Consider this recent blog post by Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker (Jan. 6, 2014), “Polar Vortex Causes Hundreds of Injuries as People Making Snide Remarks About Climate Change Are Punched in Face.” Ask yourself whether it is an example of argumentum ad baculum.

MINNEAPOLIS (The Borowitz Report)—The so-called polar vortex caused hundreds of injuries across the Midwest today, as people who said “so much for global warming” and similar comments were punched in the face.

Authorities in several states said that residents who had made ignorant comments erroneously citing the brutally cold temperatures as proof that climate change did not exist were reporting a sharp increase in injuries to the face and head regions.

In an emergency room in St. Paul, Harland Dorrinson, forty-one, was waiting to be treated for bruising to the facial area after he made a crack about how the below-freezing temperatures meant that climate-change activists were full of shit.

“I’d just finished saying it and boom, out of nowhere someone punched me in the face,” he said. “This polar vortex is really dangerous.”

The meteorology professor Davis Logsdon, of the University of Minnesota, issued a safety warning to residents of the states hammered by the historic low temperatures: “If you are living within the range of the polar vortex and you have something idiotic to say about climate change, do not leave your house.”

The article seems to imply “if you challenge climate change, you’ll be sorry.” In other words, the climate change skeptic is considering casting doubt on the standpoint adopted by climate change believers, and the climate change believer is preventing the articulation of those doubts by threatening physical reprisal.

This fits nicely with the approach to fallacies of reasoning advocated by Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, which includes a set of ten rules governing critical discussion. A fallacy is a dialectical fallacy when a party to a critical discussion breaks one of the rules. Rule #1 is that “parties must not prevent each other from advancing or casting doubt on standpoints.” Breaches of Rule #1 are alleged to subsume several of the traditional fallacies of relevance, including argumentum ad baculum (appeal to force). As appealing as this is, there are some issues with it:

  • Can we can presume that a critical discussion is represented in the above example? Is the condition for the applicability of the Rules met?
  • Do we necessarily need an argument to prevent someone from advancing or casting doubt of standpoints?
  • If we don’t necessarily need an argument, how does the concept of “fallacy” apply? What is the connection between dialectical and logical fallacies (i.e., fallacies of argumentation)?

Setting these difficulties aside for now, perhaps there is another way to establish whether this article exemplifies the fallacy of argumentum ad baculum. If so, we first need to ask whether all appeals to force are indeed arguments. For those that are arguments, we need to ask whether all such arguments are indeed fallacious.

Is There An Argument?

A common understanding of ad baculum arguments is that they preempt rational argumentation by substituting for it an implicit threat of physical force. But if a fist is not an argument, how can ad baculum “arguments” be arguments?

For an instance of ad baculum to be called an argument at all, it is necessarily subject to rational reconstruction as if it were a sequence of carefully articulated propositions culminating in a conclusion.  The difficulty with such reconstructions is that the rhetorical power of an ad baculum argument comes from what is merely implicit. Ad baculum thrives on the veiled threat, the menacing innuendo, the creation of a state of fear. Nevertheless, if there is an argument present, we need to be able to capture its structure.  Normally when doing a textual reconstruction, we recast an article into a premise-conclusion structure while retaining maximal fidelity to the original text. So doing minimizes the opportunity to distort the author’s intended meaning.

As Chris Tindale remarks, “appeals to force or fear fall under the umbrella of arguments from Negative Consequence, in which people are moved by considerations of unpleasant or undesirable outcomes.” (Fallacies and Argument Appraisal, 109). This has two noteworthy implications.

First, if we take “moved” literally here, someone advancing an ad baculum argument does not much care about the cognitive state of the recipient, i.e., whether he believes something or regards some proposition as true or false. Someone advancing an ad baculum argument cares only about coercing the desired behavior on the part of the recipient. So ad baculum arguments are not alethic but pragmatic or prudential in character. (cf. John Woods, “Appeal to Force” in H. Hansen and R. Pinto (eds.) Fallacies, 248.)

