Force and Reason

In previous posts (like Rational Passional Persuasion and On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints) I have argued that there is a proper place for emotional appeals as part of a rational argument. In the last couple of weeks, though, I have also argued firmly against certain kinds of emotional appeals that I consider abusive, counter-productive, and hypocritical for self-proclaimed rationalists (see Who Are You Calling Stupid).

So, I wanted to take a moment and talk about the ethics and effectiveness of incorporating non-cognitive appeals into rational discourse in a way consistent with respecting and improving people’s reason and autonomy, rather than subverting it. By “non-cognitive appeals” I mean anything like the following: use of humor, emotional appeals to feelings, emotional pressure to change feelings, emotional or physical forcefulness, positive or negative personal feedback which implicitly or explicitly encourages others to feel liked or not liked based on what they believe or do not believe, etc.

What place do these appeals to things other than reason have in trying to rationally persuade people?

In many cases the most ideal form of persuasion would rely on the force of logic, evidence, and conceptual clarity alone. If I can point to indisputable facts and demonstrate clear deductions of the truth from those facts, then I can hope that the sheer force of reason will persuade you. In this case, I do not need to physically or emotionally threaten you, I do not need to entice you with promises of love if you agree with me or make you risk rejection if you disagree, etc. I don’t have to use any kind of non-rational force whatsoever. I can let the plain facts and logic speak for themselves and let your own apprehension of reason and evidence force you to agree with me. When you are frustrated because you cannot refute me, I can disassociate myself from any blame. I can give an empathetic embarrassed shrug and wince and say, “I’m sorry, but it’s not my fault that the facts and logic are against you. I’m not being a pushy jerk here, this is just the way things are. I am happy to help you deal with the harsh reality from here however you may need!”

This is ideal insofar as it means persuading people without having any potential for abusiveness, no unseamly form of manipulative emotional power or physical dominance over them. It is a healthy power, an educator’s kind. You can flourish in your power by empowering them with truth and strengthening their exercise of reason.

But sometimes reason fails to persuade. Sometimes people see the evidence and understand the logic and yet willfully resist the conclusion. Then what?

In such cases one or more things are going on. Sometimes your interlocutor is just prudently resisting accepting a major new conclusion before she has had the chance to sleep on it. She justifiably wants to give herself time to reconsider whether your premises were really true or whether other true, missing premises which she cannot think of at the moment would undermine or alter your conclusion. This is a wise default that our minds have and it is a good thing. If you have ever witnessed firsthand the absurdity of someone converting (or seeming to convert) to religious faith in the space of a couple hours with an evangelist, you know how hasty it is for people to just surrender to a persuasive pitch so quickly. (And sometimes how short-lived the long term effects of such persuasion can wind up being, too.) Even when the arguments are much better than evangelists offer, I can fully understand it when people nod in agreement but don’t go so far as commit to changing their mind on a major belief right away. I just hope they remember what was said and change their mind when they’ve had time to make sure it rightly should change. Sometimes later, even years later, I am pleasantly surprised to learn this happened.

But sometimes people are just being obtuse or they are willfully defying reason. Sometimes they start explicitly citing poor value choices to treat reason itself or inconvenient moral values that contradict their beliefs as lesser priorities than willful, faith in, and allegiance to, their religion and its conception of God.

In cases when they are obtusely denying that they see a logical conclusion,  it can be exceptionally helpful to point out the absurdity of their belief by giving it a humorous formulation and/or creating a gestalt shift. Sometimes making them involuntarily laugh is a way of making them at least partially see and acknowledge your logic, against their stubborn desire to avoid it.

In cases where they are asserting the value of faith over reason, or of the value of deference to God over deference to their modern moral conscience, you usually have to try to persuade them to change their values. So, how is it ethically best to get someone to change their values?

1. You can appeal to other common values and show how their deferences to unfounded authorities in reason and ethics is internally inconsistent with their other values. This can be an argument that both uses reason, insofar as it appeals to the logical consistency of their abstract beliefs about what is truly good, and also a dimension of emotion insofar as you may make them feel bad for contravening values to which they are already emotionally attached. In this way you can create both cognitive and emotional dissonance as they see that their values are in tension not only logically, but also emotionally.

