Attacking A Person By Rejecting Their Beliefs: The Reverse Ad Hominem Fallacy.

A Conversation Between Robert Hanna and Otto Paans

RH: Last night between sleeps I was thinking about two of our recent posts — “Immanuel Kant — Racist and Colonialist?,”[i] and “Being Oppressed vs. Being Offended: Why A Real Dialogue About Racism is Still Far Away,”[ii] — in relation to each other.

The Kant post criticizes ad hominem attacks on classical figures in the history of philosophy in the name of social justice, and the post about racism criticizes coercive moralists who undermine free speech in general, and any real dialogue about racism in particular, by systematically confusing being offended with being oppressed.

As I thought about both lines of argument, I realized that many coercive moralists are in fact committing another logical error I’ll call the reverse ad hominem fallacy.

The classical ad hominem fallacy involves an illegitimate inference from (putative) facts about a person to (putative) facts about that person’s beliefs or ideas, and in particular from (putative) facts about a person’s background, character, or special situation, to the (putative) theoretical/moral truth or falsity of their beliefs or ideas.

In the latter more particularized version, we have the abusive classical ad hominem fallacy, whereas in the former fully generalized version, we allow also for the circumstantial classical ad hominem fallacy.

As an example of the abusive version, here is a familiar one from philosophy: “Heidegger slept with his student Hannah Arendt and was a Nazi, therefore Heidegger’s existential phenomenology is false and immoral.”

I’ve qualified those formulations with “(putative)” because ad hominem inferences are fallacious whether or not the premises and/or conclusion are actually true, i.e., whether the premises and/or conclusion are true or false.

Indeed, many abusive ad hominem arguments are nothing but opportunistic sophistical attacks on someone’s beliefs or ideas by using straight-out slanderous premises.

For example, “Descartes slept with a mechanical doll and tortured cats, therefore Descartes’s mind-body metaphysics is false and immoral.”

The ad hominem fallacy is a fallacy of relevance, because (putative) facts about a person’s background, character, or special situation are generally irrelevant to the (putative) theoretical/moral truth or falsity of their beliefs or ideas.

It’s also worth noting, however, that in a certain narrowly delimited class of cases ad hominem arguments are valid, but if and only if certain (putative) facts about a person’s background, character, or special situation are directly relevant to the (putative) theoretical/moral truth or falsity of their beliefs or ideas.

In this way, ad hominem arguments that cite scientific experts or acknowledged authorities as strong support for the truth of various claims directly relating to their expertise or authority, are usually valid; and also ad hominem arguments that, for example, discount someone’s testimony in a court case if they’re proven liars or perjurers, are also generally valid.

By contrast to the classical ad hominem fallacy, however, the reverse ad hominem fallacy involves a flipped-around but equally illegitimate inference from (putative) facts about a person’s beliefs or ideas, to (putative) facts about that person, and in particular, from the (putative) theoretical/moral truth or falsity or immorality of a person’s beliefs or ideas, to the (putative) badness or goodness of that person’s background, character, or special situation, or to the putative wrongness or rightness of their choices/acts.

Or in other words, whereas in the abusive version of the classical ad hominem fallacy, we reject someone’s beliefs by attacking that person, in the abusive version of the reverse ad hominem fallacy, we attack a person by rejecting their beliefs.

For example, “Emma Goldman says that anarcho-socialism is a rationally, morally, and politically defensible and indeed true doctrine, therefore she is a bomb-throwing evil terrorist and apostle of anarchy.”

In fact, as per the images at the top of this post, precisely that reverse ad hominem argument against Goldman was widely used by international, national, and local newspapers in 1908–although I’m also pleased to note that she was actually permitted to speak in Winnipeg, aka Winterpeg, my home town, a notorious breeding ground for anarcho-socialists.

