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Appeal to Force/Fear (Argumentum ad Baculum)

Appeals to Emotion and Desire

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Fallacy Name:
Appeal to Force

Alternative Names:
argumentum ad baculum

Appeal to Emotion

The Latin term "argumentum ad baculum" literally means "argument to the stick" - this fallacy makes an implict or explicit threat of physical or psychological violence against others if they refuse to accept the conclusions offered. You can think of it as having this form:

1. Some threat of violence is made or implied. Therefore, conclusion C should be accepted.

It would be highly unusual for such a threat to be logically relevant to the conclusion, or for the truth-value of a conclusion to be made any more likely by such threats. It is more common to hear such a fallacy from children, for example when one says "If you don't agree that this show is the best, I'll hit you!" Unfortunately, this fallacy is not limited to children.

Examples and Discussion:
Here are some ways in which we sometimes see the appeal to force used in arguments:

2. You should believe God exists because, if you don't, when you die you will be judged and God will send you to Hell for all of eternity. You don't want to be tortured in Hell, do you? If not, it is a safer bet to believe in God than to not believe.

This is a simplified form of Pascal's Wager, an argument often heard from some Christians. A god is not made any more likely to exist simply because someone says that if we don't believe in it, then we will be harmed in the end. Similarly, belief in a god is not made any more rational simply because we are afraid of going to some hell. By appealing to our fear of pain and our desire to avoid suffering, the above argument is committing a Fallacy of Relevance.

Sometimes, the threats can be more subtle, as in this example:

3. We need a strong military in order to deter our enemies. If you don't support this new spending bill to develop better airplanes, our enemies will think we are weak and, at some point, will attack us - killing millions. Do you want to be responsible for the deaths of millions, Senator?

Here, the person doing the arguing is not making a direct physical threat. Instead, they are bringing psychological pressure to bear by suggesting that if the Senator does not vote for the proposed spending bill, s/he will be responsible for other deaths.

Unfortunately, no evidence is offered that such a possibility is really a credible threat. Because of this, there is no connection between the premise about "our enemies" and the conclusion that the proposed bill really is in the country's best interests. We can also see the emotional appeal being used - no one wants to be responsible for the deaths of millions of fellow citizens.

A distinction should be made, however, between rational reasons and prudential reasons. No fallacy, the Appeal to Force included, can give rational reasons to believe a conclusion. This one, however, might give prudential reasons for action. If the threat is credible and bad enough, it might provide reason to act as if you believed it.

Other Appeals to Emotion

Appeal to Poverty / Appeal to Money
Appeal to Novelty / Appeal to Age
Appeal to Force / Fear (Argumentum ad Baculum)
Appeal to Pity (Argumentum ad Misercordiam)
Appeal to Flattery


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