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Rational Passional Persuasion

Andrew writes:

So atheists don’t have emotions which inform them of the truth of something? And their rhetoric is completely dispassionate to the point where logic and reason are not fully objective?

I have addressed the proper ways to consult the emotions in looking for truth in the post, Disambiguating Faith: Heart Over Reason, so for the time being I would like to address the second line of Andrew’s objection and return to the question of passional reasoning in reply to objections made to that post which puts my views on the table at some length.  So, feel free to go to that post, read it over and offer me Your Thoughts on heart-based justification.

But as to the topic of passionate rhetoric:  Rhetoric is about persuasion, not only about argumentation. If an atheist uses rhetoric that is persuasive but not logically sound, then the atheist is not arguing up to high rational standards and is as open as anyone else would be to criticism that she is both using bad arguments and, just as bad, pulling out emotional stops to prop up dud ideas that cannot stand on their own rational feet.

If, however, an atheist uses persuasive rhetoric to bolster a logically sound point, then she is both persuasive and truthful, so what’s wrong with the combination?

For one thing, believing the right thing for the wrong reasons is not rational.  If I persuaded you just because you found me personally impressive and based on my charisma would have believed anything I said, then even if I have gotten you to believe something true, you remain a dangerously bad reasoner who just as well tomorrow might become convinced of something horribly and disastrously false using the same process of belief formation you used with me.  Ideally, I should not want to let you remain a bad reasoner but rather should help cultivate your reasoning skills as part of getting you to believe this correct thing.  If I do not do both things, give you the truth and the proper reasoning process, I do not help you find more truths than the one I just gave you and avoid other errors than the ones I just helped you to avert.

Passion can be persuasive in a number of ways.  My enthusiasm for an idea recommends the idea to you in a couple of ways.  For one thing psychologically we are inclined to mirror others’ emotions.  All sorts of emotions are contagious.  So if I find something scary, my fear may make you afraid too.  If I am angry about something it inclines you to respond the same way.  This is of course very dangerous in cases where there is no good reason to feel a specific emotion with respect to a specific thing and yet they convey their feelings to others.  If someone has a disgust reaction to gays, she might express that disgust to others and those others might mirror that emotion and cultivate disgust in themselves.  And yet there is no good, rationally defensible reason to be disgusted by gays.  It’s a prejudice.

But there are other times in which there are good reasons to feel different things and part of what a persuasive writer, orator, or debater does is model appropriate feelings towards the subjects at hand.  So when talking about how unfair discrimination against gays is, the persuasive person may express outrage in his voice, which models for his listeners outrage against discrimination against gays.  Or she may simply use an accurate but either emotion-laden or value-laden word which has stronger emotional punch than another accurate enough word which would have conveyed the factual meaning the same but not have also carried with it the expression of how the speaker or writer feels or judges the fact.

The listener or reader should assess at least three things when a passionate appeal is made to her.  1.  “Are the premises of this argument true?”  2.  “Does the conclusion reasonably follow from the premises?”  and, if one is convinced about the premises and convinced that they entail the conclusion, finally, 3.  “Is it appropriate to feel about this conclusion the way that the speaker feels about it?”

So someone argues to you, “1. It is a fundamental human right for consensual adults to marry whomever they want as long as there are no demonstrable and morally impermissible harms which would befall either themselves or their society if they marry.  2.  Consensual gay adults are not allowed to marry each other, even though there are no demonstrable and morally impermissible harms either to themselves to anyone else if they marry each other.  3.  Gays have their human rights unconscionably violated when they are inhumanely and capriciously denied the right to marry.

Now the first two premises are rather technical and devoid of strong emotions.  There is a key value term “human right”.  So, you should assess the premise, is it indeed a human right for any consenting adults to be allowed to marry as long as there are no demonstrable and impermissible harms which would befall either themselves or their society?  Is the sex of those marrying therefore truly irrelevant as long as these other sepcific conditions are met?  I think the answer to both those questions is clearly yes.  But the arguments for them are for another time.  Let’s just say for argument’s sake you think that the answer to both questions is yes, too.  Say you also agree (as I in fact do) that the other premise is true and there are no demonstrable and morally impermissible harms that gay marriage actually causes either the couples themselves, their families and associates or the larger society.  Then you are at minimum committed to the conclusion that the law presently denies consenting adult gays their human right to marry.

Now let’s compare this dispassionately formulated conclusion “the law presently denies consenting adult gays their human right to marry” to the stronger rhetorical case made above which said, “Gays have their human rights unconscionably violated when they are inhumanely and capriciously denied the right to marry.”  Now what was proven was that the law denies gays one of their human rights.  The way the point was stated though adds the judgment that this is also unconscionable.  This is telling me that this denial of rights raises to the level of something that should shock my conscience, I should not just disinterestedly note the fact that human rights are being denied but my conscience should be upset by this.