But what specifically triggered my thinking about the reverse ad hominem fallacy, was that I’ve been been reading a really interesting book about radical political movements in Los Angeles during the 1960s, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, which at one point in their account criticizes a critical remark by Martin Luther King Jr about the Nation of Islam (NOI) phase of the Black Power movement:

Martin Luther King, erroneously comparing men to institutions, declared that “Black supremacy is as bad as white supremacy.”[iii]

Now, what MLK actually said by means of that utterance is in my opinion true: from the standpoint of a dignitarian moral and political framework, identitarian moral and political doctrines of all kinds are equally rationally unjustified, false, and morally wrong; and therefore, the Black Power movement, insofar as it espoused an identitarian moral and political theory, was putting forward a rationally unjustified, false, and immoral view.

But of course, like all Black people in the USA, the members of the Black Power movement were also seriously and violently oppressed, even if, for example, both the NOI and the Black Panthers did “internalize their oppressors”; and as far as I can tell, the members of the NOI and Black Panthers were on the whole pretty good and sincere people, who, whenever they actually did act violently (as opposed to merely posing for provocatively bad-ass photographs, for example, which is perfectly acceptable free speech), generally did so only in self-defense, whereas the members of contemporary White supremacist groups in particular, and agents or proponents of structural racism in the new Jim Crow period more generally, were on the whole pretty bad and evil people.

And I also think that MLK wasn’t in any way denying any of that.

So I also think that Davis’s and Wiener’s criticism was off-the-mark, and might have been simply re-playing a longstanding charge of the Black Power movement against the early non-violent, Christian-associated, King-led civil rights movement, to the effect that the latter was assimilationist and to that extent complicit with White racism.

In any case, the sharp difference and indeed acrimonious tension between dignitarian or universalist and identitarian or sectarian approaches to the problem of racism (and to moral, social, and political problems more generally) marks the site of an ideological and theoretical war within the American Left that is still being fought out.

For example, as recounted in The NYT, just the other day an invited Black speaker at an event sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America, who holds dignitarian views about the problem of racism, Adolph Reed,

a son of the segregated South, a native of New Orleans who organized poor Black people and antiwar soldiers in the late 1960s and became a leading Socialist scholar at a trio of top universities,

was “cancelled” by identitarian members of the DSA “because of his views on race.”[iv]

Nevertheless, I do also think that Davis and Wiener have identified an extremely interesting and morally/politically important twist on the classical ad hominem fallacy, namely what I’m calling “the reverse ad hominem fallacy.”

Another extremely interesting and morally/politically important feature of the reverse ad hominem fallacy is that, unlike classical ad hominem arguments, which are sometimes valid, reverse ad hominem arguments are always fallacious.

Or so I’m claiming: I think that the (putative) theoretical/moral truth or falsity of someone’s beliefs or ideas generally entails nothing that is relevant to the (putative) goodness or badness of that person’s background, character, special situation, or to the (putative) wrongness or rightness of their choices/acts.

OP: That’s a good way of putting it! — I really like your informal-logic-style approach to critically analyzing this sophistical debate tactic.

The entire enterprise rests on a little-recognized yet basic informal-logical mistake found in much coercive moralist identitarian thinking.

(Indeed, this does not bode well for the future of philosophy — many of the SJW crowd study either philosophy or one of the humanities.

If their grasp of informal logic is that poor, how will they be able to argue their point of view?

If throwing a tantrum becomes the standard debate tactic, I hand my ticket back….)

Indeed, it seems to me that the reverse ad hominem fallacy is part-and-parcel of what I’ll call The Mortally-Offended Coercive Moralist Two-Step.

