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 ...

5 Answers 5


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.

  • “You’re stupid because you’re wrong,” is just an insult. “You’re wrong because you’re stupid,” is an ad hominem fallacy.
    – Digcoal
    Apr 19 at 15:51
  • @Digcoal Insults should be avoided in any kind of logical argument. "You're stupid because you're wrong" adds no support to the claim that "you're wrong," so why include it in the argument at all? And if it feels like it adds support (which, frankly, it usually does), then that is fallacious and is the ad hominem fallacy.
    – causative
    Apr 19 at 16:29

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
  • 2
    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
  • 1
    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

The essential reason for “ad hominem” being a logical fallacy is because the veracity of a statement is inherent either as a self-contained truth or in some relationship to another established truth.

This means the source of the statement is completely irrelevant making “consider the source” the fundamental logical fallacy.

“Ad hominem” is Latin for “to the person.” It can be argued that an organization functions as a single person since there’s essentially no difference between a group of a 100 billion neurons working as one body or a corporation of 1,000 people acting as one body. Corporation is a group acting as one body with corpus being Latin for “body.”

However, to avoid a philosophical discussion on what a “person” constitutes, I would suggest “ad origo” (to the source) as the umbrella fallacy that encompasses ad hominem, as populum, and ab auctoritate, and other similar fallacies related to the source rather than the claim.

  • But when considering something, people tend to prefer sources they trust.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 20 at 12:45

Does the ad hominem fallacy only apply when used against individuals, or is it also a fallacy when used against organizations?

There is only one fallacy and that is "non sequitur" (-> does not follow) all the other names for fallacies just give a more tangible example of that. Like in that case it's nothing but a red herring. Like sure you could argue that (argumentum) ad hominem implies that you're targeting an individual and not a group, but what is it that you'd have actually dispelled with that? Have you made a good point that it is not a fallacy to attack news organizations rather than the news that they broadcast?

Well, no, all you've practically argued against is the name. The person made the point that the name doesn't 100% apply. And even if they would be true with that, it's completely irrelevant to the argument that attacking the messenger, who is unrelated to the message, rather than the message itself, does not in fact argue against the message and is not suitable at disproving the message.

It's something like a straw man argument, rather than attacking the actual argument, that this constitutes a fallacy, you attack the specific naming of that fallacy. Though besides scoring a meaningless brownie point for unnecessarily being pedantic, you've done nothing to actually disprove the argument itself, it's a rhetoric slight of hand rather than a logical takedown. In that it makes you look like you were correct and the other person is wrong, but it's Pyrrhic Victory that essentially just wasted time.

Also obvious disclaimer with regards to "argumentum ad hominem": All that this "fallacy" states is that it DOES NOT FOLLOW from the inadequacy of the messenger that the message is wrong. Like just because Fox News is a fire hose of bullshit and disinformation, doesn't mean that everything they say is wrong. Maybe they have a decent weather report... Maybe the facts are correct and it's just the presentation that is deceiving.

Or just consider this, if a known liar, who's not very bright and generally evil tells you that 2+2=4, 2+2=4 would still be true regardless of all the character flaws of the person saying that.

That being said those fallacies just indicate that it is qualitatively possible for them to tell the truth. So you could be wrong in your prejudices and it doesn't INEVITABLY follow from their bad character that they are telling a lie. That being said if the quantity of lies and the signal to bullshit ratio is abysmal it might still be reasonable to take the risk of them being correct and you not listening over being wrong on all the bullshit and occasionally getting some decent news (that you likely could have gotten anywhere else as well...).

Also the argumentum ad hominem assumes that the messenger is not part of the message, but just delivering it. Though it could be that the messenger IS part of the message. Like "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse" has a very different meaning if said by a car salesman or by a mobster. And showing that the other person has a background of being a dangerous criminal might be good evidence to support your case that it is intended as a threat and not just a "good offer".

Or think of a politician running for office, who often run on an explicit or implicit slogan of what a decent person they are, so digging up dirt might actually dispel that argument, so depending on how relevant that dirt is to the actual job and the claims they make about themselves, this could actually be a counterargument rather than an ad hominem despite being a personal attack.

Or stuff like your average Trump claim which is often a combination of "[Something ludicrous], sounds insane right, but it's actually true, believe me". So with the "believe me" the messenger offers their reputation as collateral in order to enhance the seriousness of the claim. Now that in itself is a fallacy (some sort of argument from authority or stuff like that), but if you hadn't caught that and directly jumped to attacking the argument being made, than discrediting the persons reputation would weaken the claim being made. So you'd be attacking the argument and not just the person.

  • 1
    If a person makes themselves part of their argument, then you are justified in including them in your attack. Organizations often produce standards, so the standards are questionable if the organization has produced faulty standards in the past. This is why we use reputation, because we have limited time and energy and don't want to waste it on unlikely things.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 20 at 12:43

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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