Many have probably heard Mitt Romney's line about firing people. Here it is in full (ish):
ROMNEY: I want people to be able to own insurance if they wish to, and to buy it for themselves and perhaps keep it for the rest of their life and to choose among different policies offered from companies across the nation. I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep people healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.
This has some people jumping with glee. It has others justifying (unfortunately) the context-free narrative-reinforcing interpretation, and maligning those who don't want to join in:
How did so much of the left descend into this kind of dickless navel-gazing? Because you know this is pretty typical of the tote-bag crowd. I’m glad Mike Royko isn’t alive to see all of this.
This was the response to someone's cautioning that Romney didn't mean he liked firing people while at Bain, when even by his own account he caused a lot of people to lose their jobs.
I'm (obviously) not a fan of Romney. But I don't see any value in taking his claim out of context. It lets him claim, truthfully this time, that his critics cannot be trusted. Now someone might claim, plausibly, that he will say that anyway. Nonetheless, it's still false.
Besides, there is a stronger criticism in its truthful interpretation. Romney likes, as he claims, "being able to fire people." That's a little bit like saying "I like being able to kill people in war." It's a power people have, and you might think it's good that you have it, but it's not one you ought to "like" having.
My sense is that critical thinking and informal logic classes stress the evaluation of arguments, not arguers. This is fine as a starting point, but as a long run strategy, it ignores the fact that we have very often to evaluate arguers. Someone who makes good ones, like someone who can throw good pitchers, is a good arguer; someone who makes bad ones, is a bad arguer. It's a kind of skill. The judgement about the person arguing strikes some, however, as having too much of an ad hominem character. But ad hominems are not by their very nature fallacious. They're fallacious only when the ad hominem judgement has no relevance to the truth or falsity or reliability or whatever of what a person is saying.
In light of this, consider George Will's latest attack on his favorite hollow man, "progressivism."
In 2011, for the first time in 62 years, America was a net exporter of petroleum products. For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.
and then later:
An all-purpose rationale for rationing in its many permutations has been the progressives’ preferred apocalypse, the fear of climate change. But environmentalism as the thin end of an enormous wedge of regulation and redistribution is a spent force. How many Americans noticed that the latest United Nations climate change confabulation occurred in December in Durban, South Africa?
Let's put this another way. A person who makes up phony opponents (hollow men) merely in order to knock down their imaginary arguments with demonstrable scientific falsehoods is a very sorry arguer. That's an ad hominem.
via Washington Monthly