By way of an introduction to that, here are a few excerpts from a Dutch on-line column in Saar Magazine (shared by a friend who apparently had enough of it as well) on coercive moralism and today’s cancel culture.[v]

In my opinion, the writer hit the nail on the head:

You can’t say that you would like to have kids, because there are people who can’t have children. We can’t say “ladies and gentlemen” because there are people who feel that they are neither man nor woman. Katy Perry can’t wear a kimono because she unjustly appropriates an element of Japanese cultural heritage by doing so.[vi]

It’s a tendency of this epoch: everyone demands a customized treatment. If something is not to your liking, or if you happen to disagree with something, you instantly throw a tantrum. And you shout things like: “Shame!,” “Respectless,” “Offensive!” and you demand that the world is rectified according to norms that you consider just, that your opinion becomes THE opinion. It appears that everyone has to careful tiptoe around all the time, because it does not take much to damage a fragile soul. And if the [over-sensitive coercive moralist] considers himself [mortally] offended, you better hide.[vii]

You can consider [my opinion] nonsense, and it may even annoy you. You can think that I’m stupid or annoying. That’s all OK, and you have a right to your opinion. But I do not have to adjust my opinion because yours is different. I am prepared to listen to you and think about what you say. The thing is, it is not my duty to represent your view on the case. Agree to disagree so to speak and that’s it. That’s how it goes in life. And if you feel offended by my opinion, then that is explicitly your problem and not mine.[viii]

Just shouting that you are “offended” is manipulative. A bit like the mother who says to the child that she is “not angry, but disappointed”. Offending (or hurting) implies that the other party hurt you on purpose, that someone consciously excluded you. And — above all — that now amends have to be made to make it up to you. It causes you to be seen as hurt and fragile, while you forsake your duty to look beyond your own point of view and to argue for your own opinion. Individuals or groups in our society that shout the loudest that they have been “hurt” or “offended” because they don’t get their preferred, customized treatment, wield knowingly a powerful means of coercion.[ix]

You are not hurt, you are just a whiner. So maybe it’s time to remove your head from your own ass and start looking around. Then you will see that the world does not revolve around you, and that it is even possible to co-exist with people with different opinions than your own. That having to make concessions is not the worst thing that can happen. That someone with a different opinion does not always intend to offend you personally — but that such a person had different experiences or perceives things differently than you do. And that you can disagree, but that a different opinion is not directly a problem or a crime against humanity. And that you can take it as a given and continue with your life.[x]

With all that as backdrop, here is how to do to do The Mortally-Offended Coercive Moralist Two-Step:

Step I: The Reverse Ad Hominem Introduction

1. Person X considers some uttered belief or idea by Y to be mortally offensive to X’s own personal norms/opinions.

2. X assumes the right to unilaterally project X’s own norms/opinions onto everyone else, thereby imposing a stringent moral obligation on them.

3. X postulates that this mortally offensive belief or idea Y is uttered by person Z specifically in order to damage/hurt X personally (or the identitarian group X claims to represent).

4. X then illegitimately infers from the (putative) falsity or immorality of belief or idea Y, as uttered by Z, to the badness or immorality of person Z who uttered Y.

Step II: The Self-Justifying Guilt Trip

5. X reasons that because person Z is bad or immoral according to 4., then s/he/they must have uttered the mortally offensive belief or idea Y with the specific intention of damaging/hurting X, as per 3.

6. Since X deserves to be treated strictly according to the norms/opinions X unilaterally universally projected, and thereby morally imposed, as per 2., Z must atone for this sin.

7. Z can do so only by retracting their statement, publicly apologizing/making amends, recanting their transgressions, and renouncing their bad and immoral past, and this in turn rationally “justifies” X’s moralistic coercion, such as naming-&-shaming, slurs, and other “due” punishments applied to Z, e.g., being publicly censored, fined, fired from their job, etc., since Z clearly violated the strict obligation involuntarily imposed on them, as per 2.

8. And by doing so, X further “confirms” claims 2. and 3., thereby further reinforcing X’s already-strong commitment to those claims.

RH: Yes!, that critical analysis seems bang-on-target to me.

But over and above what we’ve argued so far, just for rationality’s sake, I was also imagining a possible critic of my thesis that a reverse ad hominem argument is always a fallacy, who insists that, in the case of, say, self-evidently greatly false and highly immoral beliefs or ideas — e.g., the classic examples of Nazi or White Supremacist beliefs and ideas — the very fact that someone utters those beliefs and ideas entails that we have a good reason to hold that person to be bad and immoral.

