What’s the opposite of ad hominem?

by John Holbo on March 25, 2010

No, I don’t mean: arguing fair. I think it should be ab homine. A moving (irrationally) away from the man. It’s a fallacy.

Here’s the context. Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait have a diavlog in the course of which Chait takes the scrupulous high-road position that, when it comes to charges of racism, you really have to be slow to accuse. He rolls out the standard fair-play-in-debate considerations: if the person is saying something wrong, but not explicitly racist, you can just point out the wrongness, without speculating, additionally, that they said the wrong thing out of racism. There is, he implies, no real loss in not being able to delve into dark motive.

But here’s the problem with that. In an environment in which creative and speculative accusations of bad motives are, otherwise, flying back and forth in free and easy style, a social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular is actively misleading. It inevitably generates the strong impression that this bad motive – out of the whole colorful range of diseases and infirmities of the mind and spirit – is an especially unlikely motive. Which, in the sorts of cases Chait and Yglesias happened to be discussing, is not true. So, contra Chait, an inconsistent semi-norm against ad hominem arguments encourages an ab homine error that may be less angry (that’s not nothing) but is significantly more confused that what excessive – but even-handedly excessive! – hermeneutics of suspicion would produce.

Yglesias makes this point, mostly by saying that you have to ‘tell narratives’, and the narratives have to attribute motives. But I think ab homine is snappier.

UPDATE: On reflection, ab homuncule might be still better. The aversion of the gaze from one possibly semi-autonomous, agent-like module of the overall man, conjoined with cheerful willingness to shed light on every other part of the man, motive-wise.


by Kieran Healy on March 25, 2010

Congratulations Matt McIrvin, you are the author of Crooked Timber’s Two Hundred and Fifty Thousandth Comment! And I’m not even counting all the spam we deleted. I believe the term of art these days is that these quarter of a million comments — do you mind if I say that again? These quarter of a million comments — are “curated”. Gently managed. Lovingly tended. Hosed down twice a day. It’s kind of like you are all in a big museum, or possibly zoo. Of the future. We’ve come a long way from the very beginning. Eventually there will be a grad student and a thesis, I am sure. In the meantime, for his good fortune Matt wins, em, well anyway we thank you sincerely for your many contributions. And of course we thank you, as well. And you. And especially you. But certainly not you, you troll. You are banned.