Ethics Quiz: Ad Hominem Or Not?

I frequently find myself correcting commenters who accuse me of ad hominem attack when I diagnose their problem, based on their arguments as jerkism or mental deficiency. (I recently found one legal blogger who actually states that if a commenter uses the term incorrectly, the comment will be rejected). Ad hominem is an argument fallacy that holds that if a messenger is flawed, his or her argument can’t be valid. It’s a cheap debate tactic, and unethical. If I conclude, however, that your argument is so idiotic that it could only be devised by an  idiot and thus designate you as one in so many words (because you have a right to know), that’s not ad hominem.

African-American pastor Mark Burns is a rafter-shaking speaker and an unusual and useful advocate for Donald Trump. He has been on cable news segments frequently, and even spoke at the GOP Convention. Being black, he is obviously roundly detested by those who regard Trump as a bigot, indeed by those who just dislike Trump generally. This almost certainly includes journalists on CNN, a Hillary stronghold.

A member of the black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi alerted CNN that  Burns had claimed to have been a member,  but there was no record to support it. This set CNN on a quest to check all of Burns’ credentials and biography items, and it found that he had other dubious claims. Confronted on the air by (also African-American) CNN reporter Victor Blackwell with these discrepancies, Burns stuttered, humina-huminaed, protested, lied (his web site bio had been “manipulated” in some way, he said—the Weiner Excuse: “I’ve been hacked!”), and finally stormed out of the interview, which is to say, he ran.

Mark Burns is a Trump ally and supporter of note because he is a black pastor. He is still a black pastor. He makes a case for why blacks should support Doonald Trump. That case does not in any way rely on his military record or where he went to school, or, for that matter, how well he responds to having his honesty and integrity challenged on TV.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is...

“Was CNN’s attack on Pastor Burns fair and responsible, or..

Was it an unethical ad hominem attack designed to discredit a Donald Trump ally?”

I think I’ll hold my fire on this until you weigh in, but my starting position in my analysis is this:

It’s both.

P.S.: Burns issued an explanation and an apology for his deception on Facebook:

As a young man starting my church in Greenville, South Carolina, I overstated several details of my biography because I was worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a new pastor. This was wrong, I wasn’t truthful then and I have to take full responsibility for my actions. Since that time I should have taken steps to correct any misrepresentations of my background. We all make mistakes, and I hope that the measure of my character and the quality of my works speak for what kind of person I am.

I do also want to set the record straight about why this attack is happening – because I am a black man supporting Donald Trump for President. For too long, African-American votes have been taken for granted by Democratic politicians, and enough is enough. It’s a shame that the political insiders and the media choose to attack me because I’m not going to stay silent about Hillary Clinton’s pandering to our community. Instead, I’m going to tell people that there is another option – an option that represents a positive vision that will unify our country. That’s why I have and will continue to tirelessly support Mr. Trump.

I guess we know how HE would answer the quiz!

18 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Ad Hominem Or Not?

  1. If he’s willing to lie about some very fundamental things, why wouldn’t he be equally willing to lie about why black people should support Trump? He’s holding himself out to be a man of god, and a position of trust within the community he’s supposedly representing. And yet he’s already clearly betrayed that trust, even prior to supporting Trump. Why would anyone trust or follow him?

    Plus, he has horrible judgment. Black Greek Letter Organizations are a very tight-knit, highly networked community. There is very little chance he would have been able to get away with that particular lie for very long. It’s more of a 2-3 degrees of separation there. So he is also showing that he isn’t very smart. So why should anyone be expected to believe and follow what a stupid liar has to say?

    • Yet does the news media treat every surrogate like this? Ted Kennedy cheated in college and lied about a manslaughter case: should every interviewer have grilled him on that? Why doesn’t your argument apply to Newt Gingrich (who CNN employed) or Eliot Spitzer? Bill Richardson falsely claimed for decades that he had been drafted by the Kansas City, now Oakland, A’s. Now, he’s been a surrogate for the Clintons for years—has CNN ever confronted him with this, which, as you say, indicts his credibility and judgment? Why, no. Now, why is that?

      • You are asking why/whether the media has a double standard, which is a different question than the one originally asked.

