Logical Fallacies 101: Ad Baculum

posted by Southern Evangelical Seminary

“Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.”

“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”

So begins an essay by Angelo M. Codevilla, Professor Emeritus at Boston University, on the notion of political correctness. In his essay, Codevilla explains how this notion began as something of a running joke among 1930s Communists. Political Correctness was a “reminder that the Party’s interest is to be treated as a reality that ranks above reality itself.”  But why should anyone be inclined to accept that reality? As Modevilla explains,

“Progressive regimes demand that persons . . . affirm any and all things that pertain to the regime’s identity lest they lose access to jobs or privileges, and be exposed to the shunning or ire of regime supporters—if not treated as criminals” (emphasis mine).

In other words, truth was determined by force, by the cudgel in the hands of government officials and public opinion.

Those actions of the Communists were an example of the logical fallacy known as Argumentum ad Baculum, or argument to the cudgel. It is a negative form of the fallacy of appealing to consequences. It says that something is true because violence will be visited upon those who deny it. The fallacy can be written as the following syllogism:

If P, then Q (where Q entails violence or other unpleasantness)

Therefore,

Not P

Notice that written this way, the argument is also a formal fallacy. At no point is Q negated or denied. Were Q to be negated in a second premise, we would have an instance of Modus Tollens What substitutes for a second premise is the possibility of an “existential negation,” that is, a good beating. In today’s societal jousting match, and in accordance with Codevilla’s point about political correctness (though not necessarily his other views), we might be compelled to believe that

If I say marriage is between one man and one woman, I will be labeled a homophobe.

Therefore,

Marriage can be between two or more people of the same or opposite sexes.

Or,

Everyone who claims Jesus Christ is the only way to God is a religious bigot and should be ridiculed or ostracized from polite company.

Therefore,

There are many ways to God.

Instead of offering an argument (or even a premise) that denies, say, traditional marriage, the ad baculum fallacy simply offers a negative consequence. Hence, it does not demonstrate the truth of its conclusion. Rather, it forcibly moves the intellect of the opponent to assent to its truth. Or, more accurately, it forces the hearer into a dilemma: declare the truth at the expense of my happiness and bodily integrity, or deny the truth and remain comfortable for a little while longer.

So how can we avoid this fallacy? Our most common cause for concern as Christians in the twenty-first century is not to avoid committing this fallacy but to avoid succumbing to it. We are everywhere being bombarded by the baculum.  Sometimes it is overt, as in the cases of traditional marriage or the exclusivity of the Christian religion. But sometimes it is subtle. None of us want to be labeled as sexist or patriarchal, denying the rights of a woman to her autonomy, so some of us feel compelled to compromise and make exceptions for abortion in cases of rape and incest. It isn’t that persons conceived through rape and incest are somehow less worthy of life – that point is seldom argued publicly. It is that we fear being seen as uncompromising, of losing our place or voice in polite society. We fear the negative consequences of standing up for life, so we don’t sit down, but we stoop a little.

However, that doesn’t give you the right to wield the cudgel yourself. Don’t ever think that another rationally independent person should believe what you say for any other reason than you made a sound argument. If you can’t make a sound argument, don’t resort to threats, whether of violence or ostracism. Don’t block people or cut them out of your life. Faithfully study more, instead. And, by the grace of God, who rewards those who earnestly seek Him, you’ll be able to give a reason for the hope you have.

It takes courage to stand up to the cudgel, and it takes self-control to put it down—the same courage and self-control it takes to carry one’s cross. But this can be bolstered by a firm will and a sharp intellect that sees what is good and sees it clearly. And the best way to clarify our intellect is through rigorous, formal study of theology and philosophy. That’s how the great Christians of old did it, and that is how many of your brothers and sisters in Christ are doing it today.

If you want help with that, if you find your fingers dashing from the keyboard to the cudgel, or if you find yourself wincing at the cudgel’s blows, let me encourage you to take some classes here at Southern Evangelical and even to get a degree. Now, possibly more than ever, the world needs Christians who can think clearly and argue persuasively in love. Some of you have been doing this for a while, but know it is time to “up your game.” I promise, you will be challenged here and stretched. Others of you feel or desire to feel a deep connection with your Christian heritage. We stand in an unbroken line of Christian thought, our fingers stained with the soil tilled by priests, monks, and divines. Consider becoming a philosopher, a theologian, or a minister of the Gospel. There are not too many of us. You are needed here. It is not too late, even for you.

If you do decide to pursue the intellectual life, may you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, that you may speak what is factually correct to your neighbor, even if it is politically incorrect.

 

Brian Derickson is a veteran of the Iraq war and earned his Masters in Philosophy from Southern Evangelical Seminary.

References

Kreeft, Peter. Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles. Edited by Trent Dougherty. 3.1 ed. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010.

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