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Ad Hominem

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So, here’s the thing.  Wor is going really well lately, and that means that I sometmes don’t get around to the blog.   Then there is the fried chicken situation, but that’s something else.

I’ve been thinking today about a book I read some time ago.  It’s still in print, as far as I know.  It’s called The Intellectuals, and it’s by a man named Paul  Johnson, who is sort of an interesting person.

Johnson is a Brit, and all I can say is that elementary and secondary education in the UK of his time must have been stellar, because he did not attend any university.   Instead, he worked for a long time as a journalist, and in his spare time he started a second career as an historian.

A good historian.

He’s written books on the history of Christianity, the history of the United States and the history of the Jews.  He wrote this book called The  Birth  of Modernity, which is about a fifteen year period near the beginning of the nineteenth century that gave us the habits of thought we have now.

The Intellectuals, however, is something of a departure from his usual stuff, because instead of being a single, well-reasoned narrative on an historical period, it’s a series of long essays on a number of important thinkers and writers. 

All of these thinkers and writers can be at least nominally defined as “left wing,” although in point of fact some of them lived before such designations had entered the language and some of them are “left wing” only in the sense that they’re obviously not conservative.

Living in a world where everything is supposed to fit into a bipolar scheme makes things difficult sometimes.

Johnson’s book covers the obvious figures–Rousseau, Marx, Sartre–and some less obvious ones, but the reason it’s been on my mind is that it asks the question that continues to bother me.

There’s a logical fallacy called the “ad hominem,” which is the practice of ignoring what someone is saying in order to attack him personally.

This is a fallacy because the truth of a statement most usually inheres in the statement, not in the person pronouncing it.  The earth would still be round if Hitler was the one who discovered it was not flat.

Any short acquaintance with the Net will reveal that people love ad hominem arguments, and that most of them adhere stringently to the idea that proving that the guy making the statement is a jerk or worse is enough to disprove the statement, or at least render it beneath consideration.

I don’t usually have much patience with ad hominem arguments, but I find myself coming up short when the  person I’m considering is a philosopher.

It’s not just that philosophers are supposed to tell us how to live, and that there might be some merit in knowing whether they can follow their own advice, or, if they follow it, what results it has.

It’s certainly perfectly possible for someone to give good advice he’s not able, or willing, to take himself.  There’s a wonderful article in this month’s issue of Skeptic magazine about  Ponzi schemes.   It’s written by a university professor who specializes in investigating gullibility and the way it leads people to buy into collective delusions and do all sorts of things they wouldn’t do if they were thinking straight.

The guy also had a lot of his mone wiped out in the Madoff mess.

I’m also very aware of the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect person.  Even the saints had flaws, and often big ones.  There isn’t a single historical figure, thinker, writer, novelist, grocery bagger, whatever, who hasn’t done something discreditable at some point in his life.  If you’re not going to liten to anybody unless they’re perfect, you’re not going to listen to anybody, and you should probably stop listening to yourself.


The fact is that I’m also aware of the human capacity for self-justification and rationlization.  I know people can build vast mansions in the air to absolve themselves from guilt.

Deconstruction–the idea that what a text says on the surface is not what it really means; you have to “unpack” it, and sometimes it means the opposite–turns out to have been developed largely by people who had significant histories of wartime collaboration with the Nazis in France.   An awful lot of the various forms of moral relativism out there seem to be promoted by people who want to get away with things a non-relative morality wouldn’t allow them to touch.

Think of  Peter Singer.

I wis I knew where I was going with this, but I don’t.  I do know another book of essays could be written that concentrated on “right wing” writers and had pretty much the same effect, but at the moment that only book of this kind I have on offer is Johnson’s.

And I think I’m going to reread it if I can find it in the office. 

Because the issue of how we treat each other, how we make ourselves live civilization, isn’t minor for me. 

All the rest of it–Canons, and education, and English departments, and whatever–seems secondary. 

I wis I understood the process by which some human beings stop seeing other human beings as human beings–how they get to the place where they feel justified in treating other human beings as less than human.

