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?

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.

  • cnjnrs

    Personally, I would rather determine what is right than what makes me feel good. So I suspect that I am more receptive to conversations about logic than emotions. (Certainly I became an atheist for logical reasons, even though it caused me a great deal of emotional distress.) But if the question is “which theory of values is more effective at convincing people,” I’m sure that depends on the person you’re trying to convince. (Of course we could discuss which one is more effective on average, but I sure don’t know.)

    On the other hand, if the question is “which theory of values is correct,” then the argument Marks presents does not seem relevant to me. Your argument that values are objective has to be either accepted or refuted; in other words, whether values are objective or not is itself an objective fact. I don’t have a strong position on that fact just yet…it will require more thought. I’m just saying that’s the first thing we’d have to decide before even looking at Marks’ theory.

    • Camels With Hammers

      If I am right that values are objective, then indeed it is an objective fact that values are objective. It just would not be the case that it was a universally admitted fact. But that would be everyone else’s problem, not mine.

      And the assessment I am making about what is right and wrong in persuasion here is not one that has to do with what is most effective for persuasion at all. I am asking what is most rational and most ethical, not what works best.

    • cnjnrs

      Yes, that was what I mostly thought you were asking. My point is just: it seems to me that that question reduces to “are moral values objective?”, so we should be arguing about that instead. ;) Which is to say that I don’t see how it could ever “respect reason more” to make an emotional argument, if a rational argument exists (i.e. if there are objective values).

  • Steve

    Another reason some people strongly resist converting away from religion may be because they have so deeply invested themselves in it, rather than being stubborn.

    I realized the fallacy of god and magic in my late teens and early twenties. But if a contemporary of mine did not make that change, and went on being Catholic, raising kids in the Catholic tradition, being active in the church, etc., I can see where abandoning his faith/community could cause significant upheaval. So maybe what is perceived a stubborness is plain fear.

    I am not advocating for moral cowardice. I am just pointing out that what may appear to be an illogical, gods-addled mind may just be one that is terrified of the consequences of turning away from religion.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Absolutely right. People with numerous commitments binding them to a certain identity are more likely to dig in their heels to protect that identity than to risk instability in their central relationships and institutional loyalties.

  • Kiwi Sauce

    I think your argument holds best for people who are not swayed by logic and reason because their method of decision tends to be based on feelings rather than thinking through the possible consequences of potential actions.

    I think that being a moral, kind atheist is the best advertisement for atheism. I have had a close xtian friend say that he would have assumed I was xtian because of my moral code, and he sounded quite surprised when he said that. He’s still xtian along with most of his family, but I think I had some influence on the fact that he still loves his daughter and treats her the same after she left the church because she married a xtian who followed a different version. So maybe we can’t make them all leave religion, but even if we can change them into becoming more accepting people we’ve had a positive outcome.

    Taking into account that there seems to be an inbuilt human cognitive bias into remembering examples that agree with one’s preconceptions (e.g. atheists are bad!) and not remembering examples that disagree, we should be able to force overwhelming cognitive dissonance by making the examples of atheists being objectively moral overwhelm examples where atheists were bad/mean/cruel. There will be some people who won’t ever leave religion, but we can try to minimise the size of that group.

  • Beth

    I really like the last sentence quoted: I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.

    It seems to me that this applies whether moral values can be considered objective or not.

  • thedudediogenes

    As someone who found Joshua Greene’s dissertation, Richard Garner’s “Beyond Morality” and Mackie’s error theory arguments to be persuasive, I’m with Marks.

    I think that morality is both: 1) making claims that aim at being true but are actually false and 2) expressing one’s emotions. I don’t think that these are mutually exclusive categories.

    Not that no one is never argued out of positions, but I think it’s more likely that people’s emotions change, and then their justifications for their emotions change.

  • Hank Fox

    Random thoughts:

    I can think of at least three situations in which an abusive/comedic/ridiculing approach can have some useful effect.

    1) You’re a teenager or 20-something in your rebel phase. In which case, ridiculing religion or the religious can help in forming an independent identity, free of religion (in a way that cool reason may not).

    2) You’re talking to that group (in #1), and the ridiculing/abusiveness allows you to catch their attention and appear as a sympathetic, or at least interesting, figure. You can follow later with more reasoned arguments.

    3) You’re new at atheism, and need to practice your own arguments with passion, to set them firmly in place in your own mind, AND to establish a clear demarcation between the kinds of things you believe/think and the kinds of things THEY believe/think.

    As to getting people to change their values, I go with the same approach churches use: Start with young people, wait for the generational turnover. Or at least work toward a tipping point.

