Understanding the Appeal to Force Fallacy

Understanding the rhetorical term

Understanding the appeal to force fallacy
The appeal to force fallacy uses fear to reach an illogical conclusion (Image: Gary Waters/Getty Images).

(Gary Waters/Getty Images)

The "appeal to force" fallacy is a rhetorical fallacy that relies on force or intimidation (scare tactics) to persuade an audience to accept a proposition or take a particular course of action.

Understanding the Fallacy

In Latin, the appeal to force fallacy is referred to as argumentum ad baculum, or, literally, "argument to the cudgel." It's also sometimes referred to as the "appeal to fear" fallacy. Essentially, the argument appeals to the possibility of undesired, negative consequences that are often - though not always - tied to some sort of frightening or violent outcome that listeners will wish to avoid.

In arguments that utilize this fallacy, the logic is not sound, nor is it the sole basis of the argument. Instead, there is an appeal to negative emotions and possibilities that have not been proven. Fear and logic become tied together in the argument.

The fallacy occurs when a negative consequence is assumed without definitive proof; instead, an appeal is made to the possibility of the consequence and a false or exaggerated assumption is made. This fallacious argument may be made whether or not the person making the argument truly subscribes to their own argument.

For instance, consider two factions at war. The leader of Faction A sends a message to their counterpart in Faction B, requesting a parlay to discuss the possibility of negotiating peace. During the war so far, Faction A has treated captives from Faction B reasonably well. Leader B, however, tells their second-in-command that they must not meet with Leader A because Faction A will turn around and brutally kill them all.

Here, the evidence is that Faction A conducts themselves with honor and would not break the terms of the temporary truce, but Leader B discredits this because he is afraid of being killed. Instead, he appeals to that shared fear to convince the rest of Faction B that he is correct, despite the fact that his belief and current evidence are in conflict with each other.

There is a non-fallacious variation of this argument, however. Let's say that Person X, who is a member of Group Y, lives under an oppressive regime. X knows that, if the regime discovers they are a member of Group Y, they will be put to death. X wants to live. Therefore, X will claim to not be a member of Group Y. This is not a fallacious conclusion, since it only says that X will claim to not be part of Y, not that X is not part of Y.

Examples and Observations

  • "This kind of appeal is undoubtedly persuasive in certain circumstances. The robber who threatens a person's life will probably win the argument. But there are more subtle appeals to force such as the veiled threat that one's job is on the line."
    (Winifred Bryan Horner, Rhetoric in the Classical Tradition, St. Martin's, 1988)
  • "The most obvious sort of force is the physical threat of violence or harm. The argument distracts us from a critical review and evaluation of its premises and conclusion by putting us into a defensive position. . . .
  • "But appeals to force are not always physical threats. Appeals to psychological, financial, and social harm can be no less threatening and distracting." (Jon Stratton, Critical Thinking for College Students, Rowman & Littlefield, 1999)
  • "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly-enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.
    "And if we allow that to happen, a terrible line would be crossed. Saddam Hussein would be in a position to blackmail anyone who opposes his aggression. He would be in a position to dominate the Middle East. He would be in a position to threaten America. And Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists. . . .
    "Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
    (President George W. Bush, October 8, 2002)