sinful

One reason the ad hominem is morally problematic is that it is a sin against truth.  It may turn out that an opponent is right, so that if you dismiss what he says on ad hominem grounds, you will be blinding yourself, and others too (to the extent that they are influenced by your ad hominem attacks), to truths that might otherwise have been seen.  When the tendency to resort to the ad hominem fallacy becomes habitual, the probability that the one committing it will fall into error is, naturally, significantly increased.  

Consider too that ad hominem fallacies are often committed when one is angry at an opponent.  Therefore, someone who exhibits the vice of wrath – a habitual tendency toward anger that is disordered either in its intensity or its object – is bound to fall into the ad hominem fallacy quite often, and therefore bound to fall into error quite often.  In short, a person who is constantly angry and constantly vituperative with opponents is likely to be frequently wrong, though for that very reason he is also unlikely to see that he is frequently wrong.  Spiritually and cognitively, this is a very dangerous condition to be in.

A second reason the ad hominem is morally problematic is that it can involve sinful presumption.  No human being can have infallible knowledge of another person’s motives or spiritual state.  Of course, we can often form plausible opinions about such things.  Again, there is nothing wrong with judging that Charles Manson was an evil person, because his behavior quite clearly and consistently pointed in that direction.  However, if someone is to all appearances sincerely trying to engage with you at the level of sober rational argumentation, it is, morally and spiritually speaking, very dangerous glibly to dismiss that as a cover for some hidden evil motive.  It is, accordingly, especially regrettable that such “well poisoning” has today become routine in certain Catholic circles.  What could be a clearer violation of Christ’s command: “Judge not, lest you be judged”?  

This brings us to a third reason that the ad hominem fallacy is morally problematic, which is that it dehumanizes one’s opponents.   

Human beings are by nature rational animals.  What distinguishes us from other animals is that our activity is ultimately guided by intellect rather than merely by sensation, the appetites, or the passions.  Even when we pursue something that is pleasing to these faculties, that is only because our intellects grasp it as such.  Even when we act irrationally, we do not act non-rationally.  The intellect is malfunctioning, but that is different from not functioning at all.  

This is not only Aristotle’s teaching.  It is the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the reason the Church rejects fideism, voluntarism, and other forms of irrationalism.  In Libertas Praestantissimum, Pope Leo XIII writes:

[W]hile other animate creatures follow their senses, seeking good and avoiding evil only by instinct, man has reason to guide him in each and every act of his life…

[T]he will cannot proceed to act until it is enlightened by the knowledge possessed by the intellect.  In other words, the good wished by the will is necessarily good in so far as it is known by the intellect; and this the more, because in all voluntary acts choice is subsequent to a judgment upon the truth of the good presented, declaring to which good preference should be given.  No sensible man can doubt that judgment is an act of reason, not of the will. (Sections 3 and 5)

Similarly, in his famous Regensburg address, Pope Benedict XVI approvingly quotes Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus’s remark that “whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly,” and endorses the emperor’s view that (as Benedict paraphrases Manuel) “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”  

Accordingly, when dealing with other human beings, we must always appeal to their reason as far as we can, because to fail to do so would be contrary to what is good for them given their nature.  Of course, sometimes this is not possible – for example, with a person who is literally insane, or with an attacker intent on inflicting bodily harm.  But it obviously is possible with an opponent who himself makes an effort at rational engagement.  

When, in response to such engagement, we resort to fallacious ad hominem rhetoric – when we ignore an opponent’s attempts to reason with us, when we respond to his arguments with mockery and contempt, when we try to shout him down and intimidate him into silence rather than persuading him – we treat him as something less than a rational animal, and therefore as less them human.  We are acting contrary to his nature, contrary to his human dignity.  This cannot fail to be sinful.  And the more greatly it contributes to sowing discord within society or the Church, the more gravely sinful it is.

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50 comments:

  1. Excellent description of this common fallacy. Another form is guilt by association. Your views are dismissed because of the company you keep or the organization you belong to.

