Category Archives: Appeal to Fear/Threat

Ad baculum cum balaklavam

The ad baculum fallacy is a fallacy of relevance.  It is of the form:

If you don’t assent to p, you’ll get a whuppin’.

You don’t want a whuppin’.

Therefore, you should assent to p.

The relevance failure is that there’s no obvious connection between the impending threatened whuppin’ and the truth of what’s assented to.

A regular error folks make about the ad baculum is that with law enforcement, the enforcement techniques are purely pragmatic reasons offered for a truth that was settled elsewhere.  So that you shouldn’t drive over 55 mph in a certain zone isn’t established by the fact that you could get a ticket for doing so; rather, that’s determined by safety considerations and what activity is in the zone.  But the ticketing is there to help motivate you when you aren’t moved by (or aware of) those justifying reasons.  So the police cruiser conspicuously sitting there with the radar gun isn’t a scare tactic in the vicious argumentative sense. It’s just a reminder.

Now, that seems right, but then there are cases where this two-lines bit of motivation seems to give too much leeway to the threat (and use) of force to enforcers.  Enter the Lake County Sheriff’s department and their new video about heroin use.  The image is one thing: black-ops cops.  But the message takes the whole thing further:

To the dealers that are pushing this poison, I have a message for you: We’re coming for you…. Our undercover agents have already bought heroin from many of you, we are simply awaiting the arrest warrants to be finalized …. Enjoy looking over your shoulder constantly wondering if today’s the day we come for you. Enjoy trying to sleep tonight, wondering if tonight’s the night our SWAT team blows your front door off the hinges.

There’s been plenty of complaint about the militarization of police forces, seeing those whom they protect and serve as a potential population with whom they must do deadly battle.

But here is where a diachronic way of looking at argumentative tropes is useful.  Ad baculum arguments aren’t fallacious just because they are irrelevant, but they are bad for us because they break down the dialectical goodwill necessary for argumentative culture.  Consider:  if you had an argument with your neighbor over a tree limb and she threatened you with a knife over it, would you go back to have a calm discussion later with her over a barking dog?  No.  Why?  Because it seems she likes knives a little too much.

Same with these characters in the Lake County Sheriff’s office.  They like playing scary intimidaters so much, it’s hard to imagine a good discussion of laws or police techniques with them.  So the way they do enforcement of decisions, even if the enforcement is independent of the argumentatively good means for it, undermines further critical exchange.  Ad baculum is bad for argumentative culture.

Then there is the worry of what that kind of power does to a person.  For a moment, recall what it does to my favorite cartoon id:


Who loves the ad baculum?

Mallard Fillmore, that’s who.


Well, I should say, actually: Who loves to attribute the ad baculum?  This seems a very strange sort piece of communication, one that were it actually true or believed to be true, wouldn’t actually be performed in this fashion.  That is, if Bruce Tinsley really believed that the President would bomb him for opposing his agenda or other democrats or for thinking that Nancy Pelosi isn’t attractive (WHUH?), he’d order a drone strike.  Or would be willing to threaten one… would Tinsley write a version of this cartoon?  Surely not.  So what’s this cartoon actually communicating?

Those who don’t know anything love the…

Ignoratio.  Charles Cooper, arguing yesterday to defend California’s Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court, embraced the old strategy of invoking unknown harms to come from allowing gay marriage. [Transcript HERE] Justice Kagan asks Cooper if allowing same-sex marriage hinders state interests. Cooper responds:

]Your Honor, we — we go further in — in the sense that it is reasonable to be very concerned that redefining marriage to — as a genderless institution could well lead over time to harms to that institution and to the interests that society has always — has — has always used that institution to address.

Kagan then asks Cooper to clarify.  She asks:

What harm you see happening and when and how and — what — what harm to the institution of marriage or to opposite-sex couples, how does this cause and effect work?

And then Justice Kennedy jumps in to encourage Cooper to concede that there are no actual harms done:

Well, then are — are you conceding the point that there is no harm or denigration to traditional opposite-sex marriage couples? So you’re conceding that.

But Cooper won’t back down.  Just because he can’t name any harms or articulate how allowing gay marriage would cause heterosexuals not to marry, or have kids, or raise them right… won’t prevent him from saying bad things will happen.

