Dialogue 2: With Prof. Shailaja Menon

December 21, 2019

Rohit Dhankar

[This one has moved far away from the CAA and NRC. It is about one particular kind of fallacy rampantly used these days. May not be of much interest generally. Also has become rather detailed at places. I am putting it here only because Shailaja raised these points publicly and they have a bearing on my ways of thinking.]

This is not a face to face dialogue. Shailaja wrote the whole text which I have parsed against her name as a single comment. I have parsed it for the purpose of responding properly, and to avoid ambiguity. Her comment was on my blog titled “Rampant ad hominem and dogmatic warriors”.

Shailaja: Rohitji, as you know, Ad Hominem argumentation would be considered valid in certain traditions, such as Marxism, contemporary sociology of knowledge, etc, where it is proposed that the truth and falsity of ideas cannot be evaluated independently of the material/ideological positioning of the person advancing the argument.

Rohit: (a) Apologies for my ignorance Shailaja ji, but would like to have some references where Marxism and Contemporary Sociology of Knowledge where ad hominem is admissible.  If the references also include some good examples, it will help me.

(b) Difficult to accept that “the truth and falsity of ideas cannot be evaluated independently of the material/ ideological positioning of the person advancing the argument”. A person can give a statement, and also can advance an argument. Arguments depend on premises, which are statements.

See the following examples of statements:

One: 2+2=4

Two: Moon is nearer to earth in comparison to Mars.

Three: Untouchability still persists in many rural parts of Rajasthan.

Four: Aurangzeb reintroduced jaziah which was abolished by Akbar.

Five: “Do not do to others what you do not want to be done to you” is a moral maxim. (Being a moral maxim is simply the characterisation of the maxim in the sense of indicating its domain; and does not mean its acceptance by anyone.)

Six: Subtility of metaphor is one of the important criteria in deciding quality of a poem.

Seven: All above statements are true or false irrespective of the material and ideological position of who makes them.

Using ad hominem to refute or challenge these statement would mean something like: (Say they are all made by X, I want to refute statement four above) X has always been extremely critical of Aurangzeb, therefore, Aurangzeb did not introduce jaziah. Will it cut any ice?

I don’t think the truth of any of the above statements will be affected by who is making them.

Now see the following arguments:

One: (a) If Shailaja donates 10% of her income for charity, and (b) Her income is 5,00,000 rupees per month, then (c) She donates 50,000 rupees per month.

Two: (a) If Rohit smokes 20 cigarettes a day, (b) if it is true that risk of lung cancer among 20-per day smokers is 10% higher than non-smokers; and (c) Shailaja is a non-smoker; then (d) all other things being equal, Rohit’s risk of lung cancer is 10% higher than Shailaja.

Three: (a) If higher female education results in reduced birth rate irrespective of all other socio-economic-political and environmental conditions, and (b) Rajasthan wants to reduce birth rate, then (c) it is reasonable for Rajasthan to provide better opportunities for female education.

Four: (a) If Chandragupta Maurya married a Greek woman, (b) If Bindusara was son of that Greek woman and Chandragupta Maurya, and (c) if Ashok was biological son of Bindusara, then (d) Ashok also had Greek blood in his veins.

Five: (a) If Shailaja accepts the moral principle that hurting others is morally bad under all circumstances, and (b) Shailaja has hurt Bhootnath, then (c) Shailaja has violated her own principle.

Six: (a) If there are no criteria for considering poetry good or bad, then (b) Rohit Dhankar is as good a poet as Ramdhari Singh Dinkar.

Seven: (a) If the validity of all the above listed arguments is independent of the material/ideological position of who advanced them, then (b) it is valid to conclude that in very large part of rational conversation validity of arguments can be decided independent of the material and ideological positions of people who advance them.

If one analyses carefully all the statements and arguments listed above it becomes clear that they are true/false or valid/invalid irrespective of people who make them. Therefore, I do not accept what you said in this regard.

Furthermore, even if material/ideological position of the person is taken into account in some specific situations that does not necessarily mean indulging in ad hominem.

Shailaja: You are right that we should not, in public reasoning, refer ONLY to personal characteristics, irrespective of the points that a person is making. Nor, should we ideally attack the human being.

