Apeman with bone

Appeal to Force


Alias: Argumentum ad Baculum

Translation: "Argument from the stick" (Latin)

Types:

Example:

Students stormed the stage at Columbia University's Roone auditorium yesterday, knocking over chairs and tables and attacking Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minutemen, a group that patrols the border between America and Mexico. Mr. Gilchrist and Marvin Stewart, another member of his group, were in the process of giving a speech at the invitation of the Columbia College Republicans. They were escorted off the stage unharmed and exited the auditorium by a back door. … The student protesters…booed and shouted the speakers down throughout. They interrupted Mr. Stewart…. A student's demand that Mr. Stewart speak in Spanish elicited thundering applause and brought the protesters to their feet. The protesters remained standing, turned their backs on Mr. Stewart for the remainder of his remarks, and drowned him out by chanting, "Wrap it up, wrap it up!" … On campus, the Republicans' flyers advertising the event were defaced and torn down.

Analysis of the Example

Source: Eliana Johnson, "At Columbia, Students Attack Minuteman Founder", The New York Sun, 10/5/2006

Exposition:

The name "argumentum ad baculum" alludes to the use of a stick, or club―a "baculum" was a walking-stick or staff―to beat someone. As a logical fallacy, "ad baculum" or "appeal to force" applies to the use of force and, by extension, the use of threats of force to "win" a debate.

There are two types of logical error that may be involved in appeals to force:

  1. Some appeals to force may be appeals to the consequences of a belief. What sets the appeal to force apart from other appeals to consequences is that the bad consequences appealed to―that is, the use of force―will be caused by the arguer. Attempts to change people's minds by threats of punishment are appeals to consequences, since the bad consequences appealed to are not consequences of what is believed, but of the belief itself. As such, they are irrelevant to the truth-value of the belief.

    However, because it is impossible to read a person's mind, the attempt to use force or threats to change minds is usually ineffective. Instead, threats are more commonly reasons to act, and as such can be good reasons to do so if the threat is plausible. People are sometimes intimidated into pretending to believe things that they don't, but this is not coming to believe something because of the fear of force. So, appeals to force which are appeals to consequence may fail one criterion of a logical fallacy, namely, that it be a common type of bad argument.

  2. When force or the threat of force is used to suppress the arguments of one side in a debate, that is a type of one-sidedness. Governments are always tempted to use police powers to prevent criticism of their policies, and totalitarian governments are frequently successful in doing so. Extremists use threats or actual violence to silence those who argue against them. Audience members "shout down" a debater whom they disagree with in order to prevent a case from being heard. This is, unfortunately, common enough to qualify as a logical fallacy.

    However, force or the threat of it is not an argument, which means that appealing to force is not a logical fallacy. Since hitting someone over the head with a stick is not an argument at all, a fortiori it is not a fallacious one. However, withholding relevant information can lead people into drawing false conclusions.

For these reasons, calling the appeal to force a "logical fallacy" is misleading. More accurately, it is a logical boobytrap, that is, a way of tricking someone else into reasoning incorrectly.

Source:

David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 294-296.

Resource:

John Woods, "Appeal to Force", from Fallacies: Classical and Contemporary Readings, edited by Hans V. Hanson and Robert C. Pinto (Penn State Press, 1995), pp. 240-250.


Analysis of the Example: The example is an instance of the second type of ad baculum, that is, the use of force and the threat of it to prevent the other side of a debate from being heard.


gncurtis@fallacyfiles.org