The first one is this: expert acknowledged that redefining real-world consequences, and that it is impossible for anyone to foresee the future accurately enough to know exactly what those real-world consequences would be. And among those real-world consequences, Your Honor, we would suggest are adverse consequences.

But consider the California voter, in 2008, in the ballot booth, with the question before her whether or not this age-old bedrock social institution should be fundamentally redefined, and knowing that there’s no way that she or anyone else could possibly know what the long-term implications of — of profound redefinition of a bedrock social institution would be. That is reason enough, Your Honor, that would hardly be irrational for that voter to say, I believe that this experiment, which is now only fairly four years old, even in Massachusetts, the oldest State that is conducting it, to say, I think it better for California to hit the pause button and await additional information from the jurisdictions where this experiment is still maturing.

First, a rule about properly run ignoratio.  The argument from ignorance runs that because we don’t have evidence that p, not-p follows.  There are two related conditions for using the form appropriately.  In one case, it’s right when the principle that were p true, we’d already have clear evidence for it is true.  For some things, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.  The second condition is when those arguing for p have the burden of proof — that is when p’s being false clearly yields worse consequences from not-p being false.  So when there are known harms to come from one error (taking p to be true when it is in fact false) but none clearly coming from another (taking p to be false when it is true), p has the burden of proof.

Now, take the SCOTUS case here.  Who has the burden of proof?  It seems, given the way the case is being handled, that the question is whether  Proposition 8 denies rights to a group of people.  If it does, then people have their rights stripped from them if the court strikes down the prior rulings holding it unconstitutional.  If it doesn’t, then if the court upholds the prior rulings, then rights have been extended in a case where it’s not necessary.  Those are the two errors possible.   Which is worse?  The former.  Waving one’s hand and trying to imagine worse consequences doesn’t change that.

Enough about fallacies to close.  Now a moment about moral reasoning.  And conservatism.  I simply abhor the way the conservatives argue about gay marriage.  John’s last post shows the deep mendacity of the movement, and this moment in front of the court is another case of the moral cowardice shown by those against marriage equality.  Since when do conservatives think that sacrificing the rights of a few to protect the bounty of the many is really acceptable?

The beatings will continue

Speaking of those who don't get first principles, the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus approvingly cited Avicenna's riff on Aristotle: such people ought to be beaten or exposed to fire until such time that they admit that being beaten or burned are not the same as not being beaten or not being burned. 

Jonah Goldberg has something similar in mind for today's youth.  Only on his view, such a view wouldn't illustrate merely the ridiculousness of denying first principles, but would disabuse the youth other, less obvious, though in his mind equally wrong-headed ideas.*

GOLDBERG: Personally, I think the voting age should be much, higher, not lower. I think it was a mistake to lower it to 18, to be brutally honest….[I]t is a simple fact of science that nothing correlates more with ignorance and stupidity than youth. We’re all born idiots, and we only get over that condition as we get less young. And yet there’s this thing in this culture where, ‘Oh, young people are for it so it must be special.’ No, the reason young people are for it because they don’t know better. That’s why we call them young people. […]

The fact that young people think socialism is better than capitalism. That’s proof of what social scientists call their stupidity and their ignorance. And that’s something that conservatives have to beat out of them. Either literally or figuratively as far as I’m concerned.

Pathetic.  The ad baculum at work here basically functions the same way Godwin's law does: when you invoke violence of this type, you admit to not having any understanding of what an argument is.  I suppose the only way to solve that is to beat the concept of rational discourse into you.

via Crooks and Liars.

*edit for clarity.

Identity Theft

Chicago's Cardinal Francis George is not the master of analogies by any stretch. Recently, when a persecuted minority wanted to walk by one his churches on a Sunday, they were "Nazis."  Now, if someone requires that Health Insurers Provide a certain standard of care regardless of the religious affiliation of the insured employee, it's "identity theft."

Sadly, this remark seems to have followed upon the following (from the Chicago Tribune story):

"The difficulty of public discussion … is that the political is the highest level of public discourse," George said. "Therefore, the primary categories of discussion and mutual understanding are liberal and conservative. But they're not evangelical, Catholic or gospel categories. The categories that count in the Gospel are true and false. The bishops try to be people of God. And those are the first questions we ask is: 'Is it true or false?' Political terms are not adequate to discuss it."