But my reply to that is that from the mere utterance of such a belief or idea, we can directly infer neither (i) that the utterer has a full understanding of the meaning or logical/moral implications of what they utter, nor (ii) the precise intention that lies behind that utterance, and in particular we cannot directly infer that the utterer is literally and sincerely intending what they utter.

It seems obvious that people rarely fully understand what they actually utter.

Moreover, other things being equal, the intention lying behind any given utterance could be just to make a joke (in poor taste, let’s say), or to say something in a spirit of irony, or to raise a supposition for purposes of an argument or a critical analysis, or to pretend a sincere utterance for the purposes of being an actor in a play or movie that deals humorously, ironically, or even fully seriously with, say, Nazism or racism (e.g., To Be Or Not To Be, Stalag 17, The Producers, Schindler’s List, No Way Out, In the Heat of the Night, BlacKkKlansman, etc.).

Interestingly, and relevantly, in the case of No Way Out, Richard Widmark plays a violent racist who verbally abuses and violently threatens Sidney Poitier’s character, a doctor, and apparently during production, Widmark repeatedly apologized to Poitier for having to deliver the lines in the script: but both of them fully realized that this was exceptional and supererogatory on Widmark’s part, and not morally required.

More generally, it seems to me that someone’s mere utterance, even when supposed by a listener or even many listeners to have been intended by the utterer as a literal and sincere utterance, is never sufficient for us to be able to infer even a prima face good reason, far less a sufficient one, to believe that the person who uttered that belief or idea is bad or immoral, unless there is other strong, and ideally veridical, non-speech-based evidence to the effect that a person is or has been indeed choosing and acting in a bad and/or immoral way.

I mean, there are some utterances that are also performative utterances of the form “I utter X; I thereby Y” (as in “I utter ‘I do’; I thereby marry you”) and thereby constitute immoral acts of (for example) slander, coercion, or violence more generally: but in such cases it’s not the utterance that’s immoral, it’s the act that is performed merely by means of that utterance that is immoral.

Or in other words, the specifically speech-based evidence about what is uttered by a person is generally irrelevant to the (putative) goodness or badness of that person’s background, character, special situation, or to the (putative) wrongness or rightness of their choices/acts.

For example, in the case of Hitler giving his speeches at the Nuremberg Rallies from 1933 to 1938, over and above what he actually uttered, there was also a mountain of other strong and indeed veridical non-speech-based evidence that Hitler was a bad and indeed evil person.

It wasn’t what he uttered in those speeches that demonstrated his badness and evil: it was what he actually chose and did apart from (or in the case of a performative, merely by means of) what he uttered in those speeches.

Of course, in the case of, e.g., fascist or racist utterances, I would never deny or underplay the extremely strong psychological temptation to use a reverse ad hominem argument against someone else.

But nevertheless it’s always a fallacy, and we should be rationally critical and self-critical enough to admit that and to identify instances of it, even when those instances seemingly support — or at least prime-and-trigger — our own weak or strong biases, identitarian or otherwise.

What do you think?

OP: OK, let’s follow the line of reasoning of the imaginary critic for a moment.

The response is as follows: because person P utters a highly immoral opinion O, we cannot but assume that the person must be immoral by virtue of their uttering O.

I think we can answer the objection on two counts.

First, in the case of coercive moralism, the very heart of this debate tactic is to continually adjust the standards of what is considered immoral.

So, one day, saying that liberalism is a viable political vision can be acceptable, while on the next day, uttering the same statement is considered mortally offensive.

The way in which the norms on what is considered moral and immoral are continually adjusted effectively makes sure that everyone is continually tiptoeing around in order not to offend contemporary sensibilities or proclaimed vulnerabilities.