Mostly when we pose this question, we’re asking about something big, like the Holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide.

The smaller things are more important, though, in the long run.  The way some of us feel that lying and manipulation is just fine when we’re dealing with that person, that gossip and defamation is just a lot of fun, that it’s all right to cheat and maneuver behond someone’s back because, hell, they don’t know what’s good for them anyway.

Yeah, okay, I’m back on this.

But it’s been a long couple of months.

Written by janeh

April 6th, 2009 at 6:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Ad Hominem'

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  1. I wish I had some answers. Well, *an* answer – as usual, I can think of lots of possible answers.

    The issues tie together, really. The big ideas propounded by philosophers and religious leaders on what it means to be human and how you should treat other humans interact in unexpected ways with individual pettiness and self-blindness and plain selfishness and thoughtlessness. We learn as children by observation that everyone lies and ‘white lies’ are not only acceptable but to be recommended; later we learn that a lot of philosophers have argued about the morality of lying in some situations and we put the two together and decide that it’s practically a virtuous act to spread the word about what we’ve heard that someone else has done or been up to. Or what we think they might be doing. Or what we’d be doing if we were in their place.

    The psychiatrists would probably say that some people don’t even need to learn ways of behaviour that are dishonest and harmful to others, or to choose them because they want to fit in with the crowd and not be dismissed as a Goody Two-Shoes or a Goody-Goody. They would be the classic psychopaths or sociopaths or whatever they’re calling them today who appear to be born incapable of recognizing that other human beings are, well, humans. Or maybe they’re created that way when someone born with a weakness in that bit of social development is subjected to abuse as a child.

    I’m not sure that the distinction is that important – for social functioning, it’s more important that the individual behaves towards others in particular ways than whether they do it because they feel appropriate empathy or because they’ve been trained to behave properly in spite of the fact that they can’t feel empathy.

    It’s a chicken and egg thing, really. If you don’t have the big ideas and teach them AND their implications for ordinary behaviour in daily life, you don’t get people acting against their innate tendencies to envy, us-and-them, and using manipulation, lies and other verbal techniques to get what they want and to emphasize the us-and-them tribal lines. And if you try to insist on the ‘small stuff’, manners and respect and moral behaviour towards all humans, without the big ideas behind it, you’re going to get people seeing no reason why they should follow all these rules. Societies seem to need both – the big ideas, and the little rules – to function well.

    As an aside, I really dislike the popular idea that you should pick and choose those humans you respect. As innumerable people (mostly teenagers) have said to me over the years, “I am not going to be respectful to X; people have to earn my respect.” Or the reverse: to quote a poster I read recently: “RESPECT: Give it to get it”.

    I don’t think respect is something I buy through my own behaviour or award to someone I like or admire. I think all human beings should have a basic level of respect because they are human – even the criminal and disabled and nasty and irritating humans. Naturally, I might give far more respect to someone I admire (not like; I can like people a lot even if I don’t respect them very much), but there has to be some minimum amount everyone gets, and because of it I should treat everyone with at least a basic level of courtesy and honesty. This can be an incredible challenge, and (in honesty) one I don’t always meet. But it’s better than separating humanity into those I respect and those I don’t


    6 Apr 09 at 8:15 am

  2. Hmmm. I think we’ve got two topics here.

    Let’s start with the ad hominem argument. Quite right that it’s a logical fallacy, and exactly for the reason stated: a factual statement is no less true for being made by a fool or a habitual liar.

    But the behavior of the individual can sometimes be a pretty good indicator of sincerity.

    It’s not an abstract problem. Between the World Wars, a former British officer (B.H. Liddell-Hart) wrote a book called STRATEGY: THE INDIRECT APPROACH. It was a pretty good argument for avoiding decisive clashes with the enemy’s strength, and ranged across history to give examples. But a still serving officer–Let’s call him Col Blimp–commented to the author that someone as clever and well-educated could have written an equally plausible book titled STRATEGY: THE DIRECT APPROACH. Blimp’s problem was that while he knew Liddell-Hart was cleverer than Blimp, he couldn’t use that cleverness as a guide without being satisfied as to Liddell-Hart’s sincerity. Did he really believe indirect approaches were the surer route to victory, or just that the indirect approach would be more appealing to his readers?