2. You can attempt to make them change their subjective value feelings or the way they rank value priorities. You can make them feel the importance of prioritizing goods (like the goods of rational consistency or epistemic humility, etc.) in a way that is both rational and emotional. Rationally you can argue for the objective ways that the scrupulous application of rational principles can make for better human living and point out ways that sloppiness in thought can hurt human living. Since rationally they should recognize the objective good of better personal and communal flourishing, and because they should already care about these things, such an appeal should rightfully work on both levels.

3. By highlighting with some emotional passion the harms of false beliefs or authoritarian institutions in general (and religious ones in specific) you can help them feel what is wrong about these things. While I think objective values can be defended in rational ways, part of properly and fully understanding values means having the right correlate emotional dispositions with respect to those objective values. Essentially you need to match objective values with the right subjective feeling response to them. Part of how we come to have the right sorts of feeling dispositions is to have others model them for us and spread them to us. You can appropriately help infect your interlocutor with the proper feeling association towards things through expressing your emotions; whether they be your appropriate enthusiasm for good things or your righteous anger for immoral ones or any of a number of other emotionally calibrated responses to things in between. These appeals are all fine as long as your positions themselves are grounded in reason and you interweave your emotional pitch with scrupulously rational demonstrations of its objective correctness and justice.

Finally, there is an ethical challenge to another of my related views that has had me reconsidering my positions here a bit. The ethical dilemma is as follows:

In addition to thinking that emotivism (the view that when using moral terms all we are ever doing is expressing our feelings) is generally wrong as an abstract theory of moral meaning and truth, I am generally leery of the way that it seems to necessitate that all of moral debate must boil down to non-cognitive appeals which have no (or little) backing in rational objectivity. If the emotivists are right, my ideal scenario described above, in which one leads another to a change of mind by the force of reason alone, would never be able to apply in values debates. We could never end an argument by saying, “See, I am not at all trying to be a jerk but it is just rationally wrong to think about values, or to act on them, as you are doing”, the way we might be able to say, “See, rationally, it’s just false to think as you are doing”. The only places we could approximate “the force of reason alone” would be where we already shared the same feelings. If we both already cared, for example, about animals not suffering pain, then I could just non-emotionally point you to information revealing that certain practices cause animals pain and let your own emotions take over and turn you against those practices.

But if all the facts are already known and what we have is a debate about fundamental value priorities—which debates are highly prevalent in our modern world—then if the emotivists are right and there is no truth about better or worse values in any objective sense, then the force of personality or peer pressure or violence or other forms of emotional manipulation and physical coercion is all we can ever use in these debates about what values to hold and prioritize. This seems to me anti-rational and an invitation to making all values debates a matter of domination and subordination in rationally unguided, rationally undermining, ways.

Now, by contrast, Joel Marks recently radically abandoned his moral realism in favor of a form of moral non-cognitivism—a view by which he claims no objectivity to his moral claims but only that they are his own desires and feelings. Marks argued that by explicitly thinking of morality in non-cognitive terms and deliberately going about persuading people of his moral feelings in a way that admits they are only desires and feelings which he wants others to consider sharing, he has actually felt better about what he is doing. Rather than somehow subverting people’s higher capacities (their reason) as I worry happens in non-cognitive appeals untethered to “real truths about what is truly good or truly right”, Marks finds that by abandoning the words “right” and “wrong” and replacing them with “how I feel” and still offering information likely to make others feel similarly, he takes away a divisive, emotionally threatening, counter-productive cudgel of sorts. Put simply, where I see the ability to say “objectively right” and “objectively wrong” as a way to let the force of reason, instead of interpersonal pressure, affect someone, Marks suggests that the words “right” and “wrong” are themselves attack words. On Nietzschean grounds, I think that’s absolutely true and worth excoriating in a lot of what morality has been, even as I want to redeem the words. Marks writes:

One interesting discovery has been that there are fewer practical differences between moralism and amoralism than might have been expected. It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all. Does this lessen my ability to bring others around to sharing my desires, and hence diminish the prospects of ending animal agriculture? On the contrary, I find myself in a far better position than before to change minds – and, what is more important, hearts. For to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

So nothing has changed, and everything has changed. For while my desires are the same, my manner of trying to implement them has altered radically. I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.

So, is Marks right or am I? Which respects reason more? To appeal to their emotions or to their sense that right and wrong are objective and argue that in the case at hand the right is decisively on your side?

Your Thoughts?

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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.


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