I know that the strict translation of ad hominem is against the person, but still I wonder if the logical fallacy named ad hominem is equally applicable when used against organizations. For example, it is a common argument tactic these days to dismiss a premise because its source was (take your choice) Fox News or the New York Times.

I have repeatedly had people say that the ad hominem fallacy does not apply to organizations, but only to individuals.

Say it ain't so, Joe ...

3 Answers 3


There are two things here.

First, maybe ad hominem was historically born for using with individuals (I don't know about its history). But since its purpose is to point to a logical error, I don't see why one could not use it to refer to the same error, only applied to institutions. I don't know of a fallacy specific to insitutions, so I don't see a problem in referring to ad hominem.

Well, that said, there's the second thing. A fallacy is usually an error in argument. In this case, if one says "A because of B", I'm commiting ad hominem if I argue that it is wrong because the person saying is ugly. That is because the ugliness of a person is irrelevant to the argument's truth and validity.

Even if we use "stupid" instead of "ugly", it would still be a fallacy. Even though "stupidity" may hinder someone's capability of argumentation, their argument should be considered on its own merits.

But that doesn't mean that anything citing someone's characteristic is an ad hominem.

For example, if I say "A because of B", there is the premise B and the conclusion A. You could challenge my conclusion by saying that A logically does not follow B. Or you might challenge my premise B.

If you know I'm a pathological liar, and you don't know if B is true, then you have all the right to question my premise B based on my history of lying. So you can't say that my logic is wrong because I'm a regular liar, but you can doubt the truthness of B.

Yes, it is "against the person" in a way, but not necessarily irrelevant to the argument. Hence an ad hominem fallacy does not necessarily apply.


Yes, the same fundamental fallacy of irrelevance that underlies ad hominem can certainly be applied to organizations. And since there is no recognized term for that variation, ad hominem is still probably the best way to describe it.

Another answer makes this point:

If you know I'm a pathological liar, and you don't know if B is true, then you have all the right to question my premise B based on my history of lying.

I disagree. If the premise is questioned solely on the basis of a history of lying, then however understandable this skepticism may be, it is still an ad hominem. You may honestly and logically profess ignorance, agnosticism, or ambivalence about the premise, but any valid argument must still address its substance.

Sometimes you will see an article published by a news organization with a reputation for inaccuracy, deserved or otherwise, in which the author attempts to compensate for the publisher's reputation by carefully laying out their arguments and citing their sources. Invariably, most critics still dismiss them out of hand. This is clearly fallacious.

  • Dismissing an argument based on its source is a different fallacy than ad hominem. It's genetic fallacy. An ad hominem literally attacks the person rather than responding to the argument. Genetic fallacy responds poorly to the argument.
    – virmaior
    Jul 24, 2014 at 13:10
  • Ad hominem is a genetic fallacy. Jul 24, 2014 at 16:52
  • Informal fallacies are always somewhat problematic insofar as we can agree something is wrong but not necessarily why. I don't think ad hominem === genetic fallacy . Or at least not as normally defined. Ad hom = (1) you say P. (2) I say "you piece of ..." or "you bigot" or "you liberal" or "you homophobe" or "you racist" or "you communist". Conversely, genetic fallacy = I won't listen to you because you are an X. / Obviously, ad.hom. will often imply a genetic fallacy but not always.
    – virmaior
    Jul 24, 2014 at 17:10
  • As normally defined, ad hominem is a type of genetic fallacy. You seem to be using your own definitions. As normally defined, your example of a genetic fallacy is actually an example of an ad hominem. And your example of an ad hominem is not an ad hominem at all, but simply an insult. Jul 24, 2014 at 17:13
  • Not sure where you're getting "as normally defined" from. An ad hominem is an insult. Try parsing the latin.
    – virmaior
    Jul 24, 2014 at 17:14

It is hard to back an institution into a corner and make it defend itself on a schedule set by you as its interlocutor. This inability to address the real topic because the bandwidth is taken up defending oneself personally is the essence of ad hominem argument, in my book.

It is hard to pull this off with an institution, unless you are another institution. The PR branch can always sit back and think before responding. Even the 24-hour news cycle has hours of down time. The press release can always be a a little longer, and address both concerns. We can rely on the media to filter the issue from the fog, and those really affected will eventually write off the media that focus on the fog.

So, on the slower timescale where group decisions are made, I think it is basically impossible to conduct a real ad hominem attack of an institution without simply alienating all listeners who genuinely care about the issue at hand.

As noted above appeal to reputation is a genetic (source) fallacy, not an ad-hominem one. But the two are linked, in my mind. The source fallacy is the mirror image of the ad-hominem fallacy wherein ineffective ad-hominem attacks nevertheless accrue to the attacked and can be leveraged against their future credibility. In my experience, it is exceptionally easy to apply genetic fallacies to institutions because people resent the political power that comes from institutional boundaries and ineffective past ad-hominem attacks remain more memorable than the actual outcome of the controversy.

So what would otherwise be ad-hominem attacks are often leveled ineffectively at institutions with the ultimate effect of losing the battle to win the war. This is generally not labeled 'ad hominem', but instead 'poisoning the well'.

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