In this case, then, to say that we can safely infer immoral character from immoral statements is to hold that one has a flawless moral insight in the character of other human beings.

Combine this with the continuous adjustments of moral standards, and the result is sheer arbitrariness and political bickering.

Second, the response confuses the reason for considering someone immoral and the justification for acting on this belief.

I can disagree on moral grounds with opinion O, but that does not give me a default and watertight justification for a) considering person P completely immoral or b) as acting on that very belief.

It seems that for many proponents of contemporary “cancel culture”, the opinion “P utters O which I find immoral” is enough to justify all kinds of immoral actions “for the greater good.”

If someone with for instance White Supremacist sympathies utters a statement that leads someone else to infer that he/she is immoral, does that constitute the person in its entirety?

The coercive moralists seem to think so–and that is why they find it so easy and justified to resort to smears, slurs, and other means of oppression.[xi]

They can sleep at night because they truly believe that a) they are on the good side of history, b) to do good, anything is permitted, and c) they have a right to punish others because they are offended, as per the Mortally-Offended Coercive Moralist Two-Step.

It is quite interesting to see those talking about “tolerance,” “inclusivity,” and “diversity” resort to tactics that are dehumanizing.

Someone you happen to not agree with is all over a sudden fair game, and his dignity can safely be infringed upon.

In this contemporary spectacle of targeted dehumanization, everyone with a non-political-correct opinion is “marked from the beginning,” and only a full acceptance of the coercive moralist’s point of view can remove that stamp.

However, people can (and sometimes do) change.

It is one of the best and worst things about the human condition.

Even if I suspect that someone is a Nazi, just marking him as “bad” is the lazy option.

It amounts to acting on the belief that people essentially cannot change their minds.

This is a deeply depressing view of human nature, and one that is dictatorial to boot.

When Christ said “love your enemy,” he meant it.

To love one’s enemies (i.e., to engage with them, treat them as human beings with dignity) is the morally most difficult–yet also most mature–thing to do.

Loving one’s friends is easy, and that is exactly what coercive moralists do.

They have created echo chambers for opinions they consider acceptable, so that they feel justified in stamping out enemies wherever they perceive them.

However, what they probably can’t and won’t do is to engage with other people as human persons with dignity.

This, it seems to me, is falling short of what Kant called “duty”: i.e., the moment that you surpass yourself in order to be the best you can be, even if it is morally strenuous.

All this does not mean that one should always believe that the “Nazi next door” is in reality a nice guy, if only you just talked to him.

Neither does it mean that everyone will engage in a rational dialogue or change his mind.

Nor does it mean that all opinions are equally valid.

It simply means that to “mark someone from the beginning” based on one’s personal and highly idiosyncratic norms and justifying/planning one’s retaliation against them is a dictatorial tactic that does not deserve a place in “humanity’s commons” of beliefs and ideas.

It stifles debate–however sharp and to the point–and it induces fear and isolation.

Now, if the new diverse, inclusive, and tolerant world has to be policed by fearmongering and isolation, it is not worth having.

Any world in which policing rests on tactics that morally tread on the core values that world seeks to realize, can be safely discarded.

NOTES

[i] V. Chaly, “Immanuel Kant — Racist and Colonialist? [With an afterword by Robert Hanna],” Against Professional Philosophy (10 August 2020), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2020/08/10/immanuel-kant-racist-and-colonialist/>.

[ii] O. Paans, “Being Oppressed vs. Being Offended: Why A Real Dialogue About Racism is Still Far Away,” Against Professional Philosophy (29 July 2020), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2020/07/29/being-oppressed-vs-being-offended-why-a-real-dialogue-about-racism-is-still-far-away/>.

[iii] M. Davis and J, Weiner, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (London/New York: Verso, 2020), p. 67.

[iv] M. Powell, “A Black Marxist Scholar Wanted to Talk About Race. It Ignited a Fury,” New York Times (14 August 2020), available online at URL = <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/14/us/adolph-reed-controversy.html>.

