An Argument for Arguing Well

The case against ad hominem arguments, the first of three very popular argumentative blunders


As humans made in the image and likeness of God, we have a built-in desire to know what’s really going on and to trace all the little discoveries of what is really going on right back to the source, who is Truth Himself.  We all live out Augustine’s reality in that God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.

The problem is, as sinners, we also have a very powerful urge to do what Adam and Eve did: hide from Truth when he starts calling our name, since Truth—for fallen creatures—involves death by crucifixion. We know this because when Truth was made flesh and dwelt among us, that is what we did to him.  Our tendency to be leery of Truth in that weird love/hate way is what the Church calls “concupiscence”, a three dollar word that refers to the weakened will, disordered appetites and, most especially, a darkened intellect that afflict us.  It’s that last point that concerns us here, because it means that sin makes us stupid.

Sin makes us stupid in two ways.  It does so passively, by immersing us in lies and age-old “structures of sin” that cause us to take a ridiculously long time to figure out obvious moral intuitions and do something about them.  Take slavery. It’s easy for us today to say, “Slavery is bad.”  But for approximately the first, oh, forever of human existence on Planet Earth it was not at all obvious that slavery was that bad. It took two thousand years of kneading Christianity and its vision of the dignity of the human person into Western culture before slavery could become unthinkable and seen as the obvious evil it always was.  Why so long?  Because our darkened intellects make us stupid and we take a long time to figure things out even when the mission of Moses is all about leading slaves out of bondage, and Isaiah praises the work of the Messiah as one of striking off chains and freeing slaves, and Jesus speaks of the truth setting us free and Paul says that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Sin makes us slow on the uptake.  So we had to argue (and fight) it out before the obvious evil of slavery could be (precariously) driven from western civilization.

This brings us to our second point: sin also makes us fight the light as well.  As C.S. Lewis says of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, “Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.” And so history is chockablock with “active stupidity”.  Perhaps the archetypal example is when Jesus cast out demons and the only thing the Pharisees could say was that he was acting by the power of Satan.  This is active stupidity of such wilful malice that Jesus actually warns the Pharisees they risk committing the only sin in the universe that cannot be forgiven.  In short, not all intellectual mistakes are innocent.  We can enlist our intellects to make war on Truth.

And so we argue, partly because we want truth, partly because we grope in darkness, partly because we are terrified of what we will find and partly because we are intensely curious about what we will find.

Some people imagine arguing is bad or the same thing as fighting. “Let’s not bicker and argue!  Let’s agree to disagree!” says the intellectual coward.  But argument is not bickering and agreeing to disagree is typically what the wolf proposes to the lamb on the question of what to have for dinner. 

Argument is the friend of the lamb, because it gives power to Truth and not merely to Force.  “Argue” comes from the Latin word that means “to clarify”.  A good argument is the opposite of a power struggle because in a good argument, the point is not to defeat and destroy an enemy, but to work together to get at the truth of a thing.

Some people imagine that there was some golden age when people did not argue.  But this is not quite true.  Argument is what makes an age golden.  When you get rid of argument, you don’t have peace.  You have raw struggles for power.  Argument is what happens when rational people try to live in peace and truth.  St. Thomas Aquinas pretty much nails it when he says, “For true and false will in no better way be revealed and uncovered than in resistance to a contradiction.” Certainly the authors of Scripture understood this.  The people that gave us the proverb “Two Jews, three opinions” also gave us a Holy Book that records tons of arguments.  That’s pretty much all the prophets did: argue with Israel about their need to stay faithful to the law of Moses.  And in response, a grateful nation threw them down wells and sawed them in two, because the powerful didn’t want to argue, but to murder people who stood in their way with quibbles about truth and justice. 

In the end, the prophets were vindicated (typically after their violent deaths) by reality, which has a way of imposing itself on the most determined denialist.  That’s why their writings wound up being canonized as part of Scripture by a chastened nation that said to itself “If only we had listened to these guys.  Let’s not make that mistake again.”

