Attack the Argument, Not the Person

Attack the Argument, Not the Person

General George S. Patton, Jr.’s standing order during the Second World War was to “attack, attack, attack, and, if in doubt, attack again!” That approach certainly worked well for the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. However, when it comes to logic and peacetime, the attack needs to be focused on the argument, not on the person.

Informal fallacies—defects or errors in reasoning—cause arguments to break down. The ad hominem fallacy (argument against the person) occurs when one arguer presents his point and the second arguer ignores the point, instead attacking the character of his opponent. This tactic is not only personally offensive but also logically unacceptable because it violates two core principles of reasoning. First, a person has an intellectual responsibility to respond to the content of an argument. Second, the character attack itself is irrelevant to the person’s argument (whether or not it is true). Even morally flawed people can present sound arguments.

The ad hominem fallacy comes in three identifiable varieties:

  1. abusive: directly denouncing character (old-fashioned name-calling).
  2. circumstantial: raising special circumstances in an attempt to discredit a person’s motives (also known as “poisoning the well”).
  3. tu quoque: accusing the other person of hypocrisy as an attempt to avoid personal criticism (tu quoque is Latin for “you too”).

To criticize a person’s character may be appropriate—if the person’s character is the logical issue at hand. For example, jurors in a courtroom need to know if a witness has been found guilty of perjury in the past. Believability is closely connected to the issue of discerning truth.

For dealing with ad hominem attacks, I offer two recommendations: (1) Don’t give in to the temptation to respond in the same abusive manner, and (2) help the arguer (and others) to see that the attack is logically irrelevant and then refocus attention on the argument at hand. Once the focus is back on arguments and not a person, listeners (even opponents) are likely to consider and be persuaded. The Christian’s goal is to present arguments shaped by sound logical and moral principles and to trust God to use them as He pleases.

For Further Study

  • Attacking Faulty Reasoning, by T. Edward Damer
  • A Concise Introduction to Logic, by Patrick J. Hurley