The Argument from Intimidation by Ayn Rand
There is a certain type of argument which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling debate and extorting an opponent’s agreement with one’s undiscussed notions. It is a method of bypassing logic by means of psychological pressure. Since it is particularly prevalent in today’s culture and is going to grow more so in the next few months, one would do well to learn to identify it and be on guard against it.
This method bears a certain resemblance to the fallacy ad hominem, and comes from the same psychological root, but is different in essential meaning. The ad hominem fallacy consists of attempting to refute an argument by impeaching the character of its proponent.
Example: “Candidate X is immoral, therefore his argument is false.”
But the psychological pressure method consists of threatening to impeach an opponent’s character by means of his argument, thus impeaching the argument without debate. Example: “Only the immoral can fail to see that Candidate X’s argument is false.”
In the first case, Candidate X’s immorality (real or invented) is offered as proof of the falsehood of his argument.
In the second case, the falsehood of his argument is asserted arbitrarily and offered as proof of his immorality.
In today’s epistemological jungle, that second method is used more frequently than any other type of irrational argument. It should be classified as a logical fallacy and may be designated as “The Argument from Intimidation.”
Observe that the men who use that Argument are the ones who dread a reasoned moral attack more than any other kind of battle—and when they encounter a morally confident adversary, they are loudest in protesting that “moralizing” should be kept out of intellectual discussions. But to discuss evil in a manner implying neutrality, is to sanction it.
The Argument from Intimidation illustrates why it is important to be certain of one’s premises and of one’s moral ground. It illustrates the kind of intellectual pitfall that awaits those who venture forth without a full, clear, consistent set of convictions, wholly integrated all the way down to fundamentals—those who recklessly leap into battle, armed with nothing but a few random notions floating in a fog of the unknown, the unidentified, the undefined, the unproved, and supported by nothing but their feelings, hopes and fears. The Argument from Intimidation is their Nemesis.
In moral and intellectual issues, it is not enough to be right: one has to know that one is right. The most illustrious example of the proper answer to the Argument from Intimidation was given in American history by the man who, rejecting the enemy’s moral standards and with full certainty of his own rectitude, said:
“If this be treason, make the most of it.” (George Washington)