I should be outraged at a society that would do this and I should feel so great a burden for being a part of a society that is presently doing this and should feel motivation to rectify the situation so that my conscience can stop being horrified.  Is this reasonable?  If we are dealing with a human rights violation shouldn’t we feel outraged?  Or are the only human rights violations that should be deemed unconscionable ones like genocide, rape, torture, etc., which involve physical violence?  The word unconscionable invites you to make a value judgment and feel an emotion, you have to then assess whether that particular value judgment applies and whether it warrants the prescribed emotion.  The same goes for the words “inhumane” and “capricious”.

So, to get back to atheists in closing.  When atheists put passion into their arguments the question is whether it is warranted.  Should we direct our outrage at the misdeeds of religious institutions at religions themselves as many atheists do?  Why or why not?  Should we judge it a serious, moral wrong as many atheists do, in most cases to believe things without sufficient evidence?  Should we share their frustration with this?  When we encounter an absurd, literally held, religious belief should we, as atheists suggest, feel equal disdain for it as we would for absurd beliefs in any other area of life?

I think the answer to these questions is in most cases, yes and reasons can be given to justify those conclusions about how to feel.  So, if I convey those emotions as part of rationally defensible argumentation that makes clear why I have good reason to feel as I do, then I think it’s entirely fair and legitimate.

For more detailed analysis of the particularities of when and how we should and should not go about trying to passionately persuade using mockery of religion, see my posts My Thoughts On Blasphemy Day and In Defense Of Mocking And Embarrassing Religion.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    How do you know if emotions or passions are warranted or not?

    • Daniel Fincke

      Good question. I was thinking about this while writing this post and then while out today. I have a sketch I’ll propose soon hopefully.

  • Andrew

    Well, I was thinking more along the lines of the last word in my question, Dan. “objective.”

    (this is my understanding… hopefully it is not sophmoric) Language is the form of the content of our ideas. Rhetoric is how we shape that form. As form emerges from content, it changes content. Which is why the form of language cannot help but alter the content of what we express.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I find emotion to be at the heart of how we reason much more than we’d like to admit. Furthermore, it is a form of information that we receive beyond logic (I’m sure there’s a latin phrase for that, or even German, but I don’t know it). We receive all kinds of messages that become informed by our psyche and our emotions and these are filters for our translation into knowledge. Therefore, the objective basis for truth sought through scientific inquiry or reason as some atheists refer (at least as I understand this line of thinking) is not really there, or at least ignores psychological or emotional influence.

    For example, a male co-worker says to me “you dwell on the negative too much.” Reason tells me that he is not out to get me or even means to say something in a way to irritate me at all. Reason tells me that this comment is meant to inform me of something I could work on. But my emotions which lead me to the notion that negativity is often more truthful than positivity, combined with some great negative experience which haunts my emotions, and is reinforced by my listening to death metal or Morrissey or something like that, lead me to use reason differently and interpret his comment differently. Perhaps prior experience tells me that people who say this are just bitter that they have to acknowledge pain in life, or that he is phony (a la Holden Caulfield). Now that is using authority as a crutch, although it is an important crutch as truthful understanding independent of past experience can take years to accomplish either from childhood to adulthood (children sometimes rely on the authority of adults to guide them when they are not in a position to reason with all the facts) or from a particularly bad event that imprints on the psyche. But still… the point is that emotions creep into reason very easily. Because form is inseparable from content. To extend McLuhan’s maxim, a human will always influence the objective content of truth with his or her own interpretations based on his or her own emotion. The medium will always equal the message. Therefore rhetoric is not a choice to use in some instances of debate. Instead, it can never be separated from reason because our interpretations of truth are all persuasions and arguments (except for mathematics and certain scientific formulas).

    Now that incident with the co-worker didn’t actually happen to me. But my point is that emotion dictates reason way more often than not. One can say that that is why science is always open to revision and questioning, to eliminate further the influence of humans on the content of truth. Once out of the realm of numbers or physics, reason becomes limited in its objectivity. So when someone like Sam Harris talks about developing an entire objective vision for morality from reason alone, it becomes scary.

    Usually, the reinforcement of science as a method that is never inscrutable is a sentiment that acknowledges this reality for many atheists. But if faith is some sort of projection of our own emotions onto a created God, or a relinquishment of uncertainty in another person without a rational basis, does not emotion question the firm foundation of rationality to begin with in a similar manner?

    To me, to act on what we think is right despite emotion is the definition of courage. Not because emotions should not be trusted, but because it is so hard to think dispassionately. Philosophy or theology do not escape those problems either.

    Or something…. Anyways, that’s more of the problem to which I was pointing, not necessarily that passion is unreasonable.


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