One summer I was traveling for a Non-Profit organization to different camps and Christian events to promote them. I was at a week long youth seminar in Indiana at one point. For a certain session I had the job of running one of the video cameras. During the session they planned something which I thought clearly violated Scriptural teachings. It wasn't anything that would lead the people to hell but it was still wrong. So I asked to be relieved of my duties and left to sit quietly in the foyer. Evidently this was not kosher for the seminar president.
He met me out in the foyer and began to question me. So I was honest and respectfully explained to him the situation. He told me I was wrong. So we began to discuss theology. I turned him to the clear statements in Scripture which formed my opinion. He tried to say I was misinterpreting them but that was to no avail. It was clear his exegesis was wrong and he knew it. So next he asked me where I went to school. I told him it didn't matter. If the Bible says something it doesn't matter where I went to school. The man was attempting to show that I was wrong based on where I learned my theology. This would be an example of the genetic fallacy, which I promptly pointed out to him.
At this point he decided to attack my character. He began to call me young, ignorant, close-minded, and some other choice words. Notice the transition in the dialogue.
- Attack the premise. If you fail then:
- Attack the source of the premise (genetic fallacy). If you fail then:
- Attack the person (ad hominem fallacy).
This is an age old technique used by those who cannot work with proper logic. The Apostle Paul faced this same problem. 2nd Corinthians 10:8-11 says,
"For even if I boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be put to shame, for I do not wish to seem as if I would terrify you by my letters. For they say, "His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible." Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when absent, such persons we are also in deed when present."
Paul was a master logician. Thus, when his opponents in Corinth could not deal with his "terrifying letters" they attacked his person. They called his presence unimpressive. These men were train in rhetoric who compared themselves with each other (2nd Cor 12:12). That is, they didn't put as much weight on the argument as they did on the style of the argument. So they said Paul's rhetoric was contemptible, that is, they didn't like his preaching style. Therefore, they concluded, his arguments were not on par with theirs. Should we base the validity of an argument on the person's character or style? NO!!!
Yet there are a few exceptions where it is proper to attack a person's character in a debate.
- Person running for Politician office
- Character of an eye-witness
- Hiring of a Preacher
In each of these situations common sense tells us it is proper to look at their character. For even if a preacher has the greatest logic in the western hemisphere it will not be wise to hire him if he is an adulterous man. We want to trust our politicians to do what is best for their constituents not what is expedient for their political gain. If a man/woman can be shown to have cheated in the past to gain power then we would not necessarily care what their stance is on foreign relations. When lawyers cross-examine a witness in the courtroom one of their techniques is to discredit the eye-witness. For the person might be telling the truth but if it can be shown they are a proven liar then who is going to believe them?
What we have seen is that not all cases of attacking a person's character is the ad hominem fallacy. Yet, we cannot allow people to attack our character and act as if they have proven our point false. They key is to know when their is a necessary connection between the person's character and the soundness of their argument. If there is not one then bringing up their character is in vain.
Can you think of other situations when it is proper to attack a person's character to destroy their argument?