Friday, September 18, 2015

Emotional Logic

A couple of weeks back I was reading a review of a book about rhetoric over at NDPR, like you do. It was called “The Philosophy of Argument and Audience Reception”, by Christopher W Tindale, and it was reviewed by Gary Curtis. The review was very negative. Here’s how it ended:

“To end on a positive note, the editing of this book is outstanding and a great relief after some prior unpleasant experiences with sloppily edited scholarly books. I have found only three typographical errors in the entire volume (pp. 55, 117n, 235), which may be some kind of record.”

The review did get me thinking a bit about the role of emotions in argument though, especially with this passage:

“Chapter 8 examines the important issue of the role of emotions in argumentation. As mentioned previously, this is a major difference between rhetorical argumentation and logic or dialectic. Tindale claims that emotions are rational (p. 160), but his support consists of pointing to the work of neurologists such as Antonio Damasio (1994) that appears to show that emotion is involved in practical decision-making. However, this does not support the conclusion that emotions are necessarily rational and, elsewhere in the same chapter, Tindale accepts that sometimes emotional argumentation can be fallacious (pp. 161-162). So, how can we tell whether a given appeal to emotion is fallacious? Tindale seems to accept as rational the appeal to hope in the speech that launched Barack Obama’s presidential campaign (p. 164) but labels fallacious an example from Benjamin Netanyahu that appears to have appealed to fear (p. 162). What makes the one emotional appeal rational and the other irrational? Is it the difference between hope and fear? Are not some appeals to fear rational and some hopes irrational? Unfortunately, the book supplies no answer.” (My emphasis)

When I read this I felt like Curtis was guilty of a kind of uncharitable interpretation. I’ve calmed down now, but I still think he’s been a bit cheeky. If you’re affecting to attempt to fill in the gaps in someone’s argument, you shouldn’t just make the first suggestion off the top of your head, no matter how weak it might be, only to shoot it down in the next sentence and move on. I think it would have been a better review if he had cut out “Is it the difference between hope and fear? Are not some appeals to fear rational and some hopes irrational?” And of course it would have improved the review even more if he’d been able to come up with a plausible suggestion.

I think it’s quite likely that the difference between good and bad argumentative appeals to emotion can be spelled out in a reasonably illuminating way. Rather than look for a difference between hope and fear, which Curtis and I both take to be a non-starter, you can look at the way the argument under discussion appeals to emotions. And if we’re already in the game of saying that emotions can be felt for good or bad reasons, and can rationally motivate actions, then it’s not too hard to see how that might go. Basically, if emotions can follow rationally from reasons, and things can follow rationally from them, then good emotional arguments can be the ones where the emotions appealed to really do follow rationally from the reasons the speaker uses to support them. Likewise, if the speaker justifies a claim or recommends an action on the basis of an emotion, then the argument is good only insofar as the claims or actions really do follow rationally from the emotion.

Netanyahu bomb.jpg

I don’t know which specific arguments Obama and Netanyahu were using, but using the idea from the previous paragraph the difference might be something like this. Netanyahu argues for some policy or other towards Iran on the basis of fear, and he tries to get the audience scared by lying to them about how close Iran is to building a nuclear bomb. That’s analogous to an unsound argument, because the premises supporting the fear aren’t true. Alternatively, he might have said some things that were true but don’t rationally elicit fear, for example pointing out that a lot of Iranians have beards, which is analogous to an invalid argument. Or maybe he argued soundly for the fear, but then used the fear to support actions that fear doesn’t rationally support. If Obama avoided all these things, telling the audience things which are true and are good reasons to hope, and if the hope rationally supported the things he was using it to support, then Obama’s appeals to hope are dialectically OK.

So, suppose we’re on board with this sort of thing and think that arguments appealing to emotion might be subject to rational appraisal in terms analogous to validity and soundness. Then we’ve got some work to do developing a logic of emotional argument. What could we expect it to look like? One thing to note is that the emotional parts of an argument can figure as premises, conclusions or lemmas, just like the propositions in a regular unemotional argument. As premise: you are speaking to someone who is already emotional and appeal to this to support a conclusion. As conclusion: your goal is to get someone emotional so you tell them things to (rationally, you’d hope) elicit the emotion. And as lemma: you say things to get people emotional and then start making policy recommendations. All of these seem pretty common in the wild, and all fit quite nicely into a framework based on the paradigm of arguments as chains of propositions, each of which either is believed already or follows from the ealier ones.

There are a couple of places I think emotional arguments might depart from the unemotional paradigm. First, there’s a fairly standard picture on which logical consistency and consequence are relations between propositions, and instances of them generate rules governing which beliefs shouldn’t be held simultaneously, which changes we should and shouldn’t make to our beliefs, and which bits of talking are good arguments. It’s clear enough what form the rules part will take when it comes to emotional logic, but it’s less clear what form the “relations between propositions” part will take. That’s because it isn’t clear what stands to an emotion the way a proposition stands to a belief or an assertion. So there’s a danger that rational norms governing emotions will be a bunch of superficially plausible rules built on nothing.

The second is more fun, if that’s possible. It doesn’t seem to me completely out there to say that emotions might sometimes be made rationally permissible in the light of the reasons for them, without being made obligatory. If that were the case, then using an emotional lemma might enable us to rationally draw a conclusion which didn’t follow from the premises by cold unemotional logic. Emotional lemmas could play an essential logical role in arguments, rather than just the pedagogical or rhetorical role that propositional lemmas play - you can’t accept the conclusion on the basis of the premises without going via the emotional lemma. And you have to really feel it. This looks like a violation of something like harmony or conceptual conservatism, but that’s why it’s so exciting. But perhaps reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, and this whole emotional logic stuff is bunk.