[v] Vala van de Boomen, “Je bent niet gekwetst, je bent gewoon een zeikerd,” Saar Magazine, available online at URL = <https://www.saarmagazine.nl/bent-gekwetst-bent-gewoon-zeikerd/>. I translated the text freely. The original text (in Dutch) is in the notes directly below.

[vi] Je mag niet zeggen dat je kinderen neemt, omdat er ook mensen die ze niet kunnen krijgen. We mogen geen ‘dames en heren’ meer zeggen omdat er mensen zijn die zich noch man noch vrouw voelen. Katy Perry mag geen kimono meer dragen omdat ze zich daarmee het Japans cultureel erfgoed oneigenlijk zou toe-eigenen.

[vii] Het is de tendens van deze tijd: iedereen moet op maat behandeld worden. Past iets niet helemaal in jouw straatje, ben je het ergens een keer niet mee eens, dan ga je direct op je achterste benen staan. Roep je dingen als “Schande!”, “Respectloos!”, “Beledigend!” en eis je dat er tegemoet gekomen wordt aan wat in jouw ogen juist is, dat jouw mening dé mening wordt. Het lijkt wel alsof je tegenwoordig op eieren moet lopen in het leven, want er is niet veel voor nodig om een teer zieltje te krenken. En als de special snowflake zich gekwetst voelt, berg je dan maar.

[viii] Je mag het onzin vinden, er zelfs geïrriteerd van raken. Mij dom vinden, of vervelend. Allemaal prima en je goed recht. Maar ik hoef mijn mening niet aan te passen, omdat jij er anders over denkt. Ik wil best naar je luisteren en nadenken over wat je zegt. Het is alleen niet mijn plicht om jouw kant van de zaak te belichten. Agree to disagree zogezegd en dat is dan dat. Zo gaat dat in het leven. En als jij je gekwetst voelt door mijn mening, dan is dat vooral jouw probleem en niet het mijne.

[ix] Roepen dat je ‘gekwetst’ bent is manipulatief. Een beetje hetzelfde als een moeder die tegen haar kind zegt dat ze ‘niet boos is, maar teleurgesteld’. Kwetsen impliceert namelijk dat jou bijna opzettelijk pijn gedaan is, dat er bewust geen rekening met je gehouden wordt. En, bovendien, dat het dus met je goedgemaakt moet worden. Het zorgt ervoor dat je zielig en kwetsbaar gevonden wordt, terwijl je vervolgens je plicht om verder te kijken dan je neus lang is en je mening goed te beargumenteren verzaakt. Mensen, of groepen mensen, in de samenleving die schermen met gekwetst zijn omdat ze niet helemaal op maat benaderd worden, nemen willens en wetens een krachtig machtsmiddel ter hand.

[x] Je bent niet gekwetst, je bent gewoon een zeikerd. Dus misschien moet je je hoofd eens uit je eigen kont halen en eens om je heen gaan kijken. Dan zul je zien dat de wereld niet om jou draait en dat het, ja echt waar, mogelijk is om te co-existeren met mensen die er anders over denken dan jijzelf. Dat je soms water bij de wijn moet doen en dat dat helemaal niet zo erg is. Dat iemand met een andere mening er niet per se op uit is om jou persoonlijk te beledigen. Maar dat die persoon misschien andere ervaringen heeft gehad, dingen anders beleeft dan jij dat doet. Dat je het daar niet mee eens hoeft te zijn, maar dat dat verder niet direct een probleem, of een misdaad tegen de menselijkheid, is. En dat je dat dus gewoon ter kennisgeving aan kunt nemen en verder kunt gaan met je leven.

[xi] Note that this assumption only applies to those marked as “enemies.” In an amazing feat of virtue signaling, it is allowed for a coercive moralist to say: “I held racist beliefs, but I mended my ways.” Or, put crudely: there is nothing a fanatic loves more than a convert….

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.