The Cardinal recognizes the seriousness of his words, so this must mean he is just terrible at reasoning.  Let's say we change the terms somewhat, and insist that a Jehovah's Witness who runs a hospital or university must, through a private insurer, provide coverage for blood transfusions.  Yes, it's against their religion, alright.  For them.  But you just work for them.  You are the janitor in Kingdom Hall, or you're their accountant.  Unlucky you.  I guess. How dare you steal their identity by wanting blood transfusions during surgery.

But we're talking about contraception for women.  Not in the Tribune article, but in the local CBS story, was the Cardinal's very respectful and truth oriented threat: if some women can get the pill, the three percent of Catholics who actually care about this stuff will be forced to take their ball and go home.

“In order to do anything publicly, we’re going to have to cloak it in some kind of explicit religious circumstance that would not make it possible to run big universities and large hospitals as we’ve run them before,” George said.

The cardinal told members of the Union League Club downtown that the Church may otherwise sell its hospitals, pay penalties, or in a last resort, close them altogether, rather than offer birth control. George says offering birth control would be cooperating with evil.

The ad baculum, the appeal to force–that's what the Cardinal thinks the highest level of public discourse is.

Freedom, strings attached

Pat Buchanan has concerns about the democracy movement, especially in the Arab world:

For it may fairly be said of this generation that it worships democracy. Indeed, the fanaticism of this faith in democracy as the path to worldly salvation causes many to hail any and all revolutions against any and all autocrats. . . . Before we endorse the right of all peoples to have what they want, perhaps we should know what they want. For in the Mideast, it appears that most would like to throw us out and throw our Israeli friends into the sea.

But is the democracy movement about giving people what they want?  I thought it was about self-rule.  That doesn't mean that they get what they want, but that they are in charge of their own political lives.  And so endorsing democratic movements in the Arab world may give a stage to the Anti-Americans and Anti-Israel crowd.  But that doesn't mean that they get to have what they want.  That just means that these folks also have a say in how their country functions.  Moreover, isn't one of the thoughts about democratization that once you get the factions working on the hard business of governing, they lose their bloodlust.  They may squabble, but they become less marginalized.  Governing in a democracy should have a moderating effect.  I'm not familiar with any evidence that shows that (or otherwise, either), but regardless of whether it's right, Buchanan's point is moot.  If people deserve political autonomy, then they deserve it and the right to make bad decisions with it.  In fact, if that right didn't have the option for making bad decisions (ie.g.., if you were about to make the wrong one and then everything shuts down), it doesn't really count as a right, does it?

Scare quoque

Mallard Fillmore's recent take on the President's rhetorical strategies:

This is an argument about arguments — namely, that scare tactics are bad, but it's worse to be a hypocrite about using them.  So the score tally goes:  Republicans -1 for using scare tactics, Obama +1 for chastising them for using the tactic.  Obama -1 for using scare tactics, and -1 for being a hypocrite about using them.  (And +1 for Fillmore for pointing out the scare tactic, and +1 for pointing out the hypocrisy.)

Now, a question.  Surely arguing that policy X will have bad consequences (or not following policy X will have the bad consequences) appeals to people's fears, but (a) so long as those things are bad and worth fearing, and (b) X is a crucial element in either avoiding or bringing about those consequences, aren't arguments from fear also good arguments from prudence?  The scare tactic is not composed of simply pointing out that something bad will happen if we don't do something — it's comprised in shutting down discussion about what is the best way to avoid the bad consequences.  Take for example the insurance salesman who says something like: people your age often can get sick and die with no warning — that's why you need St. Bartholomew Insurance to take care of your family if that happens.  The fact of the sudden death may mean that you should get insurance, but it certainly doesn't mean that you should get St. Bartholomew Ins.  We don't get why the Republicans or Obama are using scare tactics here, but it is a real question for us when we're being scared to accept a conclusion that doesn't follow.

Scare tactic escalations

Bill O'Reilly uses the two wrongs approach to argumentative moves: if they use this tactic, you use it right back on them.

Right now, Democrats are scaring senior citizens into believing their present benefits will be cut if Obama and the Democrats lose. In order to counter that fiction, the GOP must scare right back. If America's debt is not arrested, the country will decline rapidly and in drastic ways.

Too bad the tactics weren't, instead, use clear and honest argument.

The ironing

So many interesting things happened while I was away.  Here's one (via TPM).

