Use of Ad Hominem Argument in Political Discourse: The Battalino Case from the Impeachment Trial of President Clinton

By Walton, Douglas | Argumentation and Advocacy, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Use of Ad Hominem Argument in Political Discourse: The Battalino Case from the Impeachment Trial of President Clinton


Walton, Douglas, Argumentation and Advocacy


The ad hominem argument is not a new phenomenon in American political discourse. A pamphlet was circulated telling of Andrew Jackson's "youthful indiscretions." Newspapers attacked Abraham Lincoln's policies using the words, "drunk," "too slow" and "foolish." What is new is the greatly increased and much more visible use of negative campaign tactics, and the accepted relevance of the character issue. Personal matters that were once "off limits" for media reporting are now probed into, using opposition research, and routinely used in attack ads. The abundance of these ad hominem arguments in current political discourse provides much interesting material for studying how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this type of argument. In this paper, one specimen that poses some interesting problems has been selected for study.

Prior to the evaluation problem, in dealing with ad hominem arguments, there is an identification or classification problem. Many different subtypes of ad hominem argument have been shown to have distinctively different forms as arguments (Walton, 1998). There are also many other kinds of arguments that are associated with ad hominem arguments, but are not themselves ad hominem arguments. These arguments are easily confused with ad hominem arguments, or misclassified as ad hominem arguments. The lack of any standard system of classifying all these various forms of arguments has stood in the way of any serious study of the ad hominem argument. Now that problem, at least to some encouraging extent, has been solved. But the problem of refining and extending the systems of classification (Lagerspetz, 1995; Walton, 1998) still exists.

Since each different type of ad hominem argument needs to be evaluated differently, the question of how to identify the type of an argument, when confronting any argument used in a given case, is highly significant. But reality being what it is, there are borderline cases where it is very difficult or even impossible to tell whether a given argument used in a text of discourse is one type of ad hominem or another. Or it may even be hard to tell whether it is a genuine ad hominem argument or not. This is the problem Hamblin (1970) called "pinning down" the fallacy in a given case. The problem posed by the case studied in this paper is that the argument looks like an ad hominem argument, but on closer inspection, doubts are raised. It is arguable that it is not an ad hominem argument at all. The case in question is a fairly short and relatively self-contained segment of dialogue from the televised impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in February, 1999. Before turning to the presentation of this case, an introduction to the viewpoint of informal logic is given, and a summary of the various forms of argument at issue is given. Once getting past these preliminary matters; the reader can proceed straight to this case.

THE VIEWPOINT OF INFORMAL LOGIC

When it comes to studying arguments, there are two points of view, or ways of analyzing and evaluating an argument, that need to be distinguished. First, you can study the argument empirically to try to judge what effect it had, or will be likely to have, on an audience. This viewpoint would seem to be one that would fit the kind of approach and methods of the social sciences. The other point of view is logical. You can classify the argument as being of a particular type--meaning, in logic, that you fit it as an instance of some abstract form of argument--and then you can determine whether the argument is correct or incorrect (valid or invalid, reasonable or fallacious)--according to the normative standards of correctness that this type of argument is supposed to meet. It has been thought, since the end of the nineteenth century, that these two tasks were entirely independent of each other, and that they should be carefully separated, and never mixed in together. But recently, the feeling is that this separa tion is not as clean as we thought. …

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