Of course, the heirs to the prophets are the apostles and the Church, since the main thing the prophets were arguing for was that Israel should stay faithful to the Mosaic covenant till God established his new and everlasting covenant through Messiah.  When Messiah came, he basically spent three years arguing with people about everything (thus proving he was Jewish) and concluded his career by being martyred (thus proving he was a prophet).  But unlike previous prophets, Jesus did not stay dead.  And so a whole new field of argument–Catholic apologetics—was born on Pentecost and Peter’s “Hey!  We’re not drunk!  It’s only nine o’clock in the morning!” became the first in a long line of arguments for the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the authority of the apostles, the saving power of faith and baptism and all the rest of Catholic teaching.

That’s why Catholics have continued to argue to this day—because they are still persuading the world (and each other) to have faith in Jesus Christ.  And to this day, we have to struggle with the same concupiscence that has always messed up the thought process.  So we live (and participate) in a culture that tends to be prone to making certain blunders in logic.  In particular, three errors seem to me to be particularly popular in our culture:

Ad hominem (Arguing Against the Arguer Instead of Against the Argument),
• Genetic Fallacy (Arguing that Something Must be False Because of the Source),
• Consequentialism (Arguing that Good Ends Justify Evil Means). 

All are related by the fact that, increasingly, our culture does its moral decision-making based on things like image, personal relationship, tribal ties and subjectivism and less on the idea of a moral law that transcends these things.

In the world, this is to be expected as our culture re-paganizes, since paganism is all about worshipping the creature instead of the transcendent Creator and the power of narcissism, family, kindred, friend and tribe are already potent. Less excusable is that Christians can easily fall prey to these errors too.  So over the next few issues, let’s take a look at them in order to learn to avoid them.

Ad hominem means “argument against the man”.  A quick and dirty illustration of ad hominem is seen in the politician who says that nobody as ugly as his opponent could be right about Tariff Reform.  In other words, ad hominem distracts us from the substance of an opponent’s argument by attacking something about the Arguer instead of the Argument: his appearance, voice, hair, clothes, economic status, race, religion, etc.

The tricky thing about ad hominem is that sometimes the personal details of an opponent’s life really do bear on his argument.  So, for instance, it really does matter if a man who is arguing for, say, school segregation is also the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.  It matters if the person arguing for abortion is making two million dollars a year from his abortion clinic.  We very sensibly take such things into account when we are evaluating why somebody might make the arguments they do, just as we evaluate motive in trying to investigate a suspect in a murder. 

But motive alone does not prove or disprove a case.  So just as somebody in an Agatha Christie novel may have had plenty of reason to want the deceased dead, and yet not be the killer, so a person may have all sorts of personal baggage about a particular argument—and yet the argument they present is, in fact, solid and sound and correct.  If our response to “2+2=4” is “You say that because you are a math teacher” we are engaging in ad hominem and failing to engage the actual facts.

The moral, then, is to attend first to the argument, not to the person making it.  That can be hard when we know for a fact that the person making an argument is an unscrupulous criminal, or is sticking out their tongue at us when other people are not looking.  It can be really easy to divert from addressing the question of, say, evidence for the Resurrection and move straight to “Why my opponent is an abrasive jerk that no decent person should listen to.”  But tempting as that is, strangers watching the debate are not interested in your dislike of your opponent, nor is truth really going to be served even if you persuade them to reject his argument based on that.  Because, of course, it just may be that even though Galileo is an irascible pain in the neck, he is still right. 

Conversely, people will sometimes claim an argument is ad hominem when it is really only observant of a fact.  So when Jesus calls the Pharisees “blind guides” that is not ad hominem.  It is a description of the truth he has already established by argument: they are teachers who have no business teaching.  Likewise, if you catch somebody in a documentable lie it is not ad hominem to say they are lying.  However, it is ad hominem to conclude that, because they lied about X, all their arguments for Y are automatically invalid.

Bottom line: attend to the argument first, not the arguer.  That will have everything to do with tackling our next intellectual blunder: the Genetic Fallacy.

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About Mark P. Shea 0 Articles
Mark P. Shea is a popular apologist, author, speaker, and blogger. He is the author of several books, including The Da Vinci Deception, Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition and This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence. Visit his blog Catholic and Enjoying It!