Former President Carter Presents Us With a Teachable Moment

One of the terms most misused in recent years is the charge of ad hominem. Once, when I testified before the Food and Drug Administration and quoted an FDA bureaucrat, Dr. Louis Morris, and criticized his actions, another FDA official claimed that I was engaging in ad hominem. I wasn’t. Often, when people attack the motives or character of someone they oppose, they are accused of engaging in ad hominem. We’re getting warm. But the term “ad hominem” is narrower than that.

Here’s what my undergraduate logic text, A Handbook of Logic, 2nd ed., by Joseph Gerald Brennan, says an ad hominem is:

We argue ad hominem when we try to refute an argument by arguing against the character of the man who brings it forward or his dubious motives in so doing. (italics his)

When Jimmy Carter made his charge of racism two days ago, he was not necessarily engaging in ad hominem. In the statement quoted in the media, he didn’t argue that one can dismiss opposition to Obama’s policies on the basis of racism. But was that his implicit message? Was he trying to get people to ignore opposition to Obama’s policies on the grounds that the opponents are racist? If so, he was engaging in ad hominem.

Take the extreme. Imagine that every single person who opposes Obama’s policies is racist, including those on the left who think his health care plan is not socialist enough. Can we dismiss their arguments based on their racism? That’s where the power of the fallacy of ad hominem comes in. To coin a phrase, “No we can’t.”