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Person A: What is considered socially acceptable should be common sense regardless of outside influences.

Person B: What is considered common sense or obvious can be very different depending on the person, especially if the individual has had a fairly traumatic upbringing.

Person A: It's not my fault you don't have common sense or any idea of being a functioning person in society.

I would like to know if this is Ad Homninem or any kind of fallacy. If not, is it generally acceptable behavior for arguments to go in this direction? It just seems very exhausting and not very educational.

  • Your question about "acceptable behavior" doesn't distinguish between words and actions. An important pragmatic question is: "Are Person A and Person B pursuing compatible goals or incompatible goals?" To answer that pragmatic question, it would be helpful to keep written records, and to simply ignore self-aggrandizing claims that aren't supported by the written records. If they have incompatible goals, then the context for the interaction is a problem that cannot be solved on Philosophy Stack Exchange. Is this an appropriate venue for learning about common sense or acceptable behavior? – Ren Eh Daycart Oct 25 '19 at 10:50
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Yes, given the text, the third statement is ad hominem.

A fallacy is determined by three criteria according to T. Edward Damer in Attacking Faulty Reasoning. A fallacy is an argument which attempts to show truth by using irrelevant claims, unacceptable claims, or providing an inadequate grounds for drawing an inference. An ad hominem in particular is defined as "attacking one's opponent in a personal and abusive way as a means of ignoring or discrediting his or her position or argument".

Person A: It's not my fault you don't have common sense or any idea of being a functioning person in society.

To claim that an opponent has NO common sense or NO idea of how to function in a society is as obvious a personal attack as is the shift in third-person to second-person language. A debate regarding the nature of the relativity of common sense which invokes sophisticated ideas about psychology and philosophy should be disabused of any notion that making ridiculous claims about your opponent's psychosocial intelligences is acceptable, relevant, or adequate grounds for drawing any conclusion regarding the nature of common sense generally.

Anyone who disagrees with this position lacks common sense! ;)

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One problem is the term "common sense." Exactly what is common sense?

The first two statements are almost mirror reflections of each other. Both can be considered largely true in the broad sense, yet they both have some problems.

Is it OK to spit in another person's face? I think most people around the world would say "No," and would further classify that as common sense. So I agree with the first statement...except for the clause "regardless of outside influences," which leaves little room for exceptions.

The second statement also sounds pretty much on target, except for the last clause: "especially if the individual has had a fairly traumatic upbringing."

Huh? Sure, a traumatic upbringing can impact a person in many ways, but it sounds like a weird thing to inject into this argument. There are plenty of people who had very privileged upbringings but nevertheless have different ideas about common sense.

The final statement is an obvious ad hominem attack.

Practically speaking, you really don't need to analyze this conversation in more detail. Common sense tells me person A is a jackass that I really don't want to associate with, period. The information we're given about Person B is insufficient to form a solid opinion. Based on the final clause in his statement, I might suspect he's a little clueless, but he might have simply said something that sounds a little awkward in haste.

If we want to go into more detail, the last statement can be construed as two separate statements:

  1. You don't have any common sense.

  2. You don't know how to function in society.

Rather than simply say "I don't agree," he levels two separate, though related, charges against Person B. I'm probably going out on a limb here, but you might almost describe the first charge as an example of poisoning the well. (However, Wikipedia's definition emphasizes "preemptive" attacks.)

The second charge can be interpreted as nothing more than an additional insult. But it almost sounds like a red herring.

I can't remember the exact quote, but I think Nietzsche commented on the wisdom of avoiding people who aren't terribly intellectual. That's something I learned long ago, and this is precisely the type of conversation that led me to abandon break room political discussions.

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All three statements have problems:

  • The first is almost tautological. Common sense is what the common man would, without other influences, observe and conclude, which is exactly how socially acceptable is determined.

  • The second statement might be true for "obvious", but not for "common sense". Individuals can see things differently, and if that is very different from the way most people see them, it isn't common sense.

  • The third statement is a direct comment about the other person. It might very well be ad hominem, but without the context in which it was said one can't say for sure. (E.g. the other person might have just said "Mother, it's because of you that I don't have common sense!".)

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  • Your objection to the second claim is based on some differing definiton of the term. It does not mean that the claim is wrong, just that your definition (which you haven't offered) is different. – YiFan Oct 26 '19 at 14:06
  • I use "common sense" the same as the "reasonable man" concept that is fundamental to Common Law. – Ray Butterworth Oct 26 '19 at 14:52
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Consider the following response by Person A:

Person A: It's not my fault you don't have common sense or any idea of being a functioning person in society.

This does not appear to be relevant to the argument about the role of common sense in socially acceptable behavior. Indeed it appears to be an abusive ad hominem attack desiring to shift burden of proof to the opponent who would have to defend against the attack.

Bo Bennett describes abusive ad hominem as follows:

Attacking the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself, when the attack on the person is completely irrelevant to the argument the person is making.

For a more detailed view of identifying ad hominem and deciding whether it is reasonable or fallacious, see Douglas Walton's "The Ad Hominem Argument as an Informal Fallacy". Walton concludes as follows:

It seems reasonable to conclude that the circumstantial ad hominem is more basic to understanding the argumentative structure of the ad hominem as a kind of reasoned criticism. In many cases, the abusive ad hominem is best understood as a type of circumstantial ad hominem that has gone wrong because it has been taken to excess and degenerated into a vituperative personal attack to which little or no rational weight should be given as evidence in reasonable argument. It thus can be viewed as fallacy of irrelevant appeal, similar to the ad baculum, ad populum and ad misericordiam fallacies.

A circumstantial ad hominem argument can be reasoned criticism. This can go wrong when taken to excess as appears to be the case in the OP's example.


Bennett, B. Ad Hominem (Abusive). Retrieved on September 22, 2019 from Logically Fallacious at https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/1/Ad-Hominem-Abusive

Walton, D. N. The Ad Hominem Argument as an Informal Fallacy. Argumentation, 1(3), 1987, 317-331. Retrieved from Douglas Walton's site at https://www.dougwalton.ca/papers%20in%20pdf/87AdHom.pdf

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Yes it's an abusive ad hominem, and it poisons the well to boot. No, that is not an acceptable form of argument. (Other answers cover those fallacies in more detail.)

The logical reason is that even if we were to suppose that the abusive claims were wholly true, so that B had faulty senses and lacked ordinary skills, that personal fact would have no bearing on the question of the relativity of social understandings and customs in general. B could have a million faults, but the argument isn't about personal faults, it's about a general phenomenon. A more extreme example:

X: 2+3=4
Y: No, the sum would be 5.
X: Sorry, but everyone knows that you're an imbecile.

Yet the answer is 5, the abuse can't alter that.

Note that even if the answer were something else, the abuse would still be irrelevant. Modifying the example:

X: 2+3=4
Y: No, the sum would be 6.
X: Sorry, but everyone knows that you're an imbecile.

The answer is not 6, but the abuse doesn't advance the argument.

Finally, suppose X is correct:

X: 2+3=5
Y: No, the sum would be 4.
X: Sorry, but everyone knows that you're an imbecile.

The abuse is still irrelevant. It doesn't attempt to prove or disprove the disputed arithmetic.

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