Rational Passional Persuasion

Rational Passional Persuasion June 25, 2010

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.

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