Body slam!

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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.

2 thoughts on “Body slam!”

  1. 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.

    Of course, those of us who do insist that fallacies must be arguments will just regard this approach as a sign of defect in your model of fallaciousness — e.g., as a failure to distinguish properly between problematic rhetorical strategies and erroneous argumentative moves, or, for that matter, between ‘problematic’ and ‘erroneous’ in general. Historically, ‘ad baculum’ was originally a joke; it got onto real lists of fallacies due to people taking the joke literally, and they’ve been struggling to come up with a good account of why it should be there ever since. One might as well insist on the importance of argumentum ad fistulatorium for any model of fallacies.

    Even that aside, though, I’m a little puzzled at your suggestions, since either of them seem to cover only a very, very tiny slice of threat-situations; any account addressing hte issue in the post would need to be quite general, I think. Sometimes people do these things simply because they are angry or frustrated; sometimes because they think they have ethical justification for a punitive act against someone with unacceptable views; etc.

  2. Hi Brandon,

    Thanks for the comment.

    With regard to the first, many accounts of fallacies now take into account argument process issues as well as argument product issues. Your perspective seems to be on the latter. The former is also important for understanding successful arguing.

    With regard to the second point, I also disagree. I think the belief/acceptance distinction makes good sense of the (alleged) coherence of threats. The second one takes into account the idea of an onlooking audience (though I admit I didn’t say that). A number of fallacious strategies, I think, are directed at the audience rather than the interlocutor. So I’m not going to change your view with an ad baculum, but I might have success down the road.

    Last–I’m unaware of this history of the ad baculum–mind pointing to some sources?

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