Second, there is nothing obviously fallacious about articulating the likelihood of negative consequences as such. Suppose I’m a passenger in a car, and I say to the driver, “if you keep driving like a maniac on these icy roads, you’re going to get us both killed!” There is an implicit threat to be sure; I am counting on fear of a negative consequence becoming more salient by pointing out a risk. But there is no threat of force on my part – the threat is not coming from me, as would be the case in a straightforward appeal to force. In an ad baculum argument, the key element is setting up a threat of coercion sufficiently plausible as to get the recipient of the threat to change his or her course of action.

If there are any arguments deserving the name argumentum ad baculum, then it should be possible to represent such arguments in a general way as instantiations of an argumentation scheme, perhaps along these lines:

(a) If person X performs action A, then X can expect to be coerced by person Y.
(b) Person X desires to avoid coercion by Y.
(c) Therefore, person X should not perform action A.

Using this argumentation scheme provides the framework for reconstructing the argument implicit in The New Yorker article. One way of doing so might be this:

(a) If someone asserts their doubts about climate change based on the polar vortex, then they should expect to be punched in the face (and rightly so).
(b) People desire to avoid being punched in the face.
(c) Therefore, people should not assert their doubts about climate change based on the polar vortex.

At first glance, the argument seems like a tenable practical syllogism, with an uncanny resemblance to modus tollens. If fallacies are deficiencies of logical structure, there isn’t a lot to complain about here.

But that just sweeps the question of the fallaciousness of the argumentation under the carpet. If we are going to make headway on the question at hand, we will need a different approach, one sensitive to context. For current purposes, I’m going to suggest that fallacies are faulty instantiations of argumentation schemes. We already have an argumentation scheme in place, so the next order of business is to state what critical questions need to be answered in order to render a verdict of fallaciousness.

Critical Questions for Ad Baculum

Is the Threat Serious?

The first critical question is “Has an appeal to force been made in a serious vein?”

By “serious” I mean “not a joke.” Perhaps this The New Yorker piece was originally intended for theonion.com, and we weren’t supposed to take it – or its argument – seriously. So this blog post is an exercise in humorless pedantry!  On the contrary: if this was supposed to be a joke, it wasn’t a good one. Implied threats of physical force don’t belong in jokes, especially those appearing on the website of a supposedly serious publication.

So let’s look at a real (albeit geeky) joke:

All pizza is food.
All beer is food.
Therefore, all beer is pizza.

This is a humorous example showing the obvious invalidity of syllogisms in which the middle term is undistributed.  This “argument” has no rhetorical intent in the sense that there is no serious attempt to argue for “all beer is pizza.”

If a speech act really is an argument, there is a presumption of rhetorical intent. Arguments are, by their nature, speech acts that are intended to elicit changes in belief or behavior by means of exploiting the available means of persuasion in a given case. If the intent of a speech act is something different, e.g., to elicit laugher, it is difficult to maintain that the speech act has sufficient rhetorical intent to be considered argumentation. (It might enhance the likeability of the speaker, which can have rhetorical benefits, but that is a separate issue.)

The intent of the “argument” is to show by means of humor that arguments with this particular logical structure don’t work — that is the conclusion, not “all beer is pizza.” In effect, this “argument” is a premise in a meta-argument about logical structure. On its own, it is not an example of serious argumentation. If a speech act is not intended as argumentation, then the question whether the argumentation is fallacious or not simply does not apply. (I am not saying that the “fallacy of the undistributed middle” is not a really a fallacy after all. I am saying that not all instantiations of this formal fallacy in natural language count as serious attempts at argumentation – at reasoning – and therefore the question of whether the actual argument is fallacious is spurious.)

Similarly, we can ask, for any appeal to force, whether it should be taken seriously as argumentation.

