Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ad hominem arguments

At July 24, 2009 8:35 PM , Victor Reppert said...

“Yes, if, as the Triabloggers have done, you shift the focus from the subject matter to the person who holds a position.”

False dichotomy. We do both. And there’s an order in which we do it. We prefer to focus on subject matter. If, however, having tried to focus on subject matter, we find that our opponent refuses to argue in good faith, then we point out his dereliction.

Sometimes we’re blessed with reasonable opponents–in which case it’s never necessary to take it to the next level.

“However, it's another instance of the ad hominem fallacy if I believe in a theology of love and fail to be as loving as I ought to be.The kind of ‘calling out’ of sinners and false teachers is fine, so long as you are writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I don't know of anyone writing today who can claim that on behalf of their own writings.”

But Reppert just characterized the ad hominem argument as a fallacy. And he will repeat that characterization (see below). If it’s inherently fallacious to deploy an ad hominem argument, then how would the act of writing under inspiration validate that fallacy? What is he say, exactly? That the Bible contains inspired fallacies? That it’s legitimate for inspired writers to argue fallaciously, but illegitimate for uninspired writers to argue fallaciously?

“The Triabloggers think that the goal of discussion is not simply to defend their beliefs, but to call out the sins of others which they think underlie those contrary beliefs.”

No, that’s an overstatement.

i) To begin with, Reppert is indulging in guilt-by-association. Not all Triabloggers employ the same methods. It’s ironic that Reppert resorts to guilt by association, which is, itself, an ad hominem argument, to denounce our fallacious use of ad hominem arguments.

ii) In addition, I, for one, don’t regard the goal of discussion as invariably including a moral evaluation of the opponent. Rather, I only go “ad hominem” under one of two conditions:

a) If my opponent refuses to argue in good faith. In that case, I’ll point out his dereliction.

b) If my opponent is defending an immoral position.

When, for example, Reppert lays the groundwork for abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, then that moves the discussion into a field which goes beyond what is merely correct or incorrect to what is either moral or immoral.

And, by the same token, it’s immoral to maintain and defend immoral beliefs. When dealing with an opponent who is a professing believer, the moral dimension of the debate cannot be ignored. There are boundaries to Christian ethics. Christian identity carries with it certain doctrinal and ethical standards. These apply to beliefs as well as behaviors.

“I think the office of an apologist and the office of a prophet are different from one another and shouldn't be mixed. If we are to engage people in philosophical dialogue, I think principles like the principle of charity, the avoidance of straw man arguments, and most importantly the avoidance of the ad hominem fallacy are musts.”

How does the second sentence qualify the first? Is it Reppert’s contention that if you’re a prophet, then that authorizes you to use straw man arguments and ad hominem fallacies?

If he’s not imputing logical fallacies to Bible writers, then his analogy falls apart.

“The fact that some people in Scripture were given the office of speaking words of judgment to others doesn't change the requirement of ‘gentleness and respect’ that is enjoined upon all who will ‘give an account of the hope that is in them’."

There are several problems with that argument:

i) Reppert is attributing a general rationale to the judgmental statements of Bible writers which the Bible writers to not, themselves, generally proffer. Reppert would need to run through various examples of Biblical ad hominem and show, exegetically, that the inspired writer or speaker justified his use of ad hominem by appealing to his status as a prophet.

ii) On the face of it, there are many cases in which that’s not a plausible rationale. For one thing, Bible writers often condemn people by membership in a particular class, like Pharisees and Baal-worshipers. So the condemnation is not based on some inspired insight into the motivation of this or that individual. Rather, there’s a presumption that if you belong to a particular class, then you are personally condemnable. These are categorical condemnations. If you belong to that category, then you’re condemnable.

iii) And the actual rationale which Bible writers frequently offer has reference to public criteria. To the conduct and/or teaching of the individuals, or the conduct and/or beliefs of the group with which they’re affiliated. It’s not predicated on an ability to read hearts and minds. Rather, it’s predicted on naturally and objectively verifiable conditions.

iv) Moreover, this isn’t limited to the private judgment of the Bible writer. Oftentimes the Bible writer is calling on his audience to exercise the same value judgment. For example, he may be warning his audience to beware of false teachers. Therefore, it’s incumbent on his audience to exercise the same moral and theological discrimination. The Bible calls on Christians to cultivate moral and theological discernment, and apply that discernment to unbiblical beliefs and practices–as well as those who hold them or act accordingly.

By the same token, it’s incumbent on Christians to analogize from illustrative examples to comparable cases. Analogize from one specific case to a comparable case.

“What the Triabloggers consider to be justified based on the practice of Jesus and the writers of Scripture, I consider to be examples of the ad hominem fallacy in the context of theological discussion. I don't consider it to be of great interest to use whatever the other side says in order to win debating points.”

i) The question of whether Biblical discourse sets a standard for Christian discourse is a topic of interest to me, even if it’s of no interested to Reppert.

Moreover, Reppert keeps using the term “fallacy.” But this fails to distinguish between tu quoque arguments and ad personam arguments.

ii) I never use ad personam arguments to disprove a position. Rather, I use ad personam arguments when:

a) My opponent refuses to argue in good faith.

b) My opponent is promoting an immoral policy.

I’d add that (b) is especially germane when my opponent is a professing believer.

iii) Regarding tu quoque arguments, this is, as Peter Geach points out, a perfectly legitimate counterargument within its intended scope. And Geach was a professional logician. Cf. Reason & Argument, 26-27.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. We mustn't be afraid of the dishonest calling us names. It is usually those who meet every rational argument with an ad hominem who are the first to accuse others of it.

    You rightly say that there is an order in these things. After all, if we reason with a dog, and all he does is bark, the only rational response is to observe that this is a dog, barking, rather than a rational response.

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