THE AD HOMINEM FALLACY
“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” (Numbers 16:3)
I teach college philosophy including logic. Logic is the art of analyzing arguments. And fallacies are bad arguments, arguments that do not lead from premises to conclusions. One of the most prevalent fallacies is called ad hominem (Latin for “to the man.”) In the midst of an argument, instead of attacking your opponent’s ideas, you attack your opponent’s character. Suddenly the argument gets personal.
If people want to see an example, just watch the current political debates. “You are in favor of unrestricted immigration. But you are a socialist who wants to change our entire economic system.” “You are in favor of restricting immigration. But you are a reactionary who wants to set our country back fifty years.” If you follow politics at all, you constantly hear these kinds of ad hominem arguments.
I usually do not write about politics. But I do follow politics. There was a time that reasonable people could argue about the major issues – immigration, the economy, the environment, abortion, critical race theory, and dozens of other issues. They could disagree, but they would listen and respect one another’s opinion. There was a time when people on the opposite sides of the political spectrum could be friends. That is how the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia could be close personal friends. She was a passionate liberal and he was a passionate conservative; they disagreed on almost everything. But they respected each other’s humanity.
This has been lost today. The tendency is to demonize those on the other side of the political spectrum. If someone disagrees with me, they are malevolent, out to destroy our country. Both sides are guilty of this name calling. If you see your political opponent as intent on evil, the argument unravels. Now it becomes a personal attack. The issues are forgotten in the name calling.
The Rabbis of the Mishnah, in analyzing this week’s portion, discuss this. They claim there are two kinds of arguments. Avot 5:17 teaches, “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.”
Korach challenged Moses’ authority on numerous points of Jewish law. For example, he took a four cornered garment entirely of blue and wore it, asking whether it needs fringes in the corners with a thread of blue. Moses replied yes. Korach answered, “Moses, your laws are ridiculous. One thread of blue makes it kosher but if all the threads are blue it is not kosher.” Korach was not challenging Moses on an arcane point of Jewish law. He had an ulterior motive. He felt that he should rightly be the leader and he wanted to attack Moses’ authority. It looked like an argument, but it was really a power play.
These are the arguments we see too often in the political arena. The goal is not to solve the serious problems facing our country, but to demonize and destroy one’s opponents. It is a serious fallacy of logic. Reasonable people can disagree on issues, and they can argue passionately for their point of view. In the Talmud, Shammai and Hillel behaved this way. But when the arguments were over, they married into one another’s families. They disagreed but were able to respect one another.
I love a good argument as much as anyone. But a good argument begins with respecting the humanity of my opponent. We can disagree on the issues without being disagreeable to one another.