How Not To Be A Demagogue, Part II: Deconstructing The Emotional Appeal Fallacy Fallacy
It is a well-known fact in the legal profession that good lawyers almost never use legalese. Indeed, it’s one of the first things you learn in law school. Sure, sometimes custom and practice require arcane word formulas, but any lawyer worth his salt knows not to offer “therein’s” and what not in the body of an argument. Packing your writing or your speech with that garbage only serves to insult the court’s intelligence by signalling that you are a pretentious asshat who is using fifty-cent words to mask your lack of a good argument. If you can’t convey your point in normal, clear, non-ritualistic language, then you have no point to convey.
A similar principle applies to general reasoning. Nothing tells me I’m talking to a brainless nincompoop quite like the appearance of the words “logical fallacy”. Certainly, there are logical fallacies, and logicians have classified them in a nifty way; but I find that people who resort to the label instead of addressing the substance of the argument they claim to be fallacious almost without exception lack any understanding of what the particular fallacy is or how the principle is applicable. (My mother reflexively labels any argument she can’t rebut “sophistry”. She can’t define the term.) And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the Emotional Appeal Fallacy, which most people understand — quite erroneously — as “an argument founded on emotion”.
This misunderstanding of the Emotional Appeal Fallacy, as an idea that emotion is the opposite of logic and all emotion is therefore invalid for all purposes is what I call the Emotional Appeal Fallacy Fallacy. Sorry, o gods of the academia, sorry.
An Emotional Appeal Fallacy is not an “argument founded on emotion”. It is an argument that uses emotion as a diversionary tactic. It’s when an advertiser tries to sell you a broom by showing a woman who is so happy to be sweeping with that broom, she’s on the verge of making love to it and having its children. This is not to say that the Fallacy is necessarily something that’s over-the-top; it’s merely something that attempts to substitute motivation for proof. The cuteness of babies may motivate you to feel emphatic or protective — but it doesn’t prove that “abortion is murder”.
As motivations, emotions are neither logical nor illogical. They just are. Moreover, their existence does not preclude logic. For example, if you have a child, what reason is there to feed, clothe and take care of that child? Well, presumably, because you are emotionally attached to your progeny, and losing the child or seeing him suffer will inflict emotional pain, and you don’t want that. Or, perhaps, you want to take good care of your children because that’s what society expects of you, and you do what society expects of you because you don’t want to be thought of as a monster. Such motivations are perfectly valid by virtue of the fact that they overwhelmingly exist. An argument for how to best serve those motivations can be logical or illogical, but the mere existence of an emotional motivation does not render an argument or a course of action illogical.
The biggest problem evident in the misapplication of the term “appeal to emotion”, is that “emotion” is often a misnomer. What is dismissively termed “emotions” — and what I’ve depicted as emotional motivators — is actually more accurately called values. Values have no logic; they just are. An approach to serving particular values may or may not be rational, and values themselves may or may not be acceptable to you or me — but values are beyond characterization in terms of logic. This is the key to the intellectual dishonesty that’s at the heart of the Emotional Appeal Fallacy Fallacy — it is an attempt to invalidate values underlying an argument on the grounds of logic. And even that is giving those imperious assholes who like to invoke the whole Appeal-to-Emotion defense in virtually every discussion entirely too much credit. As I’ve hinted at the beginning of this entry, most people who invoke the “fallacy” language simply throw it out there as rhetorical currency, without giving much thought to what it means or whether it really applies.
I find it amusing, moreover, that only values traditionally associated with femininity — such as empathy, romantic love, emphasis on community over the individual — are derisively termed “emotions”. Values traditionally associated with males — such as honor, courage and competition — are never dismissed as “emotional”, although they are based on the same fundamental goal of feeling good about oneself and experiencing happiness as “female” values. Even things that are, in fact, emotions, rarely invite scorn if they are the type of emotions associated with men. Look at all those people who argue in favor of dispensing with Due Process and just tearing the surviving Boston Bomber limb from limb. That’s rage, pure undiluted rage — and yet no matter how heated polemics over this topic become, you probably will never see those who thirst for blood accused of being emotional; even though they are.
“Emotion” — whether it’s real emotion, or values, or character traits — has a place in discourse. Emotion is not the opposite of rationality, and rationality that takes no account of emotion is pointless; logic is a tool, not an end in itself.
And reason? Reason is what you get when you combine rationality with empathy.
Previous installments on the subject: