The fallacy of appealing to intellectualism

We hear repeatedly throughout our educations that appeals to emotion are forms of argumentative fallacy.  In many cases, they are exactly such, and the interjection of emotion obscures the underlining problem and makes it difficult to resolve productively.  However, in other cases appeals to emotion operate as (the only) viable forms of evidence.  In these cases, the interjection of emotion into an argument should not be seen as a fallacy, but as evidence needed initially to push a conversation forward.  Of course, we are familiar with the risks that come when we voice emotion, and, as a strategy, we should strongly consider looking for non-emotional forms of evidence in order to avoid these problems.  But in this post I’m not interested in the good reasons to avoid emotion.  Those are discussed enough.  I’m concerned with the often-overlooked phenomenon that occurs when emotion used as evidence is dismissed by the fallacy of appealing to intellectual tones or modes of argument. As members of an organization that values harmony, we shy away from topics that raise strong emotions that risk causing tension and controversy.  Our collective failure to respond productively to the concerns raised by feminism, race, and, more recently, by SSM stems at least in part from the ease with which we dismiss claims to strong emotion.  As a case in point, examine this paragraph from the Church’s press release on the Big Love controversy, a press release I otherwise think is quite on the mark and greatly appreciate, for the way it calls attention to the tone of a debate:

In recent months, some gay activists have barraged the media with accusations about “hateful” attitudes of Latter-day Saints in supporting Proposition 8 in California, which maintained the traditional definition of marriage. They even organized a protest march around the Salt Lake Temple. Again, the Church has refused to be goaded into a Mormons versus gays battle and has simply stated its position in tones that are reasonable and respectful.

Here, the newsroom attempts to show its effectiveness, to claim the moral high ground, and to justify its non-response by painting those who are concerned as having excess emotion—they “barrage,” “accuse,” “protest,” “battle,” and “goad”—while the Church employs “tones that are reasonable and respectful.”  By claiming that their methods of argument are reasonable and respectful and their opponents’ are not, they dismiss the conversation and justify their positions.  While there are certainly strategic, valid reasons for them to avoid engagement, an appeal to intellectual tone should be seen as a strategy; saying that you are reasonable is not good evidence that you are.

And, yet, perhaps as Mormon intellectuals, we, too, are particularly prone to dissecting strong emotions and rephrasing them in more dispassionate, academically palatable tones in ways that inhibit conversations.  In fact, we often pride ourselves on being above the fray and more “complex” in our analysis, but our very desire to keep debating and complicating analysis can at times contribute to the failure to solve problems by putting them off.  We are likely to be uncomfortable when members seek to raise and address institutional issues that can often only be thoroughly understood by an appeal to emotion, including those spiritual emotions that testify to us of gospel principles. Yet, if members feel that attitudes about race or gender or SSM within the church are problematic because they have produce personal pain, then often the only viable way to establish the truth of that claim is for the person voicing the complaint to also voice the pain that he or she feels. Similarly, members whose personal pain or experience gives them strong motivation to support the church’s policies might voice their personal emotions in testimony for the other side of the issue.  The desire to voice pain can fall on any side of an ideological divide.

In such situations, appeals to emotion are not argumentative fallacies; they are valid evidence that when echoed and repeated by enough people should amount to something we can’t ignore.  They establish that something about a system is causing pain and thereby warrants scrutiny.  But revealing the evidence exacts a personal cost on the testifier.  He or she risks being dismissed as “irrational” or “emotional,” his or her feelings risk being dismissed as personal rather than products of systemic conditions, and he or she must also relive her pain and publicly position herself as a victim through the process of testifying, a process that makes him or her often sensitive to perceived or real criticism of the emotion.  Those are risks the person speaking up must accept and try to mitigate.

But, when people present emotion as evidence, as people trained in proper argument, we are likely to instinctively reduce the emotional force of the evidence, to dismiss it as emotional, or to reframe the complaint in intellectual terms.  While all of these responses are normally appropriate and productive, when emotion is evidence, then the problem is that in the eyes of the person expressing the emotion, these intellectualizing responses can be perceived as invalidating the evidence (if the evidence is dismissed because it’s emotional or if the feeling is questioned) or as a means of ignoring the evidence (if the fact that the emotion cannot be sympathized with is used as a means to end the conversation or if the desire to debate the topic is seen to lead to inaction).  This can lead to miscommunication amongst even people genuinely interested in engaging in productive conversation.

Thus in the particular cases where the nature of the evidence collides with the biases against emotion that surround proper argumentative strategy, both testifier and listener must be more careful than ever to understand the reasoning behind their comments, responses, and rhetoric and to be attuned to the context the argument develops within.  Otherwise, we risk confusing evidence with argumentative fallacy, improperly using argumentative skills to end conversations that need to be had, or, if we are the one voicing the emotion, not realizing why a testimony of pain is not evoking the desired response.

If we are to move forward in addressing the issues in our church that provoke pain, and that thus should concern all of us even if we cannot relate, then we need to make sure that emotion as evidence is responded to properly.  We need a legitimate, productive response to the pain and outrage that people present as evidence that helps us engage in a conversation.  That does not mean that we need to agree with the reforms they seek, but we do need to give legitimacy to the emotions and refrain from the fallacy of feigning or appealing to intellectualism as a way of ignoring the issue.

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  1. Karen H. says:

    Wow Natalie. You have the ability to really express thoughts that I’ve had, but haven’t been able to articulate. I often feel kind of embarrassed to express an emotional argument–but you’re right, in some instances, it can be the most effective way to express concern.

    Thanks for thinking about this and putting it to paper (or computer in this case).

  2. Nicely put. For years, I used to watch the talks given at general conference and remark at the almost tangible lack of emotion (I’m mostly referring to the 70’s and 80’s). Now, I see much more expression of emotion in these talks, and I think we might be more willing as a church and culture to accept this kind of expression of evidence. Pres. Eyring is one who comes to mind as often emotionally stirred during his talks.

    I suspect that part of this had to do with perceived gender roles; ie men did not express emotion, and women were too emotional to be taken rationally. I’m hoping this is truly changing in the church.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    I agree with you that an effective way to marginalize an opposing argument is to characterize it as being emotional. But we also need to recognize that many bad arguments rely too heavily on emotion.

    When there is genuine disagreement, I think it is best to try to use emotionally detached language. I’m not sure that is the same thing as intellectual language. The odds of being misunderstood are large anyway, and emotion is a language all by itself.

    Have said all that, I agree that there are things which are true which are also difficult to articulate in detached, unemotional terms. And that makes it even more likely that we will be misunderstood, because our listeners simply don’t understand the terms we are using.

  4. You’re right on Natalie. Members of the Church cannot afford to dismiss “emotional” (for lack of a better term) arguments because we make such arguments every time we testify of the truthfulness of the gospel. A testimony is necessarily based on a non-rational foundation, because it comes through the spirit. I have a little trouble equating spiritual evidence with emotional evidence, but it is closer to that than it is to intellectual evidence.

    I also think that prop 8 opponents have plenty to get emotional about. If we consider the argument from their point of view, we must acknowledge that their emotion is perfectly appropriate.

  5. clarkgoble says:

    Why should one assume the spirit in non-rational? Or is it non-rational the way I think a cup is in front of me by seeing it?

    While people’s testimonies can be irrational I’m not sure they necessarily are. And indeed I think the best testimonies are quite rational even if the people holding them have trouble expressing them. The conviction of truth and the reason for belief need not be the same.

    Certainly most people don’t reason in a fashion intellectuals would prefer. But leave the religious arena and think about how people reason about common everyday things. Most intellectuals don’t think they are being sufficiently skeptical or rigorous there either. Yet for most of those mundane matters I don’t think we’d say they are necessarily being irrational. (Indeed I think we typically are rational in matters of both religion and the mundane)

  6. So what is the evidence do you see when emotion come into a discussion…pain..commitment..importance.. anger?
    I believe that ‘facts’ can be stated with or without emotion.
    I believe emotion can add to Harmony and unity. It doesn’t need to bring “tension and controversy”.

  7. Emotion is fine. It just doesn’t persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. Tinkling cymbals, sounding brass.

