What is Threat of force?

When reason fails you, appeal to the rod. The argumentum ad baculum introduces force as a means of persuasion, and is often resorted to by those who would lose the argument without it.


It would be better if you told us what we want to know. After all, we wouldn’t want your aged mother or your crippled sister to suffer, would we?

(Probably yes.)


The threatened force does not have to take the form of physical violence. The argumentum ad baculum is committed whenever unpleasant consequences are promised for failing to comply with the speaker’s wishes. (‘If you do not bring us the plans of the new missile, I regret I will be forced to send these photographs to the newspapers.’)

The fallacy of the argumentum ad baculum lies in its introduction of irrelevant material into the argument. Strictly speaking, it leaves the argument behind, moving on to force as a means of persuasion. While force is undoubtedly effective sometimes in directing courteous attention to the speaker’s wishes, its use represents the breakdown and subversion of reason.

The ad baculum, alas, performs on the public stage of international relations. Powerful countries which fail to get their own way by reasoned discussion are not averse to tossing over an ad baculum to influence the talks. If even this fails, they toss over something a little larger.

Joseph Stalin was a master of the ad baculum. Indeed, he made it his own to such an extent that his name is immortalized in a line of Krushchev which sums up its potency: ‘When Stalin says “dance!” a wise man dances.’ Stalin himself appears to have taken the view that anyone without force to threaten had no business being involved in international affairs. His famous question, ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’, was in response to a suggestion that the Pope should take part in an international conference. As Stalin’s enemies often discovered, argument is not a very effective counter to an ad baculum.

Political parties founded on an idealized view of human nature frequently accuse their rivals of too frequently resorting to ad baculum diplomacy. Sir William Browne delivered a well-wrought epigram on the subject:


The King to Oxford sent a troop of horse,
For Tories own no argument but force:
With equal skill to Cambridge books he sent,
For Whigs admit no force but argument.

(It would be a close thing today to decide whether it would be harder to find a Tory at Oxford than a literate man at Cambridge.)


You can use the ad baculum when you have the force to deploy and can escape the consequences of using it. The law is there to prevent arguments always being won by the stronger, and the many broken bones it would take to determine which was he. But your threats need not be strong physical ones to be effective. Many a speaker has gained his way by threatening to make an intolerable nuisance of himself until his demands were met. The Romans probably destroyed Carthage just to shut up Cato.

The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!