We should note that not all non-serious appeals to force are jokes; there are figurative threats too. Suppose a (misguided) parent says to a child: “Come here! I’m going to kill you when you get here!” We can safely suppose that “kill” should be taken figuratively; perhaps “spank” better captures the parent’s actual intent. At any rate, figurative threats should not be taken seriously as ingredients of argumentation.

Is the Threat Compelling?

The second critical question asks: “Is the threat likely to be perceived by a prudent recipient in such as way as to compel the intended behavior?”

As I mentioned earlier, in an ad baculum argument, the key element is setting up a threat of coercion sufficiently plausible as to get the recipient of the threat to change his or her course of action. The expression of a threat needs to hit a certain “sweet spot”: not too mild, not too severe. In other words, both the “non-threatening threat” and the “empty threat” are unlikely to motivate a prudent recipient.

Non-Threatening Threats

If the degree of physical force threatened is insufficient to compel a prudent person, the threat is “non-threatening.” It is inadequate to coerce the person to whom the threat is made. If the threat is a mere slap on the cheek, the appeal to force doesn’t constitute a serious enough threat that the target would reasonably be expected to change their behavior in response.

Empty Threats

Similarly, if the threat represents “overkill,” it suggests that the perpetrator would not have the means to make good on it. Invoking whatever might be “the nuclear option” in a given scenario undermines how compelling the perpetrator’s threat seems.

In short, for a threat to be compelling, it has to be:

  • something that the perpetrator has the means to follow through on
  • something that would constitute real harm to the target of the threat
  • perceived as harmful by the target

Is the Appeal to Force Unjustified?

We have established two requirements of a rhetorically effective ad baculum argument, i.e., that (a) the threat be intended seriously and (b) the threat would be compelling to the prudent recipient. Next, we can consider the third critical question, i.e., “is the appeal to force unjustified?”

An appeal to force might take place in a context in which such appeals could be morally or legally justified. For example, if you confront a burglar in your home with a firearm and you threaten to shoot him if he doesn’t immediately leave, the appeal to force is justified. Likewise, if you are apprehended by the police while committing a criminal act, an officer might appeal to force in order to gain your cooperation. Such appeals to force would not be fallacious if they are justified in the context. Conversely, if they are unjustified in the context, then such appeals are fallacious.

There seem to be a variety of possibilities related to whether an appeal to force, regarded as an instance of argumentation, is fallacious or merely “bad.”  It might be the case that:

  • The appeal to force is a speech act that has no rhetorical intent, and therefore does not constitute argumentation (in this case, the notion of fallacy does not apply)
  • The appeal to force has rhetorical intent, but the appeal fails because it is regarded as either unserious or unconvincing by the target of the threat (it’s a bad argument, but not necessarily a fallacious one)
  • The appeal to force has rhetorical intent, is taken seriously by the target of the threat and regarded as compelling, but the threat is justified under the circumstances (it’s a good argument, and not fallacious)
  • The appeal to force has rhetorical intent, is taken seriously by the target and regarded as compelling, but is unjustified under the circumstances (it’s an argument, but a fallacious one)

Conclusion

In the case of The New Yorker article above, the question is whether the premise “if someone asserts their doubts about climate change based on the polar vortex, then they should expect to be punched in the face (and rightly so)” is justified. It certainly doesn’t seem so. If someone asserts their doubts about climate change based on the polar vortex, then they should expect to be challenged verbally, not punched in the face.

What is not so hidden in the text of this article is the tenor of moral neutrality regarding fists to the face. If assaulting someone is a moral (and legal) violation, doesn’t the tone of moral neutrality suggest moral approval in this context? Given the opportunity to express moral disapproval of an act while withholding judgment on it is tacit acceptance of the act. So the implied premise in the article is the notion that when people make “snide” remarks about climate change, punching them in the face is a morally acceptable (if not obligatory) response.  That tacit assumption itself, if undefended further, is sufficient to leave us with a fallacious instance of ad baculum.