    In a world of pure logic, this wouldn’t matter, and in the world of science and mathematics an ad hominem argument doesn’t go further than an observation that Smith’s work should be double-checked.

    But when it comes to ethics, politics, economics and many other fields, the situation is messy. The logic may be impeccable from the facts, but the facts themselves are commonly generalizations open to challenge at the least.

    Conceding that some of us are tempted beyond our strength, the man who buys 30-year treasuries isn’t really expecting the world to end in 2012. You know HE is aware of a hole in his argument, even if you can’t find it. The Christian minister who absconds with the church secretary and the collection plate and the atheist who won’t be frozen after death lest he miss Judgement Day really have weakened whatever arguments they made for their respective beliefs.

    The question I would ask is whether the conduct criticised in the ad hominem attack is pertinent. If the conduct of the individual is such that he himself does not appear to believe his own argument, and his statements are not subject to “independent verification”–well, one thing we don’t suffer from is a shortage of people telling us how to manage our affairs. I don’t expect people to be perfect, but I also don’t let a vegetarian tell me how my meat should be cooked.

    But as for how we treat one another–the lying, defamation, cheating and what have you–well, maybe the short answer is “why shouldn’t we, if it gets us what we want?” Some religions and some philosophies tell us not to do this, but Hobbesian man may well be the default setting for humanity. The more interesting problem is the person who has accepted some sort of ethical system for dealing with his fellows, but has a large category of humanity to whom it does not apply.

    This comes, I think, comes in two forms: first, the “lumping by difference” if you will: that it’s proper to have a different standard of conduct in dealing with “those people” because they’re not of my tribe, race or class, for example, regardless of the conduct of the individuals. Religions seldom directly countenance this, but they’re often a shorthand for tribe. This line of reasoning is frighteningly common in human history. It generally leads to smashing infant’s heads against rocks or walls, and it often doesn’t take long to get there. This has been going on since the Bronze Age, and anyone who expects it to stop should read more history.

    Second is the “modern” approach, which I haven’t found before the 17th Century, and involves an “in-group” rather than an “out-group”: the belief that only my people–a self-selected body–really understand the situation, and that consequently, only we should rule: that whatever we have to do to gain political power and maintain ourselves in it is justified by our superior wisdom. Sometimes “we” believe in democracy, but clearly if we don’t win elections, the voters weren’t properly informed or didn’t think things through, so it doesn’t count. The others will thank us later–the survivors, anyway, if they know what’s good for them.

    The earliest example of this sort of thinking I’ve run across is (are?) the Fifth Monarchy Men in the aftermath of the English Civil War, but it’s a thread which links them to Jacobins, Leninists and assorted fascists and some anarchists right down to some elements of the environmental movement today. I think it arises when it does because it’s when you can see the possiblity of an alternative to monarchy for large-scale rule.

    Logically, you put an end to this by convincing men and women that ethical obligations are internal: that you are not obliged not to steal from others, but not to steal. That one is obliged not to avoid lying to kindred, but to be honest.

    But how you do this I do not know, in two thousand years, we were making only slow progress on the first problem, and now we have the second. Sigh.


    6 Apr 09 at 5:43 pm

  3. I go away for a week in New Zealand and come back to find a whole bunch of essays by Jane. I’m only going to comment on Ad Hominiem.

    It is certainly a logical fallacy but is psychologically powerful. If someone has a reputation for lying, then we do have reason to doubt that person’s claim that the world is round. :)

    Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf!

    Jane wrote: “I wis I understood the process by which some human beings stop seeing other human beings as human beings–how they get to the place where they feel justified in treating other human beings as less than human.”

    I don’t understand it either but, in the case of Hitler, he claimed to have a “scientific” theory that Jews and slavs and homosexuals were subhuman. That allowed him to define the probkem away.


