Over the course of this blog, I have had a few people make the comment that an appeal to emotion is somehow illegitimate. We must appeal to reason only, or so it is said. In some circles, this is virtually de dicta - one of those fundamental truths that is too obvious to question.
A recent example comes from a comment by a member of the studio audience. Heisenberg wrote:
You are right that we, the addressees of political campaigns, should not let ourselves be manipulated by lies and appeals to emotion. Alas, I fear that a comparison to such a heinous crime as child abuse is itself such an appeal to emotion.
Truths considered too obvious to question should always be near to the top of our list of things to question.
Desire utilitarianism holds that all value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires (and moral value exists as relationships between malleable desires – desires that can be molded through social forces – and other desires). It follows axiomatically from this that it is not possible to talk about the value of something without making a reference to desire.
I use the term ‘desire’ in a technical sense. It refers to all likes and dislikes and, as such, it refers to those things to which an agent may have an emotional attachment. The love that a person may have for his wife, for example, is expressible in terms of a set of desires for her company and well-being. So, as it turns out, ‘appeals to emotion’ are simply a subset of the broader category of ‘appeal to desire’ or ‘appeal to likes and dislikes’.
Since every true value claim (and moral claims are a subset of value claims) must describe a relationship between states of affairs and desires, every true value claim must include an appeal to desires.
Inappropriate Appeals to Emotions
There is one form of appeal to emotion (desire) that is clearly illegitimate. This happens when a person attempts to defend a belief (or defend the claim that a proposition is true) based on the emotional appeal of the proposition being true.
For example, “There is a heaven and a life after death. After all, you do not want to think that your poor wife is simply dead – that she exists no more. It is far better to think that she is in a happier place, looking down on us and smiling.”
The fact that one would be happier if a proposition is true is no evidence at all the proposition is true in fact. This method of argument is very popular, but the form of reasoning is very much invalid.
This is the type of scenario where an objection of an ‘appeal to emotion’ makes sense.
Appropriate Appeals to Emotions
When an appeal to emotion is legitimate is not when you are trying to defend a particular proposition as being true (defend a belief), but when you are trying to recommend a course of action.
In order to recommend an action, one must tie the action to a set of reasons for action, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist. As a result, not only is it appropriate to make an appeal to desires (including emotions) when proposing a course of action. It is actually necessary to do so. One must argue that the action is such as to fulfill some set of desires – typically by arguing that the action will make true the propositions that are the objects of good desires, where good desires are desires that will tend to fulfill other desires, such as those of the agent you are trying to convince.
I beg your indulgence for a few paragraphs of technical babbling.
Philosophers recognize that there is a difference between ‘is’ (or ‘descriptive’) statements and ‘ought’ or ‘should’ (or prescriptive) statements. You can never defend a descriptive statement by an appeal to desires. However, you can never defend a prescriptive statement without an appeal to desires.
It turns out that there is an important area of overlap between these two types of claims. Many people treat the distinction between ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ statements as identifying mutually exclusive categories. A statement can belong to one group or the other, but not both.
However, I argue that prescriptive statements are a peculiar subset of descriptive statements. The prescriptive statement, “The agent should do X” has a truth value – just like descriptive statements. The statement “The agent should do X” is true if the reasons-for-action for doing X outweigh the reasons-for-action for not doing X. That is to say, doing X will make true the propositions of more and stronger desires than any alternative action.
As a belief, the belief that “the agent should do X” should not be defended by an appeal to the desires that “the belief that the agent should do X” will fulfill. This would be an example of the illegitimate grounding of a belief on desires that I described above. The belief that “the agent should do X” should be defended by an appeal to the desires that “the act of doing X” will fulfill. This would be an example of a legitimate appeal to desires (emotions) to defend a conclusion.
Back to the Main Point
I write an ethics blog – and I do so under the assumption that desire utilitarianism best describes the phenomena of value. As such, every one of my conclusions is tied to a set of desires, and every one of those desires is then evaluated according to its tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. I look for the “reasons for action that exist” for bringing about or avoiding some state of affairs, where desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Those reasons for action that exist are the core of every true value claim.
It is not at all inappropriate to use the term ‘child abuse’ when discussing the actions of the California Teachers’ Association as I did in The Art of Political Manipulation. In fact, it would be wrong to. This claim is not an illegitimate appeal to emotion. It is a claim that the very same ‘reasons for action that exist’ that justify our condemnation of those who abuse children applies to the behavior of the California Teachers’ Association in the way that it handled the issue of teacher tenure.
My arguments appear in the earlier article, and I will not repeat them here.
Now, I may be mistaken. It may be the case that when I relate the conduct of the Association to reasons for action that exist and claim that they are the same reasons for action relevant in child abuse, that I am making a false claim. A person can argue against my conclusion by showing that the reasons for action that I alluded to do not apply to the behavior of the Association.
However, my fault in this case would not be that I made an appeal to desires (or an appeal to emotion). My fault would be that I said that there were relationships between states of affairs and desires that do not exist as a matter of fact.
In other words, it is not the appeal to emotions that would be wrong. An appeal to emotions is not wrong in itself. In fact, it is necessary.