Thursday, July 03, 2008

Appeals to Emotion

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.

Technical Account

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.


Anonymous said...

So, if Dawkins says "Religious indoctrination is child abuse" that's inaccurate, but "Defending bad teachers is child abuse" is accurate?

"Most (virtually all) people who abuse children do so under the sincere belief that they love those children and would not do anything to harm them. They simply refuse to see their own behavior as harmful. So, the practice of engaging in harmful behavior while convincing oneself that the behavior is not harmful is far from rare. The will to believe that what fulfills the desires of the adult is not harmful to the child is far too common – and scarcely provides us with a difference between the California Teachers’ Association in this case and those who abuse children."

In a much earlier post:

"In “Theism as Mental Illness or Child Abuse”, I argued against the claim that religion is child abuse on the grounds that the term ‘abuse’ is an accusation of maliciousness – a lack of concern for the well-being of those abused. In the case of religion, this is often false. The people who ‘teach’ religion to children love their children as much as any parent or adult can love children. They are simply mistaken about the facts of the matter with respect to what is in the child’s interests."

Most arguments against calling the latter child abuse also apply to the former. If the California Teachers Association is obligated to know better than to advocate for teacher tenure, then shouldn't parents be obligated to know better than to teach "If you don't live up to these ridiculous standards, you're going to HELL!!! BUAHAHA!" to children? As Dawkins argued, the effect of teaching children an unreasonable fear of going to Hell is frequently to inflict suffering on a scale comparable to other forms of abuse. Why is one party guilty of abuse and not the other?

Anonymous said...

Appeals to emotions are definately needed in determining an end. Without some sort of "higher forces", all we have to rely upon are our own desires.

But appealing to one's emotions are a terrible thing to do when determining how to achieve the desired ends.

Lets say that my end goal is to prevent child abuse. While my immediate emotional reaction may be to punish the parents for their actions, it probably wouldn't serve to advance my goal. A more reasonable course of action would be to calmly remove the children from the parents' custody, while leaving open the possibility for some sort of supervised visits depending on psychological analysis of all involved parties.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S.

There are two main differences between these to sitautions; malicious disregard and a professional status.

In the teachers' case, we are dealing with a group of people who claim to be specialists in the area of teaching, and a body of information about which they should be familiar as a matter of professional responsibility.

In the religion case, we are talking about common citizens with no specialist status in a society that is substantially religious. It would be difficult for them to question beliefs that they are surrounded by, and they do not have any type of specialist status.

I do hold that a different set of standards applies to religious professionals and will often readily condemn those for errors that I would not condemn a common citizen for - in the same way that I would blame a physician for errors that I would not blame a common person for.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

justin cf

Your point brings out the distinction between means and ends. Desires are relevant to picking out ends. Beliefs are relevant to picking out means. If your end is to prevent child abuse, you need then to determine which means best accomplishes those ends. Since means are determined by (descriptive) belief, then means should be selected without appeal to emotion - other than the emotion that selected the particular end.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I am satisfied by your answer. Well, mostly satisfied, anyway.

(There's still the question of how accepted a religion has to be in one's community, though, for that to be an excuse... some parents traumatizing their children by saying "Your friends don't belong to our unpopular, minority church, so they're all going to BURN IN HELL!!! BUAHAHA!" is a less excusable act than saying "Those friends of yours doesn't belong to our popular, majority church, so they're going to BURN IN HELL!!! BUAHAHA!"?)

Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo Fyfe,

Thank you for engaging my comment so comprehensively. I need to ponder what you wrote some more, but I think I understand what you mean.

I just need to figure out where this fits in with my gut feeling that a comparison of X to child abusers is as wrong as comparing Y to Hitler (Reductio ad Hitlerum).


Hume's Ghost said...

Emory psychologist Drew Westen has written a book on this subject as it relates to politics - The Political Brain. He makes the argument that all arguments are by biological necessity an appeal on one level or another to emotion, but that the crucial difference is the question of if it is an appeal that couples or decouples reason to emotion.

"Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." - David Hume

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S.

Well, the maniacal laughter associated with the thought of the suffering of others would be something that would be hard to defend in desire utilitarian terms, so let's set that aside. Let's talk about the parent who convinces the child "your best friends and even some relatives that you love are going to burn in hell indefinitely."

I have never argued that all religion is alike and that no religioius beliefs deserve to be called child abuse. I would rank in the realm of child abuse those religions that cause a child to suffer or die from a treatable or curable illness as a result of religion. It does, in fact, show disregard for a child's welfare to ignore the obvious fact that children who get medical care live and those who do not get medical care die.

Also, denying that a particular religious practice is not abuse does not imply that it is not harmful. A parent who gives a child medicine that she has every reason will make the child better, but which in fact makes the child worse, is not guilty of abuse. However, the fact that her behavior was not abusive does not change the fact that it was harmful.

I would certainly classify the behavior you described (absent the maniacal laughter) as harmful. I would be open to debate as to whether, in this case, the claim requires such a disregard for the welfare of the child that it would count as abusive. However, not all religion makes this claim. So, not all religion can be counted as harmful or abusive in virtue of the fact that this subgroup of religious claims are harmful and (possibly) abusive.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I once thought about writing a science fiction story in which Hitler has gotten transported in time from 1945 to the present. In the present, he immediately sets to work applying the same principles and seeking the same ends as he sought in the 1930s and 1940s. However, every time somebody protested that his actions were "like Hitler", he would protest that it was wrong to compare anybody's actions to Hitler's - and this would silence all of his critics.

I think that we make a serious mistake in not allowing comparisons to Hitler - because this will sometimes prohibit us from pointing out that something is comparable to Hitler when it happens to be true.

If something is, in fact, comparable to Hitler, we should be free to say so.

There is nothing wrong with comparing Y to Hitler if, in fact, Y is comparable to Hitler. There is a problem in that people have a habit of engaging in a bit of hyperbole - making inaccurate comparisons to Hitler. But the problem here is not the comparison to Hitler, but the inaccuracy of the comparison.

If Y is really comparable to Hitler, then we should be free to say so - to say the truth.

The same is true of saying that X is child abuse.