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“Mulberry Ring” Thomas Nast, Library of Congress, P & P Online, LC-USZ62-85436

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.

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  1. 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.

    1. 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 being made.

      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.

    2. The ad baculum contains implicitly or explicitly a threat. Behind this threat is often the belief that in the end, “Might makes right.”

      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.

    3. 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 sound.

      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.

  2. 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 resign.’”

    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.”

    Edwin 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 consequences.”[1]

    “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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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 occurs.

      Detail from “Alberta's Oilsands Trade-Off,” Gillian Steward, _Toronto_Star_ August 29, 2015 For example, when environmental groups objected to the use of thermonuclear weapons for in situ recovery of oil from the Athabasca tar sands [2] 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 Australia [3] 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.

    2. 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 will suffer”
      would not be fallacious for two reasons:

      (1) Alternative statements are not by themselves arguments.

      (2) The connection between the two statements of the disjunction suggest a causal or decisional relation of relevancy — not a semantic or logical relation.

      It is unfortunate that many logic sources identify simple disjunctive expressions such as this one as fallacious.

    3. 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?

      1. 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 of millions.

        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 infects. [4]

        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.”[5]

        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.[6]

        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.

      2. 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 December.”[7]

        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 as follows:

        If the U.S. continues to accuse China of withholding coronavirus information, then China will restrict drug imports to the U.S.

        The U.S. continues to accuse China of withholding coronavirus information.

        China will restrict drug imports to the U.S.

        Note that this argument is formally valid — it is an example of modus ponens:

        If p then q.


        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.


1. David Lee Child, “A Pocket Piece,” The Liberty Bell ed. Maria Weston Chapman (Boston: Andrews and Prentiss, 1847), 284.

2. Education Foundation for Nuclear Science, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Vol. 28 (Chicago: Atomic Scientists of Chicago, 1972), 36.

3. Janet Raloff, "Plumbing the Archives," Science News 181 No. 6 (March 24, 2012), 21.

4. Tina Hesman Saey, "Designer Flu," Science News 181 No. 11 (June 2, 2012), 21.

5. Paul Keim, "Session 3: Public Health and Bioethics," as the "H5N1 Research: Biosafety, Biosecurity and Bioethics," Meeting of Royal Society et al. (April 3–4, 2012) []

6. C. Sander Herfst, et al. "Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets," Science 336 No. 6088 (June 22, 2012), 1534-1541.

7. Cal Thomas, “A Lesson from Coronavirus,” Index-Journal 102 no. 8 (March 26, 2020), 7A.

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