Appeal to Force/Fear or Argumentum ad Baculum

Appeals to Emotion and Desire

Creative differences can make tempers flare in any office
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The Latin term argumentum ad baculum means "argument to the stick." This fallacy occurs whenever a person makes an implicit or explicit threat of physical or psychological violence against others if they refuse to accept the conclusions offered. It can also occur whenever it's claimed that accepting a conclusion or idea will lead to disaster, ruin, or harm.

You can think of the argumentum ad baculum as having this form:

  • Some threat of violence is made or implied. Therefore, the conclusion should be accepted.

It would be very unusual for such a threat to be logically relevant to the conclusion or for the truth-value of a conclusion to be made any more likely by such threats. A distinction should be made, of course, between rational reasons and prudential reasons. No fallacy, the Appeal to Force included, can give rational reasons to believe a conclusion. This one, however, might give prudential reasons for action. If the threat is credible and bad enough, it might provide a reason to act as if you believed it.

It is more common to hear such a fallacy in children, for example when one says "If you don't agree that this show is the best, I'll hit you!" Unfortunately, this fallacy isn't limited to children.

Examples and Discussion of the Appeal to Force

Here are some ways in which we sometimes see the appeal to force used in arguments:

  • You should believe God exists because, if you don't, when you die you will be judged and God will send you to Hell for all of eternity. You don't want to be tortured in Hell, do you? If not, it is a safer bet to believe in God than to not believe.

This is a simplified form of Pascal's Wager, an argument often heard from some Christians. A god is not made any more likely to exist simply because someone says that if we don't believe in it, then we will be harmed in the end. Similarly, belief in a god is not made any more rational simply because we are afraid of going to some hell. By appealing to our fear of pain and our desire to avoid suffering, the above argument is committing a Fallacy of Relevance.

Sometimes, the threats can be more subtle, as in this example:

  • We need a strong military in order to deter our enemies. If you don't support this new spending bill to develop better airplanes, our enemies will think we are weak and, at some point, will attack us - killing millions. Do you want to be responsible for the deaths of millions, Senator?

Here, the person doing the arguing isn't making a direct physical threat. Instead, they are bringing psychological pressure to bear by suggesting that if the Senator does not vote for the proposed spending bill, s/he will be responsible for other deaths later on.

Unfortunately, no evidence is offered that such a possibility is a credible threat. Because of this, there is no clear connection between the premise about "our enemies" and the conclusion that the proposed bill is in the country's best interests. We can also see the emotional appeal being used - no one wants to be responsible for the deaths of millions of fellow citizens.

The Appeal to Force fallacy can also occur in cases where no actual physical violence is offered, but instead, just threats to one's well being. Patrick J. Hurley uses this example in his book A Concise Introduction to Logic:

  • Secretary to boss: I deserve a raise in salary for the coming year. After all, you know how friendly I am with your wife, and I'm sure you wouldn't want her to find out what's been going on between you and that sexpot client of yours.

It doesn't matter here whether anything inappropriate has been going on between the boss and the client. What matters is that the boss is being threatened - not with physical violence like being hit, but rather with his marriage and other personal relationships being destabilized if not destroyed.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Appeal to Force/Fear or Argumentum ad Baculum." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Appeal to Force/Fear or Argumentum ad Baculum. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Appeal to Force/Fear or Argumentum ad Baculum." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).