Argumentum ad Baculum
Abstract: The argumentum
ad baculum is based upon the appeal to force or threat in order to bring
about the acceptance of a conclusion. The fallacy is explained here in both its
fallacious and its nonfallacious forms with illustrative examples.
Argumentum ad Baculum
(fear of force): the fallacy committed when one appeals to force or
the threat of force to bring about the acceptance of a conclusion.
- The ad baculum derives its strength from an appeal
to human timidity or fear and is a fallacy when the threat appeal
is not semantically or logically related to the consequential claim
In other words, rather than presenting pertinent reasons for a conclusion,
a threat of some kind is employed to induce agreement with the purported
conclusion of an argument.
- The ad baculum contains implicitly or explicitly a threat.
Behind this threat is often the belief that in the end, “Might makes
Threats, per se, however, are not fallacies because they are expressions
of behavioral intent and, in themselves, are irrelevant to the process
of forming reasons and reaching conclusions from those premises.
- Often the informal schema of the argumentum ad baculum
fallacy is structured as one of the following:
If statement p or argument a is accepted,
then logically irrelevant event x will happen.
Event x is harmful, dangerous, or threatening.
∴ Statement p is not true or argument a is not
If action A is done, then logically
irrelevant event x will happen.
Event x is harmful, dangerous, or threatening.
∴ Action A is to be rejected.
- Brief examples of ad baculum fallacies:
Chairman of the Board: “All those opposed to my arguments
for the opening of a new department, signify by saying, ‘I
The Department of Transportation needs to reconsider the
speed limit proposals on interstate highways for the simple
reason that if they do not, their departmental budget for
Department of Transportation will be cut by 25%.
“I'm sure you can support the proposal to diversify into
the fast food industry because if I receive any opposition
on this initiative, I will personally see that you are
transferred to the janitorial division of this corporation.”
Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, opposed the legislative measure of
electing representatives to Parliament by stating;
“[I]t was part of wisdom not to put such
things into their heads. The measure, if it succeeded, would
lead to new demands and open a door to innovations of which
none could calculate the extent or foresee the
“On October 10, 1971, Secretary of State William P. Rogers
cautioned foreign ministers that Congress might force the
United States reduce its financial contributions to the
United Nations if Nationalist China is expelled.”
As a logical argument, Secretary Rogers' caution is fallacious; as
a political maneuver no argument is being adduced.
- Since many threats involve emotional responses, they
can overlap with the emotional appeal of the ad populum fallacy.
The appeal to the fear of not being accepted as part of a
group can often be analyzed as either the ad baculum
or the ad populum.
- Non-fallacious examples of the ad baculum:
the appeal is relevant when the threat or the force is
directly or causally related to the conclusion.
- Greenpeace argued that the large underground nuclear tests
at Amchitka Island off Alaska in the early 1970's had possible
results of earthquakes, tsunamis, and radiation. Hence, these
environmentalists opposed testing. Here, the threat is logically connected
with the argument because of the probability of these consequences
is not decisional (or prescriptive) but causal—hence, no fallacy
For example, when environmental groups objected to the use of thermonuclear
weapons for in situ recovery of oil from the Athabasca
tar sands and
objected to the use of such explosions against ground troops, the
excavation of a new Panama canal or the development of a harbor in
on the grounds of the dangers of radioactive contamination, such implied
implied threats are relevant and causally connected to the proposed
thermonuclear explosions. Consequently, such arguments would not commit
the ad baculum fallacy.
- Threats presented simply as alternative statements are not arguments
and so are not fallacies. E.g., The statement …
“It is necessary to sleep at least eight hours or your work
would not be fallacious for two reasons:
It is unfortunate that many logic sources identify simple disjunctive
expressions such as this one as fallacious.
(1) Alternative statements are not by themselves
(2) The connection between the two statements of
the disjunction suggest a causal or decisional relation of
relevancy — not a semantic or logical relation.
- Undecidable Cases: In some controversies the relevancy
of the threat cannot be directly determined from the context of
the argument, and so the argument cannot be reliably assessed without
background research and contextual analysis in order to determine the
relevantly associated facts.
For example, are the following arguments a fallacious?
- Consider first the following argument that research on certain
types of viruses should not be published:
(1) Publication of research for the creation of
avian A/H5N1 influenza viruses with the capacity for airborne
transmission between mammals without recombination in an intermediate
host constitutes a risk for human pandemic influenza.
(2) Human pandemic influenza signifies the death
∴ Research for the creation of avian A/H5N1 influenza
viruses with the capacity for airborne transmission between mammals
without recombination in an intermediate host should not be published.
Analysis: In the summer of 2011 Dutch researchers from
the Erasmus Medical Center created an airborne H5N1 avian flu
virus and estimated the virus could kill 59% of the people it
The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity
recommended that the Research should not be published with
experimental details because of the “unusually high magnitude
of risk” of someone transforming the virus causing
“a pandemic of significant proportions.”
But many scientists thought the potential threat from terrorists creating
a deadly H5N1 virus was greatly exaggerated because the virus could
not be easily transmitted among people. So in this case the potential
benefit for public health outweighed concerns of terrorists
unleashing a pandemic and the paper was published.
Since the threat of a pandemic, whether serious or greatly exaggerated,
is directly relevant to the publication of the research, this example
argument would not be considered fallacious.
- Here is second example of an implied threat:
“China has threatened to restrict drug exports to the U.S.
following President Trump's accusation that the regime withheld
news of the [COVID-19] virus, which surfaced in Wuhan last
Analysis: This passage is a descriptive report of a threat
by China which is not logically relevant to the U.S. accusation of
withholding information which would be useful for the prevention of
future cases. So although the report of an fallacy is not a fallacy
per se. The structure of the implicit argument is
If the U.S. continues to accuse China of withholding
coronavirus information, then China will restrict drug imports to the
The U.S. continues to accuse China of withholding
∴ China will restrict drug imports to the U.S.
Note that this argument is formally valid — it is an example of
An elementary deductive argument form where if a conditional
premise is assumed true and the antecedent of the conditional is also
assumed true, then the consequent of the conditional necessarily follows
In symbolic logic, Modus Ponens
p ⊃ q
If you are deeply interested in literature, then
you will enjoy literature.
You are deeply interested in literature.
∴ You will enjoy literature.
However, the threat as presented in informal logic commits
the ad baculum fallacy, since the US accusing China of
withholding coronavirus information is not evidentially relevant to
China's restriction of drug imports. The basis of the connection of these
two events is decisional and not semantic on the part of China.
If p then q.
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