What Is Ad Hominem Fallacy? | Examples & Definition

Reasoning updated on  May 29, 2024 4 min read
The ad hominem fallacy is the error of unfairly criticizing a person to distract from the argument at hand. In addition to being the name of a logical fallacy, the term “ad hominem,” Latin for “against the person,” can also be used to describe a general insult.

Personal criticism doesn’t always constitute a logical fallacy. An ad hominem is fallacious if the criticism leveled against an individual is irrelevant and serves only to distract from the main topic.

Ad hominem fallacy example
Speaker 1: I’m against the war because it will have disastrous humanitarian consequences.

Speaker 2: You’re just virtue signaling. If you care so much about humanity, why haven’t you ever mentioned the Rohingya refugee crisis?

As an informal fallacy, an ad hominem fallacy makes an argument unsound. Ad hominem attacks are often used deliberately to manipulate, sidetrack, and provoke. An ad hominem may also be used without manipulative intent, resulting from an emotional outburst or faulty reasoning.

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What is the ad hominem fallacy?

Ad hominem fallacies focus on irrelevant personal critiques instead of the argument at hand, hindering productive discussions. These fallacies divert the conversation from the original topic to unnecessary personal attacks.

Relying on distraction, ad hominem fallacies are fallacies of relevance. Even if the criticisms leveled against a person are completely truthful, directing attacks at an individual instead of focusing on the topic of the argument can undermine one’s credibility and give the impression that one’s position is weak and can’t stand on its own merits.

When faced with an ad hominem attack, a person must make a difficult choice. Ignoring the ad hominem attack could seem like a concession of guilt and damage one’s credibility. However, responding to the criticism could allow the conversation to shift away from the central subject of the debate.

Are all forms of ad hominem fallacious?

Not all ad hominem rhetoric is fallacious. In some debate contexts, truthful critiques of a person’s character, actions, or affiliations might be reasonable. For example, it makes sense to discuss a politician's crimes and criminal affiliations in an impeachment hearing.

“Ad hominem” can also be used to refer to a general insult. Insulting or criticizing a person isn’t a logical fallacy unless it’s used as a distraction in an argument.

In satire, ad hominem attacks typically aren’t considered logical fallacies in the conventional sense. Satire is usually used to critique indirectly through humor rather than claiming to prove or disprove a logical argument.

Non-fallacious ad hominem example
The meme popularized on Chinese social media that compares Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh could be called an ad hominem attack, as it emphasizes Xi’s physical appearance instead of critiquing his actions or policies.

Although it is an ad hominem in the broad sense of being an insult, the meme doesn’t constitute a logical fallacy because it’s not part of an argument. Rather than claiming to prove or disprove a particular point about Xi or his policies, the meme serves as a form of symbolic dissent.

Different types of ad hominem arguments

Ad hominem arguments come in many forms, and some fall into multiple categories. The varieties of ad hominem arguments include the following:

  • Poisoning the well is an ad hominem attempt to dismiss an argument by commenting on the person who will present it (e.g., a candidate might say in a debate, “My opponent, who is funded by oil companies, will of course argue against renewable energy initiatives”).
  • Circumstantial ad hominem, or appeal to motive, criticizes an individual’s assumed bias based on circumstances of the person’s life that may or may not be related (e.g., a politician who is married to the CEO of a large company might be viewed as biased in favor of that corporation).
  • Tu quoque involves discrediting an argument by labeling the speaker as hypocritical and inconsistent (e.g., a politician advocating for funding public transportation may be dismissed by critics who point out that the politician regularly uses private jets for travel).
  • Guilt by association targets a person based on perceived association with a group or individual (e.g., someone might argue that a professor who was educated at a controversial university is untrustworthy based solely on that association).
  • Abusive ad hominem involves insulting an individual based on irrelevant personal characteristics, often appealing to societal prejudices (e.g., a person might discredit a CEO’s opinion by saying that, as a woman, she is “too emotional” to be a leader).


Ad hominem examples

Ad hominem attacks frequently occur on social media, where individuals often ridicule the person making an argument instead of offering a reasonable counterpoint to address the argument’s substance.

Ad hominem example in real life
In an online political discussion, one person ridicules another person’s grammar to dismiss a well-reasoned argument.

This commonly used ad hominem tactic allows people to feel they’ve won an argument without presenting any reasoning or evidence.

Examples of ad hominem arguments are also easy to find in news media, particularly in political discussions.

Ad hominem example in media
John F. Kennedy faced significant bias during his presidential campaign because of his Catholic faith and was accused of having greater loyalty to the Pope than to the United States. The ad hominem arguments against Kennedy were not confined to one particular media outlet or person but were a broader societal issue.

Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


US vs UK

Rhetoric

Verbs

Honor or honour

Onomatopoeia

Participles

Practise or practice

Palindrome

Intransitive verbs

Color or colour

Anachronism

Simple past tense

Toward or towards

Portmanteau

Regular verbs

Behaviour or behavior

Paradox

Past progressive


Frequently asked questions about ad hominem fallacy

What is argumentum ad hominem?

Argumentum ad hominem is a Latin phrase meaning “argument against the person.” Ad hominem arguments, often referred to in daily life as “personal attacks,” distract from the main point of an argument by unfairly criticizing the person making it.

Is ad hominem a logical fallacy?

Ad hominem is the name of a logical fallacy, but the term can also refer to a general insult that’s not part of a logical argument.

A fallacious ad hominem argument shifts the focus away from the main topic by making irrelevant personal attacks.

Not all personal criticisms are ad hominem fallacies. In some contexts, critiques of an individual’s character are relevant to an argument.

What happens in the ad hominem persuasive technique?

Ad hominem is a persuasive technique that attempts to sway an audience’s opinion by criticizing an individual’s personal characteristics.

When used to sidestep the main topic of an argument, an ad hominem is an informal logical fallacy. The use of an ad hominem attack is often intended to manipulate. It can be an obstacle to productive debate.

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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