Rohit: Thanks for recognising this much. But I would insist personal characteristics of the person making argument are irrelevant to the merits of the argument.

Shailaja: However, I would argue that it is perfectly logical and rational to take into account who the person is, where they are coming from, in evaluating their arguments. Courts of law permit certain kinds of ad hominem argumentation, because the validity and necessity of it in human interactions is acknowledged.

Rohit: I would like to know such instances. I seriously doubt it. I can understand looking into a person’s character and past for judging the truth of his/her statement where no other grounds for verification or rejection are available. For example, a habitual liar who has appeared in a court as a false witness is likely to be unreliable, and may get rejected. Such a person if says that the he saw the accused hitting this person, the judge may reject his testimony. But this is a practical decision on the part of the judge to keep legal procedure reliable. And is concerned with the acceptability of his statement; not effecting the truth itself. I never said that ad hominem is not used to discredit or enhance credit of people in public discourse. It is used day in and day out, and is also effective. That does not mean that it affects the truth or untruth of the statements or validity/invalidity of arguments.

In the famous story of the shepherd boy and wolf the discredited poor boy lost his sheep because of the opinion formed of the boy based on past experience of the villagers. The truth of the loss of sheep was not affected by the judgment of the villagers on the boy’s statement (announcing the approaching wolf).

Fallacy is a term applicable to logic used in an argument. Arguments can be valid or invalid. Sound or unsound. They are not true or false. Statements are true or false. Imagine a well-known thief makes the following argument in front of the judge who knows his habits well:

Argument: (a) Sir, the defence lawyer admits that I was in Kolkata at 2 pm on 21st Dec 2019. (b) he also admits that the bank theft happened in Delhi between 2 pm and 4 pm. On 21st Dec 2019. (c) there is no way a person can reach Delhi from Kolkata in less than two hours. Therefore, (d) Sir, he is accusing me falsely.

Shall this argument become invalid due to the recognised fact that the maker is a well-known thief? And that even the judge knows it? I see no way any one can claim that this is an invalid argument.

Shailaja: Potential employers do it, too, because human nature has some predictability; by reviewing a person’s past actions and stances, you can predict (with some margin for error) what they are LIKELY to do in the future.

Rohit: May be for the same reason and in the same sense to ascertain reliability. That is not use of ad hominem argument. That is judging character.

Shailaja: Let me give you examples of bad and reasonable ad hominem arguments, in my opinion.

  1. Bad: I reject Rohitji’s arguments because I feel he’s a stubborn man. Rohit: yes, it is bad and ad hominem.
  2. Reasonable: I question some of Rohitji’s arguments because I know that he comes from a tradition of analytical philosophy that ignores context and minutely parses narrow pieces of the whole.

In the latter case, Rohitji’s background and training are legitimate sources of information for me to consider in terms of evaluating his arguments.

Rohit: Perfectly correct. Only that you do not reject Rohit’s argument because he comes from analytical philosophy training. You simply become alert and examine his arguments more closely because of this view. The validity of his arguments remains unaffected by your judgment of Rohit. It will be revealed to you only on the basis of other criteria used to ascertain validity of his arguments.


21st December 2019


Rampant ad hominem and dogmatic warriors

December 20, 2019

Rohit Dhankar

Currently India is going thought a particularly difficult phase in its constitutional history. In the particularly vicious struggle between political ideologies, the society is in a turmoil and citizenry is getting polarised day by day. One hears every day that the very democracy is at stake. Or that secularism is in danger.

Secularism is an essential principle in a democracy. No democracy can ever be non-secular; or no non-secular state can ever be a democracy. Simply because democracy is premised on the worth of individual, freedom of individuals and wellbeing of each citizen is equally important in it. Discrimination by the state on the basis of religion of its citizens contradicts the above-mentioned principle; namely, wellbeing of each citizen is equally important.

The quality of democracy depends heavily on the quality of its citizens. “The first requisite in this connection is … the capacity for clear thinking and a receptivity to new ideas. …. which is the distinguishing mark of an educated mind. A democracy of people who can think only confusedly can neither make progress, nor even maintain itself, because it will always be open to the risk of being misled and exploited by demagogues who have within their reach today unprecedentedly powerful media of mass communication and propaganda. To be effective, a democratic citizen should have the understanding and the intellectual integrity to sift truth from falsehood, facts from propaganda and to reject the dangerous appeal of fanaticism and prejudice.”

