Tag Archives: Ad baculum arguments

Body slam!

Image result for body slam creative commons

An interesting example of ad baculum (appeal to force) reasoning came up last night. A candidate for Congress in Montana body-slammed a reporter for asking a question about the CBO score of the AHCA.  This got me thinking about the ad baculum.

The textbook ad baculum argument is something of a puzzle. Here’s what we might call a fairly standard version:

The fallacy of appeal to force occurs whenever an arguer poses a conclusion to another person and tells that person either implicitly or explicitly that some harm will come to him or her if he or she does not accept the conclusion. (Hurley Concise Introduction to Logic 2008, p. 116).

As the text goes on to explain, the fallacy works by blinding the listener to the weakness of an argument with the threat of sanction. Other texts of this type make similar claims (see the Hurley-esque Baronett 2013 or here at the Fallacy Files).

On the other hand, some research-based approaches do not seem to include it (e.g., Groarke and Tindale Good Reasoning Matters! don’t mention it at all).  Walton, in contrast, includes a discussion of “fear or threat” arguments, though he stresses the ways they are passable (and considers the relevance question “outrageous”) (see Walton Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation 2006, p. 288).

Like Walton, I’ve long struggled with whether this is anything. You can’t force anyone to believe anything. Your forcing, or threats of forcing, will likely have the opposite effect. You will reinforce their believe or raise their suspicions. Beliefs just don’t work like this.

One common suggestion is that such moves aren’t really arguments, so they’re not really fallacies. It’s been used on me (and Scott) before to discount some one of our dialectical examples. It would go like this. My threats to punch you if you keep asking about the CBO score aren’t “argumentative” in any real sense. They’re just threats to get you to engage in some action or other. They are threats, in other words, to get you to do something (not conclude) something.

I’m loathe to give up on threats and violence as common distortions of dialectical exchanges. They happen too often, I think, for us to ignore them. If our model of fallaciousness can’t capture them, then we need to rethink it.  I have therefore two suggestions. The first is this: the aim of the ad baculum is indeed an action–the action is “accpetance.” You are going to “accept” (rather than believe) that some proposition is true. You are going to include it in your practical reasoning. If I threaten you to accept some proposition as true, then you will act as if it is. Whether you believe it in your heart of hearts is irrelevant.

The second suggestion: my threats are not aimed at your believing, they’re aimed at your doing and the believing of others. If I can get you to stop blabbing on about the CBO score, even though you think it’s important, I can shield that evidence from others and therefore control (however indirectly) their believing. You control believing, after all, in this indirect way.

Ad baculum

Rand Paul’s Refutation Method (ironically plagiarized from some website)

Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) has been accused of multiple counts of plagiarism.  The case against him seems fairly convincing.  Perhaps this is why Paul has gone ad baculum against his accusers (from the same link):

“Yes, there are times when [speeches] have been sloppy or not correct or we’ve made an error,” Paul said. “But the difference is, I take it as an insult and I will not lie down and say people can call me dishonest, misleading or misrepresenting. I have never intentionally done so.”

He continued, “And like I say, if, you know, if dueling were legal in Kentucky, if they keep it up, you know, it would be a duel challenge. But I can’t do that, because I can’t hold office in Kentucky then.”

You really don’t get much of the old ad baculum.  For the uninitiated, ad baculum, or appeal to force, occurs when one threatens violence or sanction as a means to change someone’s belief.  Nice of Paul to give us an example.

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.