(Argumentum) ad Baculum
Abuse of a position of power by enforcing an argumentative position by threatening or enforcing negative consequences instead of convincing through factual arguments.
Eat your spinach or you’ll get a beating!
- Appeal to force
- Argumentum baculinum
Origin of the name
The Latin name of this fallacy is usually translated as “argument with the stick”, which is often understood as “threat or exercise of force”. However, “baculum” can also stand for a staff of command, an insignia expressing (usually military) authority to command – it can therefore also be understood as “threat with authority”.
Although the Latin expression “argumentum ad baculum” ostensibly refers to the threat or exercise of violence, the threatening scenario must be interpreted relatively broadly to include any form of abusive exercise of power – or even the threat of it.
The following example is in fact not very different from the one above, even though it does not actually threaten violence in the strict sense:
Eat your spinach or you’ll be grounded next weekend!
Even the threat of denying (expected) positive results can fall into this category:
You are going to agree with me in the meeting with our boss, or else you can forget about your promotion!
In all these cases, a position of power (e.g. physical strength or decision-making power) is used instead of convincing factual arguments to settle a dispute in one’s own favour.
The “argumentum ad baculum” can be categorised in different ways, depending on the context and how it is carried out in detail:
If one considers the aspect that it is not an argument in itself, but against the person, this can be counted as an ad hominem-argument.
However, as the aim is not necessarily to discredit the opponent (vis-à-vis third parties), but to coerce them into agreement. For this reason, the argumentum ad baculum is listed here as a separate category under the heading Unfair Discussion Tactics.
The determining aspect of the fallaciousness of such an argument is the abuse of a position of power in order to coerce others into agreement – if the power imbalance is sufficiently recognisable, an explicit threat may not actually be needed.
Thus the superior from the above example may not really have to make the threat with consequences explicit:
You are expected to agree with me in the meeting with the boss!
Likewise the parents:
Eat your spinach now!
But even without the explicit threat, it still counts as argumentum ad baculum, since the other party is not convinced by better arguments, but rather by coercion.
Threat of violence
The threat of violence is fundamentally unjustifiable. Even less so, of course, is the actual use of it.
An exception is when one is physically attacked oneself. Then, of course, one has the right to defend oneself within the bounds of proportionality. Likewise, violence can be threatened (and also used) within the framework of law enforcement, for example by the police (see below). However, neither of these has anything to do with rhetoric.
Threat of (legitimate) consequences
The threat of negative consequences resulting from violations of generally accepted rules and laws (e.g. the threat of imprisonment for a crime) could also be seen as an “argumentum ad baculum” in the sense discussed here, but can be justified as long as these rules are not interpreted in an abusive way (e.g. to suppress unwanted opinions).
If you park here again, I’ll have to have your car towed!
This is still a threat, but not abusive, provided that there is a factual reason for making the threat real (e.g. if a emergency access road, a disabled parking or even a private parking space is blocked).
Parents can also threaten their offspring with negative consequences (from mobile phone withdrawal to house arrest) if they break the rules (and of course enforce those as well).
- Argument from Consequence