Together with clear and independent thinking; democracy necessarily requires freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression a fair dialogue is not possible. Because rational persuasion is the only legitimate way to achieve agreement in a democracy when faced with divergent view points and conflicting interests. Without freedom of speech free and genuine dialogue is impossible, and thus rational persuasion does not get a chance.

A concerned citizen in democracy does not only speak his/her mind truly, clearly and fearlessly; but also listens to opposite views calmly, carefully and responds rationally. One who does not have a capability to listen to and understand the views of his/her opponent objectively can never be a critical and clear thinker, and his/her voluble spouting of views does not help democracy, nor saves any of the democratic values.

Usually, the people who can not listen to an argument against their views and become angry when faced with opposition have imbibed ideas without properly understanding and/or without having proper arguments to support them. They usually are aping some guru, ideologue, intellectual icon, or even vacuous celebrity. The lack of properly understood justification of their dearly and dogmatically held position makes them feel internally vulnerable when faced with well argued opposition. Since they are incapable of countering the argument, they become angry and attack the person who had committed the sin of presenting opposite idea, with arguments beyond their intellectual capability. This attack on the person, rather than countering the argument is a very wide spread logical fallacy, and is called ad hominem.

Some blatant examples of ad hominem can be as follows:

“Some people were talking. Ram and his friends believed very strongly that the earth is cuboid shaped. Krishna was surprised and said: “Well, if earth is cuboid then how come we see the mast of approaching ships from sea shore first, and the rest of the ship appears later? How come the shadow of the earth on the moon in lunar eclipse is round? It seems the earth is round in shape.”

Ram: You don’t know language. You pronounced “letter” for “later”.

Krishna: Ok. But you understood what I am saying. So, what is wrong with my argument?

Ram: And you don’t like cuboids, that’s why you are saying this.

Krishna: Fine, but what is wrong with my argument, as such?

Ram2: we have to look into your history, you also said moon is round.

Krishna: Ok, but what is wrong with my argument about the earth?

Ram3: You have a sick mind.

Krishna: Thanks. But what is wrong with what I am saying?

Ram4: Oh my God, he says earth is round. What abomination.

In the present-day CAA and NRC debate too many people are talking like this. That does not mean that there is no serious and genuine discussion going on. Yes, there is good and genuine debate as well. And that is helping the democratic processes. Layers of the issues and argumentation are being continuously unravelled.

On the other hand, people like illustrated above are also masquerading as defenders of democracy and secularism. Most such people cannot read properly, cannot understand an argument, are completely closed minded on important issues. Spout out what have listened from their masters, and think that they are doing great job. Initially, such mindless shouters were only with the Sangh Parivar. Now, both sides have such armies.

They may have imbibed some ideas, formed some beliefs which are widely appreciated in the society. But have imbibed them without rational analysis and understanding their true meaning and proper justification. Now, the views happen to be so wide spread in the society and the icons are so vehement on these ideas for their own agendas, these foot-soldiers who do not know how to argue feel virtuous and self-important in getting angry and attacking people who happen to question such them.

This brigade does not understand that in a liberal democracy defending your opponent’s freedom of expression is an important value. You allow, and even defend you opponents right to speak, and then critique it in civilised language. When we start attacking and attempting to shame people for their ideas we already have lost the ground.

Moral decisions are not about applying a principle dogmatically. There is no real moral dilemma that does not involve at the least two conflicting values in the same situation. Therefore, moral decision is about carefully arriving at a judgment regarding which value should get precedence. This is different from always following a rut. A moral judgment may demand abandoning the well-trodden path and creating a new trail.

Those who genuinely believe in democracy, secularism, freedom of speech and equality can not afford to attack people for their ideas however wrong they may be. Wrong ideas necessarily require analysis, resistance and should be discarded. But all through a civilised discussion. Those who can not criticise and discard an idea without attacking the person who expressed it, do not know even the first principle of public dialogue.


19th December 2019