Ethics of Inquiry

Who’s Arguing?

The ad hominem fallacy is committed when someone tries to knock down an argument by focusing on a feature about the person who made it. “If only Jane weren’t so dumb, I might think her argument about abortion is sensible.” Since the morality of abortion has nothing to do with facts about Jane, the argumentative move is fallacious.

Lately it seems ad hominem moves are on the rise. For instance, before evaluating an argument, many people want to know the racial or gender identity of the person making it to assess whether it is sound. “But that critique of affirmative action was written by John, a white man, which makes me question it.” As above, since the morality of affirmative action has nothing to do with facts about John, the argumentative move is fallacious. Such moves are now familiar. 

However, there is another noticeable trend as of late – inverse ad hominems. In this version of the fallacy, someone tries not to knock down but to lift up an argument by focusing on some feature about the person who made it. Here the race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the person making the argument functions as a supposed boon to its soundness. “The panel is about sexism? Well, clearly the woman’s argument will hold more water.” 

What are the best arguments in favor of inverse ad hominems? Let’s consider two: 

1) Relevant Knowledge: The woman has relevant testimonial knowledge about what it’s like to experience sexism that enables her to better understand it. To know how racism or sexism harms, for instance, we need to know in part what it’s like to be a victim of racism or sexism. Since testimonial knowledge is often necessary to understand properly and thereby analyze a phenomenon, the woman’s own experience with sexism likely strengthens her argumentative analysis.

2)  Stake in the Game: The woman also has more of a stake in theorizing about sexism; since sexism affects her more, she is more likely to give the matter serious thought and reflection. With a greater stake in the game, the woman is likely to produce better scholarship on the topic.

Let’s examine each reason more closely. Consider relevant knowledge first. Although a woman may have relevant testimonial knowledge that informs her understanding of sexism, her knowledge of what it’s like to experience sexism is very particular to her. As intersectionality teaches, a given woman’s experience with sexism is shaped not only by her sex or gender, but her age, sexual orientation, race, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status etc. Drawing general conclusions on the basis of her own specific testimony is thus unwarranted. This is not to deny that the woman’s experience may form part of certain testimonial trends; but it is to note that only such testimonial trends can serve as evidence of the right kind. Furthermore, in philosophy, arguments about sexism don’t tend to draw from an author’s own experience for evidence anyway. Rather, such writing often analyzes what sexism is, the different forms it takes, what makes it wrong, etc. The identity that matters for philosophical writing on the topic of sexism is thus not one’s sex, but one’s philosophical chops and familiarity with the relevant literature.

Next, consider stake in the game. Assume a woman has a greater stake in analyzing sexism. Even if she does, it does not follow that she can better theorize about the phenomenon. In fact, her stake in the argument could make her more (not less likely) to seek out a certain conclusion. But in addition, the assumption that a woman has a greater stake in theorizing about sexism is itself suspect. After all, plenty of people are affected by sexism against women, such as men (including sons and fathers), genderqueer people, and others who don’t identify as women. Furthermore, anyone who cares deeply about justice has a stake in thinking about and eradicating sexism against women. I can think of men not directly affected by sexism who care more about the problem than some women, and I bet you can, too. 

In sum, neither of the reasons discussed here presents a convincing defense of inverse ad hominems. There may well be other defenses out there. Until we hear them, though, we should look out not only for regular old-fashioned ad hominems, but inverse ad hominems too: both distort discourse and our ability to fairly assess the arguments.

(Those who are interested in these meta-questions about philosophical discussions might enjoy reading this interesting discussion thread on Daily Nous: http://dailynous.com/2020/07/10/discussion-about-discussions-here/ )

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