    As to choosing one approach or the other, I don’t see that as an absolute necessity. I love your philosophical/reasoning approach, but for me it exists in a larger framework in which a certain number of others are doing the other thing: insulting the pope, lambasting preachers, laughing at evangelical followers, drawing funny pictures of Mohammad, filing lawsuits, making podcasts, etc.

    Re: morality and farming practices. One argument people frequently miss in considering animal abuse is that what the animals feel is only half of it. There’s also the aspect of what it does to YOU, the abuser. I think there’s ample evidence that animal abuse can have negative effects on the individuals doing it AND on the society in which they operate.

    • Bret

      I found it interesting you brought age into it, because my favorite atheist engaged in this type of persuasion until the day he died at 71, namely, George Carlin. I also find that more theists have a favorable view of Carlin than Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and their ilk.

      Just something to consider: some people never intellectually develop beyond their teens or twenties, regardless of their biological age.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Hank (and Bret), these are all true and perceptive distinctions about how persuasion can effectively happen. What I am asking is what is rational and ethical in persuasion.

  • martalayton

    There’s a lot to chew on here, and I may come back and comment in more depth later, or do my own blog post. I am definitely the type that does not like to make decisions or even evaluations in a hurry, and prefer to mull things over. :-)

    I do have one quick comments, though: you gave several hypotehtical examples of why people would resist making a decision right away, but usually you used the pronoun “they.” With one exception: in the case of the people who prefer to mull things over, you refer to “she.” I am certain this was unintentional, but it seemed vaguely sexist; or that it could be interpreted that way, given the stereotype of women being less logical than men. It’s tricky to know what to do with gender and pronouns because in most cases you want to avoid too many “he”s. Perhaps things are different when the hypothetical person could be perceived negatively? Thought I’d mention my (perhaps thoroughly irrational!) reaction.

    I started to type more on faith vs. reason as opposed to faith having a different value than reason but still a useful one, but I realized I haven’t sorted through my own thoughts well enough to want to stand by what I wrote after hitting “Submit.” So I suppose I should just bestand mum on that topic for now.

    • Camels With Hammers

      I am always just varying up he/she randomly, irrespective of whether discussing positives or negatives. I have many times written posts in which “she” was the rational and “he” was the irrational.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Looking at the instance where I used “she”, I hardly was implying women were less logical because they needed to mull things over. I wrote:

      n 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.

      I said that “she” was “prudent” and behaving “justifiably”. That she was following a “wise” default that OUR minds all have, specifically signaling that she is manifesting a universal trait it is wise to have. I contrasted her wise, prudent, justifiable resistance with the “absurd” behavior of “hasty” people who would be disturbingly easily swayed.

      I don’t see how that is sexist at all. If anything it counters any notions that “women, being less logical can be more easily swept up by a confusing fallacious argument” or “women, being more emotional will go with their feelings and not think things through”.

  • mephistopheles

    Persuasion by definition is the effort to convince another of the rightness of one’s position, and thus its effectiveness is evidenced when the opponent concedes the correctness of one’s argument. Your dilemma, as I understand it, is not what are the most successful tactics to persuade/sell/convert/change another’s mind (which could be crudely characterized as “sales percentages”). Rather, is it ethical to use emotion as a persuasive tool?

    As a threshhold matter, I could find little indication of what you mean, precisely, by “ethics” as applied to persuasion techniques. There are obviously egregious forms of emotional manipulation (I’m thinking the old Neill Diamond song “Brother Love’s Travelin’ Salvation Show”) but I’m sure you have something more nuanced in mind. Just not sure exactly what. Perhaps you have explained this elsewhere, or could clarify a bit?

    My thought is that it isn’t necessary to set up the dichotomy of either/or appeals to rationality vs. emotion. That seems to set up a false duality; human beings don’t function in some toggle-switch mode between the two. Rather, I suspect it’s probably a much more fluid, ever-changing mixture of the two, the proportions varying depending upon the circumstances. It only makes sense to engage as much of the brain’s sensory and intellectual capacities as possible. In reality, the strongest neural connections are formed when the both modalities are invoked, as opposed to relying singularly upon one or the other.

    There have been psychological and neuropsychological studies suggesting that where there exists no logical basis to problem solving or choosing between alternatives in equipoise, it is actually the non-rational or emotive part of the brain that facilitates the eventual decision making. By enlisting the emotive component as the natural ally– not as the replacement–of scrupulous reasoning and skillful argumentation, the combination may encourage mental/emotional conditions that will allow the listener to consider and receive the message at various levels. The more those levels augment each other, (i.e., to the extent there is internal consistency) I would venture that it is indeed ethical.

  • Raymond E

    Insightful. Excellent.