    8 Apr 09 at 6:01 am

  4. Hi, John! Welcome back!

    The Nazi’s procedure was exactly how a lot of dehumanization works. If you want to justify treating people badly, you need some reason. Almost anything will do, especially if you can apply it to a *group* of people, so you don’t need to look at an individual and think ‘he’s just some guy with parents and probably a wife and kids…’.

    Once you’ve defined your target group as being clearly in league with the devil, a threat to your own because of the possibility of interbreeding and your people inheriting their faults, obviously nothing better than a bunch of thieves or murderers, a threat to your entire way of life (because they are or can be said to be planning an invasion) etc etc etc you can move against them. ‘Scientific’ reasons, whether based on eugenics or the number of bumps on the head, are just popular at the moment; they’re not essential to the process.

    Of course, if you can prove that individuals from the target group have or at some point had held false religious beliefs, stolen, murdered, or participated in an invasion, it’s that much easier to persuade your friends and neighbours that the entire group do that sort of thing by nature. A lot of people don’t seem to have any difficulty assuming that of course you can scale up any conclusion about a group of people from one to several million.

    I think some people deliberately inculcate the ‘human as inhuman’ ideas to achieve their own goals – perhaps to defend against invasion, perhaps to protect a way of life that they value and that serves them well. And perhaps to distract from their own shortcomings. When I hear a local politician lambasting the federal government, or certain others blaming the US (and CIA) or any other distant group, I instantly suspect that the speaker wants to hide something. Oh, in the local case (which I know best) the federal government has certainly done things that are not in our best interests, but demonizing a distant group has been a tried and true way to avoid having anyone talk to much about what the local authorities are up to.

    And so, the boy who cried wolf is a kind of figurative cousin of the Nazi who claimed that the Jews, Slavs and homosexuals (and the disabled) were a terrible threat!

    He did it out of boredom, though, not to benefit himself, so I guess I can’t put too much on that parallel.


    8 Apr 09 at 6:24 am

  5. I don’t think there is any “process” by which humans dehumanize others…I think it’s in-built, hardwired if you will, from long ago primitive times.

    Used to be small groups of hunter-gatherer human tribes. The group was all, survival, family and posterity. “Us” and “Other” were useful concepts for understanding with whom cooperation would benefit the group and with whom competition existed. Competition for resources was serious business back then. You sacrificed for those in your tribe, you worked to benefit them, as they supported your genetic heritage. You competed with or killed other tribes, as they would wipe out your genetic heritage, given the chance.

    We have to remember that the real purpose of a human being is to pass DNA to the next generation. Anything that furthers that is good. Including non-related people in your “support and succor” group would increase pressure on resources and might result in not being able to pass along that DNA. That cannot be allowed.

    It’s not coincidence that most hunter-gatherer terms for themselves translate to “the People”. You can imagine what they called everyone else. Strangers. Others. Enemies. The standards for treatment of people weren’t applied to other tribes, they could not be, because resources were scarce. Close enough neighbors might qualify as marriage mates when inbreeding became a problem, but even so, they were only nearly-people.

    Besides, everyone else acted funny, everyone knows that our people live in the Only True Way, the Way It Has Always Been.

    So, I think, the concept of widespread humanity and empathy with other groups is in fact a triumph of human civilization over human nature. As the world has become more populated and communication has become better, and with the rise of nations, people see more and more people as being *in* their group, and thus have fewer targets for “other.” Though sometimes it seems like people go out of their way to define an other.

    NOT treating others as less-than-human is a new development, historically speaking. That’s why it’s so *easy* for dehumanizing propoganda to take hold, humans are naturally inclined to believe the worst about others not in their group. Some weak personalities seem not to be able to operate at all unless they have an “other” to denigrate, as if self-worth comes from making others inferior. (the KKK comes to mind)

    The wide inclusion of all people in one’s definition of human requires a great effort of will for most of us, as many groups will behave in ways we find repulsive or objectively wrong. Accepting that this is part of the spectrum of human behavior and treating those people as people is too difficult for many. So it never surprises me that an enemy or foreign group is demonized. For if we saw everyone as equally human, competing for those resources would be far more difficult.

    DNA rules.


    8 Apr 09 at 12:59 pm

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