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What Is an Ad Baculum Fallacy?

Dan Harkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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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."

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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Dan Harkins
By Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his journalism degree, he spent more than two decades honing his craft as a writer and editor for various publications. Dan’s debut novel showcases his storytelling skills and unique perspective by drawing readers into the story’s captivating narrative.
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Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his...
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