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Rehabilitating the Ad Hominem Argument
Should Bertrand Russell’s ‘skirt chasing’ be taken into account when thinking about his moral theories? Stephen Anderson argues that it might, in this reply to Tim Madigan’s criticism of ad hominem arguments.
How much does a philosopher’s lifestyle matter when we are considering his or her theories? We do not expect professional footballers to exhibit exemplary morality to justify their seven-figure salaries. We do not always even expect heads of state to demonstrate superior restraint in their personal lives before we admit them to positions of power. Is there any reason for us to suppose that the philosophers whose theories we enjoy debating should be held to a different standard?
If we are willing to denigrate an argument based on the biographical details of the speaker’s life then we have engaged in the ad hominem approach to argument. In a nutshell, the ad hominem argument attacks the integrity of a speaker, rather than the integrity of his or her argument. Many philosophers have objected to the introduction of personal data into philosophical debate. Schopenhauer decried the practice. C.S. Lewis was another one who despised the ad hominem argument. He called it ‘Bulverism’, after his fictitious character Ezekiel Bulver, who discovered “the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument,” after he heard his wife say, “Oh you say that because you’re a man.” As long as Bulverism is practiced, Lewis insisted, “reason can play no effective part in human affairs.”
Certainly the ad hominem is the most ready tool of the obscurantist, an effective means of clouding philosophical thought with the debris of petty insults. Let’s face it: whatever the nature of a speaker may be, the integrity of his utterance stands on grounds other than his personal character. Even an inveterate liar is frequently obliged to speak the truth, and people of sterling character still may make errors of judgment. It is always safer to assess the veracity of a statement on its own merit, not on the apparent character of its proponents.
To use an example, if I am looking for the finest auto mechanic in my city, it is irrelevant to consider his personal life as part of my decision-making process. He may drink too much, he may beat his wife, and he may starve his children; yet the fact may still remain that there is no better mechanic to be found. The disorders of his personal life may bear no relation relationship to the quality of his automotive repairs whatsoever. Just so, a philosopher may advance any number of theories to which all details of his or her personal excesses are entirely irrelevant.
But is the integrity of a speaker always completely irrelevant to the value of his utterances? The truth may be a little more complicated than many of us would care to admit. If we return to our example of the automotive mechanic, we may notice that his trade is by nature detached from his personal life. As long as his drinking does not cause him to delay my repairs, or his contempt for other people does not manifest itself in a willingness to overcharge me, I cannot fault his skill as a mechanic. But what if he was not my mechanic but my marriage counselor? Could I then afford to overlook the condition of his personal life? Or could I be forgiven for asking myself why his theories of domestic harmony had failed to penetrate his own home?
In recent years the indiscretions of a number of televangelists have made headlines around the world. It could be pointed out that the gleeful pillorying of these individuals in the press and the subsequent dismissal of their point-of-view by the public are based entirely on ad hominem thinking. But is the public entirely wrong? Or is it reasonable to expect that when a man purports to lead others to victory over evil he ought to have, in some measure, a credible lifestyle himself? If he is found to be secretly nurturing concupiscence or misappropriating funds, does this not rightly call into question his claim to be “seeking first the kingdom of God?”
Perhaps it would be fair to say that the relevance of the ad hominem argument depends on the quality of the theories being advanced. If a man wishes to theorize about my car, the dimensions of the universe, the abstractions of mathematics or the patterns of economics, then the data of his personal life and character are irrelevant to the discussion. But it is questionable whether the same is true when he embarks on theories of value, or when he propounds a particular model of social relations, or when he advances an ethical framework. In such cases, it could actually be foolish to neglect to examine the extent to which these theories were worked out in the theorist’s personal life. If taking these theories to heart failed to produce the exemplary life for the philosopher himself, then we may be forgiven for asking ourselves the very reasonable question, “why?”
In his biography of the poet and social theorist Percy Bysshe Shelley, Historian Paul Johnson observes,
“he loved humanity in general but was often cruel to human beings in particular. He burned with a fierce love but it was an abstract flame and the poor mortals who came near it were often scorched. He put ideas before people, and his life is a testament to how heartless ideas can be.”
Shelley provides an example of a humanitarian who failed to be humane in practice. Similarly, Schopenhauer, who advanced an elaborate theory of compassion, was openly cruel to his admirers. Karl Marx, the would-be liberator of the proletariat, apparently never entered a factory, workhouse or mine in his life, and economically and sexually abused the only peasant he really knew, Helen Demuth. Bertrand Russell, author of Why I Am Not A Christian, who argued that the lack of moral fortitude in the Christians he knew kept him from finding them credible, was allegedly “pursuing anything in skirts” well into his later years. Friedrich Nietzsche, the would-be superman, died syphilitic and insane.
Are these things irrelevant? If we weigh them against the theories these men advanced are we guilty of the sin of ad hominem mudslinging? Perhaps the answer depends on what these men claimed to teach us. To the extent that they remained poets, or economists, or abstract theorists, perhaps we ought to dismiss their personal lives from our consideration. On the other hand, to the extent that they claimed to have insights to the essential values, ethics, and morality, we might be forgiven for inquiring whether their particular paradigms led them to lead markedly better lives than the ones we currently live. If not, we might also be justified in suspending any personal commitment to their theories until we know the reason why.
In the title of his classic book, Richard M. Weaver reminds us that Ideas Have Consequences. We ought never to dismiss a theory outright merely because we fail to admire the conduct of the philosopher who advanced it. But if a philosopher proposes to address his thought to the idea of the good life, then the consequence ought to be that he demonstrates the good life himself, at least in reasonable measure. It is an error in logic to apply ad hominem arguments to unrelated theories, but it is an error in wisdom to fail to consider the moral credentials of a moral theorist.
© Stephen L. Anderson 2002
Stephen Anderson is a high school teacher in London, Ontario and has written for a variety of magazines.