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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 and is often fallacious. The fallacy is explained 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 appeal is not logically related to the claim being made. In other words, the emotion resulting from a threat rather than a pertinent reason is used to cause agreement with the purported conclusion of the argument.

    2. The ad baculum contains implicitly or explicitly a threat. Behind this threat is often the idea that in the end, “Might makes right.” Threats, per se, however, are not fallacies because they involve behavior, not arguments.

    3. Often the informal structure of argumentum ad baculum fallacy is as follows.

If statement p is accepted or action a is done, then logically irrelevant event x will happen.

Event x is bad, dangerous, or threatening.

Statement p is true or action a should be rejected.

  1. 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.”

    The basis of an ad baculum concerns the fate of medieval philosopher and astronomer Giordano Bruno. Bruno (1548-1600) envisioned a multitude of solar systems in limitless space and believed in the astronomical hypothesis of Copernicus. The Medieval Inquisition threatened his life unless he changed his views. Bruno refused and so was burned at the stake.

    “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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 the possible results of earthquakes, tsunamis, and radiation. Hence, these environmentalists opposed testing. 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.

      For example, when environemtal groups object to the use of thermonuclear weapons for in situ recovery of oil from tar sands[1] or use against ground troops, excavation of a new Panama canal or harbor in Australia [2] on the grounds of the dangers of radioactive contamination, the implied threat is relevant and causally connected to the proposed nuclear explosions. Consequently, such arguments would not commit the ad baculum fallacy.

    2. Physical or emotional threats in the nature of directive discourse or commands are not arguments and so are not fallacies. E.g., "Study hard or your grades will fall" would not be fallacious for two reasons: (1) no argument is present, and (2) the connection between the two statements of the disjunction suggest a causal relation of relevancy. It is unfortunate that many logic sources identify a fallacy occurring in disjunctive statements like ths.

    3. Undecideable 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 facts.

      For example, are the following arguments a fallacy?

      1. Consider first the following argument:

        (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. [3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] Consequently, this example 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.”[6]
        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 a 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, China will restrict drug imports to the U.S.

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

        China will restrict drug imports to the U.S.


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

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

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

4. 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) []

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

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

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