Latin “argumentum ad verecundiam” lat. verecundia “modesty, humility”

1. The ad verecundiam argument

The argument of modesty is invoked by someone who bows before the speech and the good reasons offered by a person he considers to be superior to him- or herself. It typically refers to an act of submission to ethos. The ad verecundiam argument is the interactional correlative of an appeal to authority, not an appeal to authority. Note that, in the following key passage, Locke refers to ad verecundiam as coming from a fear of breaching “modesty”.

The first [fallacious argument] is to allege the opinion of men, whose parts, learning, eminency, power, or some other cause has gained a name, and settled their reputation in the common esteem with some kind of authority. When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from it, and question the authority of men who are in possession of it. This is apt to be censured as carrying with it too much pride, when a man does not readily yield to the determination of approved authors, which is wont to be received with respect and submission by others: and it is looked upon as insolence for a man to set up and adhere to his own opinion against the current stream of antiquity; or to put it in the balance against that of some learned doctor, or otherwise approved writer. Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence in any one who shall stand out against them. This I think may be called argumentum ad verecundiam. (Locke [1690], p. 410).

This argument is deemed fallacious:

It argues not another man’s opinion to be right because I, out of respect, or any other consideration but that of conviction, will not contradict him. [1690], p. 411).

In a similar way, topic n°11 of the Rhetoric argues “from a previous judgment in regard to the same or a similar or contrary matter”. Such a precedent-setting judgment must have been produced by an authority, one of “those whose judgment it is not possible to contradict” (Aristotle, Rhet., II, 23, 12; F. 309), that is to say, “it would be disgraceful to contradict him” (ibid.; my italics), be he a father, a god, an instructor or a wise man. Politeness is argumentatively oriented in favor of the submission to the status quo.

2. Authority or pusillanimity?
Ad verecundiam, or misplaced modesty

Locke stages an interaction, where one partner “allege[s]” an authoritative opinion. It appears from the description that the characteristics conferring authority to an opinion have either a social (“parts, learning, eminency, powerdignity”) or an intellectual source (“learning, … approved authorlearned doctorapproved writer”), S. Ethos. Such sources do indeed have a legitimizing power, S. Dialectic. Note that religious authorities are not mentioned.

It must be emphasized that Locke does not censor the expression of or the reference to authoritative opinions in a first round of speech, but blames the acritical acceptation of such an authority, that is the lack of a second round of speech in which what has previously been said is criticized and alternative views are expressed. The condemnation ad verecundiam is a protest against the censure of this second round by an internal impulse of modesty, the feeling of one’s own insufficiency (however legitimate it can be). This censorship is a preventive reaction to a threat that could come from a third round claiming to silence the objection addressed to the authority. This third turn itself does not deal with the substance of the objection made to the second (by an argument ad judicium, S. Matter. It merely substitutes in the discussion of the critical opinion, a negative evaluation of the person who supports it, an ad personam attack invoking “a breach of modesty, too much pride, insolence, impudence”, that is, an intimidation maneuver, S. Personal Attack; Respect. The problem is therefore not located in the authoritative first round, but in the inhibitive foreboding of an aggressive third round. As expressed by the label “argument ad verecundiam”, the fallacy is committed by the interlocutor, the overly humble individual who expresses no objection for fear of creating a scene. This is not primarily a fallacy of authority but of cowardice or spinelessness. The verecundia is the (false sense of) shame that prevents one saying what one thinks out loud.

4. Justified modesty

When it comes to authority itself, the problem is twofold. In the first turn, participant S1_1 has “alleged” an authoritative opinion, which may be a fairly sensible move. Suppose that S2 can overcome his or her ad verecundiam inhibition, and quite freely voices his or her opinion, in a second turn. Then, if in a third turn S1_2 bars S2_1’s remarks in the name of authority, whilst also criticizing his opponent for his or her boldness and pride then S1 argues from authority, which certainly is a fallacious move. Some situations are nonetheless embarrassing. If S1 quotes Einstein in his (Einstein) field of competence, S1 having a good background in physics and S2 none, then a humble lay speaker S2 would be wise to ask for more explanation before voicing his or her doubts. If not, S1_2 would legitimately give in to an authoritative exasperation.

3. A fallacy in dialogue

The problem of authority is thus reframed as that of authoritarian interaction, that is to say a dialogue where an authority is quoted in the first speech turn, and alleged in the third turn to silence the objections, considering that the quoted authority gives the quoter the power to close the discussion. This use of authority is a direct contrast to the use made of it in a dialectical game. The problem does not lie so much in the quoting of authority as in the possibility of contradicting authority. Modesty, respect, concern not to cause the other to lose face, rules of politeness, preference for agreement are all intellectual inhibitors. All these constraints define a typically anti-dialectical situation, S. Dialectic.

Authority is accepted as fact, the problem lies in the possibility of calling this authority into question. Authority is deceptive only if it claims to escape from dialogue, to silence and not to answer its counter-discourse. The conclusion is that what is fallacious or not fallacious is the dialogue itself. It is impossible to say whether a statement such as “The Master said it!” is misleading or not; it all depends on the statement’s position in the dialogue. If it is an opening statement, it is not fallacious. If it is a closing statement, intending to silence the critic, it is.