The ad baculum fallacy is a fallacy of relevance.Â 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.Â 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.Â But the ticketing is there to help motivate you when you aren’t moved by (or aware of) those justifying reasons.Â 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.Â Enter the Lake County Sheriff’s department and their new video about heroin use.Â The image is one thing: black-ops cops.Â But the message takes the whole thing further:
To the dealers that are pushing this poison, I have a message for you: Weâ€™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 todayâ€™s the day we come for you. Enjoy trying to sleep tonight, wondering if tonightâ€™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.Â 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.Â Consider:Â 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?Â No.Â Why?Â Because it seems she likes knives a little too much.
Same with these characters in the Lake County Sheriff’s office.Â They like playing scary intimidaters so much, it’s hard to imagine a good discussion of laws or police techniques with them.Â 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.Â Ad baculum is bad for argumentative culture.
Then there is the worry of what that kind of power does to a person.Â For a moment, recall what it does to my favorite cartoon id: