What Is an Ad Baculum Fallacy?

An ad baculum fallacy occurs when an argument is bolstered by an appeal to force or threat, rather than logic or reason. It's a persuasive tactic that leverages power over proof, often sidestepping rational debate. Have you ever felt swayed by fear rather than facts? Join us as we examine the impact of this fallacy on discourse.
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

Of all the logical fallacies employed in verbal arguments, one of the most despised, yet common, is the appeal to fear, formally called the ad baculum fallacy. The Latin translation for ad baculum is "arguing with a staff." Using this typically fallacious debate tactic generally involves abandoning attempts to win a debate in favor of employing a fear tactic to end the argument cold. In the field of formal logic, the ad baculum fallacy usually follows a fairly formulaic approach: If A agrees to B, then C; C is bad, bad thing; adopting B is the winning approach.

The ad baculum fallacy is used to infer consequences in commonplace, or even disastrous, ways. In response to a child asserting, "It's not unhealthy if I eat just one more cookie," a parent may counter with, "Walk away, or I'm never giving you a cookie again." In response to an oppressed citizen declaring, "We aren't treated with dignity," a ruling power may respond in word and action, "Go home or suffer the consequences."

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Not every ad baculum statement is a fallacy, though. The argument could be an allusion to fear or threatened consequences that indeed will be the case if the arguer's leading statement is carried out. For instance, if a person is breaking the law, it could be said that he or she will be fined or jailed if caught. Since people do not generally like losing money or spending time in prison, it can be asserted that breaking the law is something to be avoided. This argument would be logical, but still ad baculum, since it does not attempt to address the deeper, moral and ethical considerations involved with criminal behavior.

People encounter the ad baculum fallacy in many facets of everyday life. Agnostics argue that congregants of several organized religions fall prey to the ad baculum fallacy when they commit their faith in the unknown, but only after being told of the damnation that awaits the disbelieving. Believers, by contrast, view this submission as the cornerstone of their faith in a higher power. A manager may argue that losing a job should be reason enough for dealing with a particularly unpopular facet of the workplace. A student may say, "Learning each of the 42 logical fallacies is excessive," to which the teacher may retort, "Know them all and get an A; know only some and get an F."

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