        I think the main difference is that Burns draws his authority and his judgment about Trump from his supposedly “Christian” values. “I am a man of god, people have placed their trust in me on the basis of that, and in my judgment, Trump is a man of god too, so you should trust him as well.” Yet, as we can see, Burns is a habitual liar, and not even a very good one. It throws both his judgment, and Trump’s reliance on him (no vetting?) into question.

        It would be the same if Gringich wanted to dispense marital advice, or Spitzer on how to avoid prostitutes. Sometimes you can learn something from someone who has made mistakes, I suppose. But first there has to be some deep reckoning, and an acknowledgement of the mistake in the first place. Burns isn’t even close to being there yet.

        • “You are asking why/whether the media has a double standard, which is a different question than the one originally asked.”

          No its a question essential to the answer. That’s why my analysis begins with both. If the news Media vets all interviewees similarly, then the claim is that they are checking whether the individual is a trustworthy news source. If they only do this when they don’t like or agree with the message, then it’s an ad hominem attack.

          • It is either an ad hominem attack, or it is not. They may be employing a double standard in choosing whether to use this line of inquiry, but the analysis of whether it is an ad hominen attack or not should be the same.

  2. Pure idiocy to reject the message over the fact you have a flawed messenger. For generations the well documented actions towards disposable women was best exemplified by Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Darlings of the left. Yet both had incredible support by women – especially those on the left of center. They repeatedly drew great election numbers from women despite aberrant individual behaviors towards females. A behavior paradox.

    • B…bu….but those weren’t “disposable” women! They were lying wanton sluts. Just ask the men’s wives! . . . . And it wasn’t real sex anyway.

  3. While ad hominem attacks may be a fallacy in formal logic, they are actually sound argumentation in a less formal arena. In particular, they are a weapon against fallacy of the argument from authority.

    In less formal arguments, the argument from authority is really pretty useful. How do we know that antibiotic soaps don’t provide any benefits? Scientists say they did a study that shows they don’t. The fact that they are scientists doesn’t formally prove that their analysis is correct, but it comes close enough for normal arguments. At the very least, there is a presumption of legitimacy, to be overturned if their study turns out to be flawed. (And if it does, we’ll probably learn about it from other scientists.)

    But that changes if there are grounds to challenge the authority of the scientists. Did they lie about their credentials? Were they paid by the conventional soap industry? Have they swindled someone out of money? Do they cheat at poker? All these things undermine their authority by undermining their honesty, and they are reasonable things to bring up in an argument where the other side depends on that authority.

    Pastor Mark Burns has a lot of authority in some areas, and he is using that authority to advocate for Donald Trump. It is certainly reasonable to investigate the foundations of his authority, So it was an ad hominem attack, but it was a fair one. And if Burns can make the argument for black support of Trump without relying on his authority, then the attack on his integrity shouldn’t touch his argument.

    • That’s exactly how and why expert witnesses are impeached in court, Mark. Well-explained.
      News networks have an obligation, however, to vet all “authorities” similarly. Starting with question #1 every expert witness is asked: are you paid to be here, and by whom?

      • Oops. Yes, you’re right, I meant antibacterial. I had seen stories like that one, and I was under the impression that a study had shown there was no effect. From that story, it sounds like it’s more a case of no study ever finding an effect, which may not be the same thing if no good studies were ever done. My mistake on both accounts.

  4. It seems to me that the CNN revelations could have been handled differently, and in that case not fall into the ad hominem fallacy category. As it is, and based on that clip, it looks like a set-up of the man with the specific intention of discrediting him on the national TV.

    And if that results in people who might have heard or been influenced by his argument for Trump now changing their minds, then it seems that its function is pretty transparent.

    Most people who read (and view media) objectively notice that many media have set themselves to the project of discrediting Trump at all cost. Many are likely not trained sufficiently to discern this bias. And many welcome it since they see Trump as a danger that warrants any means to block.

    Is it the media’s responsibility to discredit this man, much as Deery has indicated his moral failure in lying? I would say certainly it is. Yet it does seem like a ‘low blow’ to discredit so publically this particular man in that way.

    But from the editorial perspective of CNN and many reporters and opinionators the ends justify the means.

  5. He’s a con artist supporting another con artist.

    What’s important though is not who said something, but whether it’s true or not.

  6. Case 1 – Ad Hominem: You are an idiot; therefore, your argument is invalid.

    Case 2 – Invalid inference: Your argument is invalid; therefore, your are idiot.