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    1. it is also common to see people say that you are guilty because of the people who follow you or support you.

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  2. Catholics can also freely call people out when they think others are going way too far in attacking a pope. I have seen misreading, not giving the benefit of the doubt and uncharitable readings of what the pope has said.

    He is neither a great philosopher or theologian etc. but we don't have to try and find fault, nit-pick and so on. Even with the worst popes there has to be respect for the office, a desire for unity and avoidance of creating or magnifying scandal.

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    1. @Anonymous

      Good point, but Feser hasn't been guilty of that, as you should know. If the Pope is incapable of clearly articulating his beliefs, then he has no business occupying the position. Anybody fulfilling that responsibility should know that millions of people will be listening to his words. He is therefore responsible for the confusion his words have caused with respect to a host of issues.

      Numerous faithful Catholics and non-Catholics have asked him for clarification to no avail. He is therefore justly criticized both for the confusing signals he sends and his refusal to address the legitimate concerns of the faithful.

      Besides, calling out the Pope for those things, even if done disrespectfully, isn't employing an ad hominem argument---you know, the topic of this thread.

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    2. People ARE attacking the popes character rather than his statements at times. As for the position he is in, well that is largely down to the cardinals.

      It may very well be that he was chosen through them because he was quite imperfect. Maybe he was the wrong pick... I do hold that the pope has been attacked at times on unfair grounds. Also, not everything he has done is 'bad'. In fact he has also done a lot of good.

      So what I am saying is people are equally allowed to call people out when they overdo their attacks on the pope. I imagine you would agree with that much?

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    3. @Anonymous

      You ask,

      So what I am saying is people are equally allowed to call people out when they overdo their attacks on the pope. I imagine you would agree with that much?

      Well, of course, but as Feser points out, attacking somebody's character isn't arguing ad hominem. You're guilty of that fallacy when you use a person's perceived or real actions as the basis for defeating that person's argument. It is fallacious because the argument itself is untouched by the attack.

      If the Pope refuses to clarify his statements, then his character is rightly called into question. Every Christian should be willing to address the legitimate concerns of people. The fact that the Pope ignores them is a definite strike against his character. That has nothing to do with the ad hominem fallacy.

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    4. The Holy Father is the Vicar of Christ and can forgive my sins. He seems to be a practically minded man about whom much falsehood has been said. He also seems to be systematically ambiguous, even wrong on marriage.

      Better?

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  3. "or simply a scumbag"
    Well considering the origin of this term I try to avoid it.

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    1. Interesting. Judging by this question about the origin of scumbag, there's evidence it was used as a derogatory term before the meaning I guess you're thinking it means.

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  4. Hey Ed, that's all well and good, but what's a guy supposed to do when his position is so intellectually indefensible that the only way to hold his own is to impugn the motives of his opponent? Don't you think that many of those who employ fallacious arguments such as this would be more than happy to use rational ones if they could possibly help their cause? But, alas, since their point of view is too often almost pure, undiluted jackassery, they are constrained by shear necessity to eschew all reason and embrace the strategy of verbal assault.

    Just try to be a little more understanding, that's all.

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  5. But it obviously is possible with an opponent who himself makes an effort at rational engagement.

    When, in response to such engagement, we resort to fallacious ad hominem rhetoric – when we ignore an opponent’s attempts to reason with us, when we respond to his arguments with mockery and contempt, when we try to shout him down and intimidate him into silence rather than persuading him – we treat him as something less than a rational animal, and therefore as less them human.


    There is, though, a slight nuance to this: some people use apparently reasonable discourse as a weaponized method of defeating honest debate, honest discourse, honest disagreements aimed at resolving toward mutually agreed understanding. SJWs actually teach each other to do this. In some ways, Pope St. Pius X, in his encyclical on the modernists, showed that the modernists do this: they do not engage in dialogue in order to try to work toward a mutually agreed understanding of the truth between them and their interlocutor, they use dialogue as a tactic in manipulation and to disguise how their positions are not defensible in reason. In limited situations like these where the person is only appearing to use reasoned debate, villification and other attacks, side-stepping the content of the debated issue itself, is warranted even in charity. But it must be used with care, because it is possible to mistake when a debater is doing this. Some are just dunderheaded dolts.

