Tag Archives: argumentum ad baculum

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?

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.

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 [mailto:SThompson@wisgop.org]
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.