Here we discuss the appeal to force, just for the sake of annoying pedantry, the argument from the cudgel, or the ad baculum fallacy. It’s an informal, language-derived argument, often an irrelevant appeal, to compel compliance or even merely seeming agreement with a claim using force or its threat, whether physical, psychological, or legal.
It may be thought of as a subset of the argument from final consequences, and in a simple and slightly vulgar formulation basically amounts to:
Agree with me and do as I say, or I’ll kick your f**king *ss!
Or a bit less crudely,
Agree that I’m right because I’m badder and meaner than you are and I can light you up!
Do as I say, not as I do …or else!
That last might also double as an argument from authority, both it and the ad baculum being not-so-subtle forms of mere bullying.
It’s a fallacy when the threat implied or expressed used has no valid relation to the claim. It aims to exploit a demand for submission to authority or fear to substitute for good argument.
This is probably apocryphal, but there’s a classic example I’ve seen in one of my Great Courses lectures, of something attributed to Hitler, on hearing the then Pope’s displeasure with his policies, in which he allegedly said:
…and how many tanks does the Pope have?
Not exactly a rhetorical question.
But that nicely illustrates the use of this argument in exploiting the idea that “might makes right.”
Another example of this is Pascal’s wager, with its choice, actually a false dichotomy, of theistic belief while supposedly losing nothing and maybe winning everything, or non-belief and the supposed risk if “wrong,” whatever that means. There are many unstated assumptions going into the wager, all without independent support, which if not presupposed undermine Pascal’s case, but I won’t deal with that here.
An ad baculum argument can have valid applications, as when the threat made directly relates to the claims and not just to overthrow discussion by substituting intimidation or fear for real justification of a claim.
There are those criminal penalties imposed as punishment in various legal systems. This includes crimes like theft, fraud, murder, and treason, with such penalties as narfling the Garthok, or maybe being consigned to Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor pit for making awful movie references on this blog.
If you read the forbidden (and completely made-up) haiku collection “Reflections on Infinity,” horrible and nasty critters (equally fictitious) from the Outer Void (as made-up as the first two) will show up and slowly eat your brain. Attracting the attention of such horrors can be horrific, worse than death, as madness comes while they eat your brain. To best avoid this unpleasant fate, you must not read “Reflections on Infinity.”
Okay, so that was a little over the top.
With many arguments, sometimes using fallacies or not, valid or invalid use depends on context. Its use for furthering rational discussion is valid, while it’s invalid when committed to squelch the same.
Most such fallacies are not simple and easy matters of argument structure. They depend on meaning bound up in language, meaning that we give them through usage, not timeless definitions, and not merely decorative filler for structure as with formal logic.
Content matters. With informal arguments, content and meaning are structure.
One final note as well: an argument may be formally valid in terms of structure, yet also invalid, committing an informal fallacy, or several informal fallacies, in the very same statement.
So we must examine our assumptions going into an argument, and our reasoning to our conclusions on two fronts, both formal and informal.
And that, I think, goes a bit further to making us better, smarter thinkers, and more skillful with our reasoning as a means of self-defense for the mind in a post-truth world.
Tf. Tk. Tts.