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  6. I enjoyed this analysis/description. it was well done and shows , on a curve, those committing the error must be revealing a intellectual position that fails.
    The accusing of motives and judging of character is historic in humans.
    I don't think its done more but instead done directly by those with power and influence. that is the left wing has more of those then the right.
    So it seems to be more but is really just a curve based on identity and power.
    I do think those who tag their opponents, with negative trasits, in contentious issues really do show a inferior character and intelligence.
    in other words people who are wrong are wrong more so about how they argue their case.
    being right is more likely the preserve of the more intelligent and moral.
    Right and wrong is not a roll of the dice as a reflection on human beings.
    The bad guys accuse more falsely and are not accused as deserving.

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  7. Oh yes. This is a sin I am in need of forgiveness.

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  8. Sometimes, conversations can get so messy that it’s hard to determine what’s at issue though.

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  9. To add to what Tony said, I think it is sometimes licit to call attention to the character of an arguer in addition to the substance of his arguments. This is especially the case when the arguer in question exhibits bad will or moral vice, because this can supply prima facie evidence that arguer's ability to discern truth is compromised. This is consistent with what we know from Aquinas' discussion of virtue and the intellect: habitually consenting to vice habituates one towards allowing the will to move the intellect, and this compromises one's capacity to discern the good and the true. If the arguer is indeed habituated in this way, then this fact about their character is epistemically salient, because it reveals that the arguer has unreliable cognitive faculties and so their argumentation cannot be assumed to be trustworthy. In fact, I would say that a dialectically unskilled but good willed person could have sufficient reason to reject out of hand an argument for a morally repugnant conclusion when it is received from a known reprobate. This might remain the case even if the unskilled person cannot identify the false premise or logical fallacy involved.

    I think it is perfectly legitimate, say, to argue that Andrea Dworkin's sad and pathetic life circumstances almost wholly explain her extreme antipathy towards men and patriarchy, and that this is prima facie evidence that her ramblings are not to be taken seriously as an accurate description of male/female power dynamics. She and her fellow travelers stand in need of special psychological explanation and not rational argumentation, because it is blindingly obvious that they are merely projecting their personal traumas onto the external world. When Jane sixpack hears that "all heterosex is rape" she is within her epistemic rights to take one look at Ms. Dworkin and dismiss the argument, whether she can identify the equivocation or not.

    Dworkin's is an extreme case, but one from which it is easy to extrapolate. It doesn't take rocket science to see that the whole SJW phenomenon is screaming (literally!) for psychological explanation. Here are a bunch of clearly damaged and developmentally arrested individuals who habitually externalize and generalize the blame for their personal traumas and shortcomings. Once the psychic disorders, base envies and crude resentments are all accounted for, there precious little left of this movement at the rational and dialectically levels.

    At a certain point, addressing these kinds of people through exclusively dialectical means is is like showing up to a drunk tank or a psych ward and trying to negotiate with the inmates. Good luck with that.

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  10. I think this ad hominem arguments are a part and parcel of the Marxist approach. I forget it was he started it but certainly Marx used this approach extensively and later on Lenin and Stalin until it got to be very common in Marxist literature. It could be that from there the Left in the USA picked up this approach.

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  11. This is a very good analysis and post. I think the level of many combox interactions would be greatly improved if various ad hominems were carefully scrutinized beforehand to see whether they are really called for in a dialectical exchange, and if at all, at what point. To leap to personal attacks at the get-go, often before understanding the other person's position, is way too common - and way too tempting.

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  12. Hi Ed,

    "If you assert that p is true and in response I point out that you nevertheless behave in a way that seems to imply not-p, that does not by itself show that you are wrong."