First, William Cronon, a professor of history at UW Madison, started a blog and  wrote an op-ed critical of the Wisconsin governor's drive to end collective bargaining for state employees.  He drew the following interesting analogy:

Perhaps that is why — as a centrist and a lifelong independent — I have found myself returning over the past few weeks to the question posed by the lawyer Joseph N. Welch during the hearings that finally helped bring down another Wisconsin Republican, Joe McCarthy, in 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him.

The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.

That is an interesting analogy, in part because, just two days after Prof. Cronon started his blog, a defender of Walker's filed the following request:

From: Stephan Thompson []
Sent: Thursday, March 17, 2011 2:37 PM
To: Dowling, John
Subject: Open Records Request

Dear Mr. Dowling,

Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:

Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.

I guess Stephan Thompson has never heard of irony, Joe McCarthy, or the argumentum ad baculum. 

You can read Professor Thompson's reply here.  And this from the Daily Show is hilarious.

*on the title of the post.

An appeal to the force

Whilst discussing the concept of the argumentum ad baculum the other day in Critical Thinking class, it occured to me that this scene from Star Wars might be an interesting example, in its fallacious and non fallacious varieties:

TARKIN: The regional governors now have direct control over
territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this
battle station.

TAGGE: And what of the Rebellion? If the Rebels have obtained a
complete technical readout of this station, it is possible, however
unlikely, that they might find a weakness and exploit it.

VADER: The plans you refer to will soon be back in our hands.

MOTTI: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a
useless gesture, no matter what technical data they've obtained. This
station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use

VADER: Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've
constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to
the power of the Force.

MOTTI: Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader.
Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure
up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the
Rebel's hidden fort…

Suddenly Motti chokes and starts to turn blue under Vader's

VADER: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

TARKIN: Enough of this! Vader, release him!

VADER: As you wish.

Script here.  Video here.

There seem to be a number of arguments on the table here. 

Tarkin (the guy who looks like Vincent Price) first suggests the Empire ought to rule by fear and force, using the Death Star.  This is not a fallacious appeal to force, as he simply advocates violent coercion. 

Tagge worries that such force will be inadequate, since it is force, it can be defeated on its own terms, or that machines have inherent limitations which can be exploited by force (a well placed shot, for instance, at a weak point).  He doesn't seem to advocate diplomacy and rational persuasion, however, though perhaps one might infer something like this from what he said. 

Motti (the guy who gets choked) agrees with Vincent Price and advocates the use of force with the qualification that it is totally awesome and ought to be used now. 

But Vader says force is nothing compared to THE Force. 

Here is where it gets odd.  Motti gets into a scrum with Vader over which force to use–force or The Force.  What is hilarious is that neither thinks he shouldn't be using force broadly construed.  Funnier still is that the argument over which sense of force to be used is resolved by force (broadly costrued again).  Here it is:

Motti criticizes Vader for his "sorcerer's ways" and for his religious devotion to the Force–arguing:

1.  The Death Star is the ultimate power in the universe and ought to be used against the rebels;

2.  Not even a complete technical readout of the Death Star can defeat it;

But Vader rebuts him, arguing:

3.  ad 1 and 2.  The planet pulverizing power of the Death Star does not compare to The Force.

Motti replies:

4.  A truly useful "force" would also be able to (1) locate the rebels; and (2) recover the stolen tapes.

5.  Point 3 is therefore false.

Vader replies:

6.  Choking Motti, saying "your lack of faith is disturbing." 

Here's the question.  Has Vader countered Motti by choking him?  Or is his use of the force a fallacious appeal to force?  It seems on one reading that Vader doesn't rebut Motti's points by choking him (that could be a sorcerer's trick, after all), so it is an irrelevant and therefore fallacious appeal to force. 

On the other hand, perhaps Vader is demonstrating the reality of the force in its use–as if to say, "if the force weren't real, I couldn't choke you from a distance."  But if that were true, then why would Vader say this:

"I find your lack of faith disturbing." 

At that point, the choking I mean, it's not a question of faith anymore.  Unless by "faith" Vader means a trust in his (Vader's) skills at locating lost plans, etc.  If that's the case, however, I'm not sure how distance-choking makes Vader's point. 

I'm inclined at this point to think that Vader has made a fallacious appeal to force–but I might change my mind if some one of you readers can distance-choke me.