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Circumstantial ad hominem

Ad Hominem Fallacies of Relevance

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Fallacy Name:
Circumstantial ad hominem

Alternative Names:

Fallacies of Relevance > Ad Hominem Arguments

It is can be common to try to dismiss an argument by attacking an entire class of people who presumably accept that argument. Because it addresses the circumstances of those who hold the position, it is called the circumstantial ad hominem and appears in the following form:

1. Of course X argues/thinks that way - just look at the circumstances surrounding X.

Examples and Discussion:
Like the other ad hominem fallacies, the circumstantial ad hominem is a very weak way to make a case. As a consequence, it is reasonable to conclude that someone who offers it probably doesn't have a very strong position to begin with. Here are some examples of this sort of reasoning:

2. Evolutionary biology is something promoted by materialistic, atheistic, Secular Humanists in our schools in order to undermine Christianity.

3. The President is in favor of drilling for more oil - but since he has made lots of money from oil and has many friends in the oil industry, his reasons for more drilling must be personal rather than objective.

In both of these examples, some position or idea (evolution, drilling more oil) is criticized based upon the sorts of people who believe them (atheists, people who make money from oil). The ideas themselves aren't touched in any way - indeed, there might be very good reasons for any of those positions, regardless of who else believes them.

Sometimes, ad hominems like the above can look like abusive ad hominems - after all, the above statements do look like insults. However, the focus of those attacks is not the character of someone but instead upon their circumstances - things like their job or their religion.

Many times, this fallacy can be achieved by innuendo:

4. Why don't the politicians release what they know about this, if the information really is innocuous?

The implication here is that the politicians, by presumably withholding material, are also being dishonest. Instead of specifying particular circumstances which are supposed to reflect negatively on the argument, vague circumstances are hinted at. At no point is any substantive argument being offered - all we have is a statement about the people involved.

Of course, we can create a circumstantial ad hominem argument which isn't designed to be so insulting:

5. You're a German, so there is no reason to think that your opinion about what qualifies as good Chinese cinema has any merit.

In this case, we don't have a personal attack; instead, the qualifications of a person to judge Chinese cinema are being questioned just because of their nationality. What they actually say and know about Chinese cinema is never considered. Maybe they are an expert in Chinese cinema! The fact of the matter is, their nationality is not necessarily relevant to the conclusion being offered.

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