    OK. So if I point out that people who deny free will nevertheless behave as if they believed in it, that's an instance of the ad hominem fallacy? I'm just asking, because I've seen many defenders of libertarian free will make precisely this kind of argumentative move.

    I'd also like to see a future post on the argument from retorsion, and why it does not fall under the ad hominem fallacy. (Note: I'm not claiming that it does, by the way. I'm just saying that I think it's worth spelling out precisely why it doesn't, that's all.)

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    1. Hi Vincent,

      I talked about this issue in the "Self-defeating claims and the tu quoque fallacy" post linked to above at the bottom of the post. I would argue that properly understood, retorsion arguments are a species of reductio ad absurdum argument, and not tu quoque arguments at all. True, sometimes they are badly formulated (e.g. in pop apologetics) in a way that makes them seem like tu quoque arguments, but even there usually the tu quoque accusation is not actually what's doing the philosophical work. I have more to say about this in some forthcoming work.

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    2. What about instances where one ties to show that the advocate of a certain position does not actually believe it himself.
      I'm thinking of people who claim that there is no such thing as morality. It is easy to show that these people really do have notions of better and worse.

      I think in such a case you can be exposing the self contradictory nature of his argument. When Nietzsche says that we can leave morality behind and move on to something greater, we can reveal that this notion of "greater" is itself a moral term.

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  13. There is a problem, though, in that one sees (what I like to call) ex hominem arguments. One of the classics is "I did X and I turned out OK". A common one I've seen lately is "I believe both X and Y, therefore they don't contradict."

    Also common these days is "Your argument doesn't convince me therefore it's wrong."

    There are others; their defining characteristic is that the moral or natural virtue of the one making the argument is a (typically suppressed) premise in the argument.

    The upshot is that an ad hominem argument is in fact an answer to the substance of the ex hominem argument. In fact, it's often the *only* substantial counter-argument.

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  14. Even when we act irrationally, we do not act non-rationally.  The intellect is malfunctioning, but that is different from not functioning at all.

    I thought the intellect couldn’t malfunction since its very essence consists in the power of knowing truth? Rather than the intellect going wrong I understood any error in reasoning had the will as its ultimate source, behind more proximate sources such as prejudice, imperfect teaching, confusion of ideas, passion, impatience, and disease.

    No doubt I’m misunderstanding or misremembering something I read somewhere. Can anyone explain or suggest some further reading? Cheers.

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  15. Do I feel personally slighted by this blog post? Well if I did that would only be because I have a guilty conscience. ;-) :D

    Of course I blame the so called Progressive leftists, Radtrads and New Atheists for all the argumentum ad hominem in discourse because I blame them for everything. ;-)

    I would blame Milo Yiannopoulos except it's funny and entertaining when he does it. Especially to so called Progressive Leftists, Alt Righters and New Atheists and third wave Feminists.

    But then again this is mere politics which is no better then swatting about in a whorehouse. Philosophy and rational discussion is a higher pursuit.

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  16. "even if I am not explicitly claiming to address the arguments, my behavior does have an implicature to the effect that the arguments are somehow bad. I am “sending the message” that the arguments of the people I am demonizing should not be listened to, even though all I’ve really done is thrown abuse at them rather than explaining what is wrong with those arguments"

    This reminds me of what you and Patrick Coffin (but mostly Patrick Coffin, who belabored the abuse) did when speaking of vegetarians and animals rights in a recent interview.

    As a vegetarian both intrigued by and inquiring of the Catholic faith, I was extremely put off by what, according to the quote above, was an ad hominem. There are Catholic defenses of vegetarianism as well, which made it all the more unnecessary.

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    1. Animals don't have rights (rights presuppose dignity which presupposes rationality) but they do need to be treated kindly.

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    2. I could easily grant that, but I would qualify it to state that vegetarianism and having an ethical concern for animals needn't rely on animals having rights to be justified.

      I was just reminded of the interview by this post and felt like bringing it up in the hopes that Catholics like Coffin refrain from needlessly hostile dismissals of vegetarianism and the issue of animal rights. Not everyone who cares about such things is a purple-haired, belligerent PETA activist. There are Catholic intellectuals who defend vegetarianism, as I mentioned.