    Case 3 – Valid inference: Your argument is idiotic; therefore, you must be an idiot.

    It is only a fallacy, when the merits of the argument are not evaluated, yet a conclusion about its validity is made. In Case 1, above, the merits are not evaluated; therefore it is a fallacy. Being an idiot does not necessitate being wrong.

    Cases 2 and 4 do not purport to evaluate the argument further; therefore they are not fallacious. They on prior analysis of the argument to make an inference about the one making the argument. This evaluation is presumed to correctly find the hypothetical argument invalid.

    Case 2 reaches an invalid conclusion, that making an invalid argument necessitates being an idiot. Not all idiots make invalid arguments, and not all invalid argument are idiotic. Case 3, however, involves determining that an argument is idiotic, here meaning, that it could only be produced by an idiot.

    What we have above with Pastor Burns is a fourth case, the validity of which we must evaluate:

    Case 4 – Indeterminate Validity: You are an idiot; therefore, I will treat your argument with further skepticism.

    Case 4, like 2 and 3, does not directly effect the evaluation of the argument. It is a mindset, a hunch, that the argument might be invalid. Pastor Burns is arguing that it is in African American people’s interest to vote for Mr. Trump. This is an idiotic position, but that is not the media job to conclude. Their job is to provide facts to the public, so the public can make an informed conclusion. So, does digging into the messenger’s past help the public make an informed conclusion?

    If Pastor Burns has a history of lying to promote his own interests, then that is arguably relevant. It indicates a possible conflict of interests. If he lies about his credentials, is he lying about his reasons for endorsing Trump?

    It ultimately boils down to what Pastor Burns argument is. If the argument is: Trust my judgement shaped from my experience, then evidence of dishonesty directly undermines his message. Presenting evidence of such dishonest is thus fair and appropriate. If his argument makes no reference to his own judgement, then evidence about his character is fallacious. I would not rule out Case 4 skepticism as illogical.

    In short, Pastorhood is an innate position of trust, and the choice to endorse a candidate is inherently subjective. Therefore, any such endorsement explicitly relies on the personal judgement of the pastor. Revealing a history of dishonesty is thus not an Ad Hominen fallacious attack against his arguments for supporting Trump.

    • Well done and clear. I’m not sure it’s right, though. His argument’s credibility is based on the fact that he’s black and a pastor, not where he went to college or what fraternity he went to. It is also based on his arguments and their logical validity: a logical argument is a logical argument no matter who it comes from, including an idiot. CNN didn’t let him get to his arguments: it was the equivalent of Butch Cassidy kicking Harvey in the groin before their fight officially starts.

  7. Is this not a case of the old Roman legal principle ‘falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus’? (In english if a witness is not telling the truth about any one detail, all his testimony must be disregarded) I would say this is a legitimate argument, but that a legitimate news organisation would apply it even-handedly. So it is valid to impeach this witness, but in context it shows bias, especially when it is used to distract attention from the substance of the argument.

  8. “Was CNN’s attack on Pastor Burns fair and responsible, or..
    Was it an unethical ad hominem attack designed to discredit a Donald Trump ally?”

    At first glance I’d have to agree it’s both, but the ad hominem part is kinda thin. If I had to weigh this, I’d say that it’s about 90% well earned public trashing of Pastor Burns and 10% ad hominem, and that 10% is just because I don’t think Pastor Burns would have been in the CNN partisan radar if he had been an equally outspoken Clinton supporter.

    Pastor Burns made his bed with lies and now he has to sleep in it; his lies and poor character should be exposed, it’s a public service of journalists to do so. CNN played their part perfectly, they lured Burns in, they baited him, and then laid waste to him! Burns had completely swallowed the bait, hook, line, and sinker when he said that Donald Trump is a great judge of, and values, character and then had the audacity put himself into the category of being a man of character. Pastor Burns is an egotistical pompous ass and he earned his public trashing.

    The fact is that the GOP used this egotistical pompous ass black man and now the GOP and Trump are suffering the consequences of their choices.

    The fact that CNN (Clinton political machine tool) is pulling out the stops to spend time to do the research to build ad hominem attacks (even if it’s well earned) to discredit Trump supporters comes as absolutely no surprise. Ad hominem attacks has been at the top of the tactical list of the political left for decades and with the mentality of some of the Trump supporters, I fully expect more to come.

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