      Thankfully Feser is a fair minded fellow who allows criticism on his blog.

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    3. Anonymous,

      There is no problem with being a Catholic and vegetarian. It is even required of Catholics on certain days during Lent. Obviously having respect for God’s creation is a requirement as a Catholic. The danger is when people equate animals with humans (which typically implies people can be treated like animals). Obviously not all vegetarians do that. I saw the interview with Patrick Coffin. It seemed like they were simply poking fun at vegetarians. I would hardly say they were being hostile.

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    4. Well, if you're not a vegetarian or vegan, I can see why you wouldn't think they were being hostile. The cavalier and flippant bashing of important ethical issues is rarely seen by those who wrestle with them as innocuously humorous. I stand by my impression that the incident in question was an example of crass and unnecessary sniping.

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  17. "I am “sending the message” that the arguments of the people I am demonizing should not be listened to"

    The problem is this isn't a fallacy. There are far too many people out there with arguments about a given subject for listening to all of them to be practical. If I say (for example) "HuffPo is a liberal rag and not worth anyone's time", that obviously isn't fallacious, even though I'm not addressing any particular argument they've made.

    Obviously people dismiss perfectly reasonable positions out of hand when they shouldn't, but this tactic isn't inherently fallacious.

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  18. Dr. Feser writes: ..."when we respond to his arguments with mockery and contempt, ...– we treat him as something less than a rational animal, and therefore as less than human. We are acting contrary to his nature, contrary to his human dignity. This cannot fail to be sinful. And the more greatly it contributes to sowing discord within society or the Church, the more gravely sinful it is."

    Methinks the good doctor has committed his own fallacy of jumping to a false conclusion in this regard. Since sin requires a requisite intent on the part of the sinner, the use of mockery in response to an argument does not necessarily possess the requisite intent to be declared sinful as Dr. Feser has done for the use of mockery in and of itself.

    Moreover, some mockery can be so mild as to be considered part of joking banter, and so it is clearly not used in a manner that is contrary to the person's human dignity, etc.

    Nor does it necessarily follow that the use of mockery in response to an argument is treating the recipient of the mockery as less than a rational animal (by the bye, only rational animals can understand mockery), because, again, a sinful intent may not be present as Dr. Feser wrongly believes must be present with the use of the mockery in response to an argument.

    In any case, whether the mockery is mild or harsh, it does not necessarily follow that its use in response to an argument is ipso facto evidence that the user of the mockery has committed a sin.

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    1. In any case, whether the mockery is mild or harsh, it does not necessarily follow that its use in response to an argument is ipso facto evidence that the user of the mockery has committed a sin.

      Two points. First, a point of mere logic: "necessarily follow" and "is ipso facto evidence for" should not be used in tandem here. (Or in a LOT of places, which is why I bother to make this point.) Lots and lots and lots of small details can constitute "evidence for" a thesis, without being able to probe the thesis separately. That's what "circumstantial evidence" implies. Police investigators use this fact all the time: when you sift through 10,000 details, and manage to pick out 15 salient facts that point in the same direction toward one perpetrator, those 15 salient facts together can make a convincing case that this individual is the criminal, even though no one of them can prove it. Each one individually is evidence for the thesis, without being proof for the thesis. In order for Fact F to be evidence toward a thesis T only means that if F is true, there is some higher probability that T is true, not that T is necessarily proven.

      More substantively: I think that Prof. Feser's point is not that it is always a sin to use mockery or ad hominem arguments, but that these can besinful. It depends on the detailed circumstances. So, fine, using an ad hominem is not per se sinful, but it is sinful and an offense against the virtues of truth so often that it is well to call attention to the likely prospect that using it is a sin. It's kind of like anger: being angry and using it in an action is not per se sinful (Christ did it), but far more often than not an action chosen with anger is badly chosen on account of that anger, and the saints wisely caution us not to act out of anger. But they don't mean that it is sinful across the board.

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    2. DB writes:

      Since sin requires a requisite intent on the part of the sinner...

      Has this been established? Note:

      Leviticus 4
      13 And if all the multitude of Israel shall be ignorant, and through ignorance shall do that which is against the commandment of the Lord,
      14 And afterwards shall understand their sin, they shall offer for their sin a calf, and shall bring it to the door of the tabernacle.

      Said chapter addresses both individual and collective guilt via sins of ignorance. It thus appears that intent is not a prerequisite for sin. Though ignorance is a mitigating factor, it does not negate the offense. Once it is understood that an offense has been committed, an atonement needs to be made.

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    3. "Moreover, some mockery can be so mild as to be considered part of joking banter, and so it is clearly not used in a manner that is contrary to the person's human dignity, etc."

      Some poison can be so diluted that it doesn't harm the recipient and some cancer can be so minor that it goes unnoticed throughout a lifetime. Yet cancer is cancer and arsenic is poison.

      Perhaps, in some instances poisons may even be used to save a patient's life.

      In biology, knowledge is not always perfect but it is still knowledge. How much more so in ethics?

      It doesn't necessarily follow that one uses a weapon to harm others yet a sword is still a weapon even if you pick your teeth with it

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  19. Litzy InfarinatoJuly 5, 2018 at 8:00 AM

    There is the case where we sense and feel sophistry but can’t marshal an argument. There is no need to fling accusations but one should say something. There is an internal ad hominem perhaps. As the Russian saying goes, trust your one bad eye.

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  20. This post, perhaps somewhat adjusted, should be included on every social media news and discussion platform and put up on the bulletin board of every university and high school classroom.

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  21. I disagree with whatever you are attempting to show in your comments on "necessarily follows" and "ipso facto evidence for," since in the context they are provided, they are just fine.

    Regarding your defense of Dr. Feser, note how you are providing an intention for his claims that he does not provide, and in doing so, you actually reveal an agreement with what I set forth, because you also recognize what's lacking in Dr. Feser's declarations that do not include the all-important element of intention regarding sin, and so you are spinning his declarations to try to rescue his position by declaring "it's not really what he meant."

    I wonder: is recasting what somebody says to make it appear different than what it actually is a "sinful" kind of action that disrespects the truth? I guess it all depends on your intention in doing what you did. :-)

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  22. Could we perhaps say that ad-hominem arguments and the like may have the matter of a sin, while not necessarily having the form of a sin?

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    2. What's the difference between an illegal immigrant and a legal immigrant? Paperwork.

      A citizen and a non-citizen are human beings---nobody argues otherwise. Finite resources require regulated immigration, plain and simple.

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  24. @Cogniblog

    There's no point having a discussion with you. English must not be your mother tongue. I never said I was against immigration. I said:

    Finite resources require regulated immigration, plain and simple.

    Ask your English teacher what the difference is between regulated immigration and illegal immigration.

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    2. Again, you really need to have a talk with your English teacher because you're clearly not getting it (or you're an arrant liar).

      "Regulated immigration" does not mean "prohibited immigration." It means you have an application process and you control whom and how many immigrants may enter your country at any given time. Look up the word regulate. All you need is Google.

      In no manner have I even remotely argued against immigration. Try being honest next time.

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  25. The knowledge of how and the skill to provide a logical argument is so rare today that the ad hominem fallacy is the only argument most people know.

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  26. Ever since I moved from the left to the right, adopted a more conservative outlook on social issues, and slightly expressed anything remotely conservative on online forums the ad homs were a dime a dozen.

    I've been called a Nazi piece of sh_t. The condescension, arrogance, snark and an attempt of doxing showed me that if you aren't on the modern prog train you're going to be singled out. Ironically most of the name calling came from the left.

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  27. Ed
    Revisit this sometime in relation to the non-pejorative use of ad hominem in Boyle's dissertation. That would be a great service, and for me would remove the last obstacle to fully understanding his "self-referential metaphysics" as an analytic system.

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