  8. “emotion is a language all by itself”

    I totally get where you are coming from, and, as I mentioned upfront, I think we should avoid drawing on emotional language whenever possible in order to avoid problems. But I am worried about the perception that “emotion is a language all by itself,” because I think we need to develop genuine ways of bringing emotion into argument. I don’t think we yet have an effective response to emotion, but we desperately need one.

    For what it’s worth, what actually got me thinking about this topic was noticing how blogs contain a mix of expressions of emotion and impulse to formulate academic arguments that are often in tension. When blogs are serving as forums both to express emotion and to seek support and as sites were intellectual ideas are formed, then it is very easy for comments to be speaking past each other.

  9. One last comment before I turn in for the night: what really most interests me in this post is not what is right or wrong with emotion, but how we appeal to “reasonable tones,” “intellectual ideas,” or intellectual concepts like desires to complicate and further analyze in ways that are unproductive and that can be used as a means of not engaging the problems that people with emotions present. I’m most interested in comments that analyze our misuse of “detachment,” “skepticism,” etc. For example, claiming that we need to further discuss whether global warming is real is a classic example of appealing to values of discussion in order to ignore an issue that requires action. On what kinds of issues might we do this in the church? How are we as intellectuals in part reasonable for our collective failure to respond effectively to the social issues that raise tensions in our church?

  10. I meant to say, “how are we as intellectuals in part responsible for our collective failure to respond.” Whoops.

    Do the conversational values that we have in the bloggernaccle contribute to this failure?

  11. nasamomdele says:

    Emotion expressed within the bounds of rational discourse is a powerful medium for persuasion and argument. I think that it is very rarely expressed within rational bounds.

    And what of the appeal to emotion in response to some offense or pain? What rational response is there when the offense may well be entirely justifiable? Many would suggest that an apology or empathy is in order. If offense is completely justifiable is there any rational reason for such a thing.

    Many times emotion is used a a power play to bring the argument out of reason, effectively turning discussion into conflict. The best example is prop 8 and the discussion of “rights”. When the emotional appeal turns to rights, or on the other side, morality/conviction, the grounds for discussion effectively close. Then you have a fight.

    Emotions are not stable things to begin with. It’s like playing with dynamite. It can be very powerful, for better or for worse.

  12. Interesting discussion.

    Many times emotion is used a a power play to bring the argument out of reason, effectively turning discussion into conflict.

    This is where I get stuck when I think through this post.

    I think acknowledging pain is important, but there is a corollary to that, too. I know you get to that a little…it takes ‘both sides’ to make communication work when there is such a tension.

    As to the bloggernacle, I think sometimes emotion actually wins out…sometimes compassion will dominate over doctrine, or sympathy for or focus on people’s pain will dominate over reason, etc.

    Another thought I have had while reading this is that pain is also in and of itself not necessarily evidence of truth, so I can get stuck on the word evidence. (It can be evidence of someone’s reality at the moment, but that is not the same thing as truth in the absolute sense.) Sometimes (often, imo) mortal pain can be evidence of a distortion of (or incomplete view of) truth, and in such a situation, at some point, without moving beyond the pain somehow, it will only feed on itself and fester. How best to have a conversation in such a situation is another question swimming in my mind….

  13. “Why should one assume the spirit is non-rational? Or is it non-rational the way I think a cup is in front of me by seeing it?”

    Clark, spiritual knowledge is non-rational by definition, becauser you cannot arrive at spiritual truth through rational means:

    1 Cor. 2: 13-15
    13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
    14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

  14. #7: “Emotion is fine. It just doesn’t persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you”.
    Sorry again Mark. But once the wife or daughter starts to cry, you will change your mind. ( Unless you are strong like Tom Hanks: “There’s no crying in baseball!”).
    #8: “I think we should avoid drawing on emotional language whenever possible in order to avoid problems”.
    Try that during halftime with your losing football or basketball team!
    #12: You need to watch “House” sometime. The core of the show is how can the doctors be “rational” in their Treatments, when having to deal with Emotional and Physical pain. (Theirs and their patients).

  15. Kristine says:

    It seems to me that one of the loveliest things about Joseph Smith’s work is the utter rejection of the sort of dualistic thinking that lets us posit “emotion” and “reason” as separate categories in the first place (and, incidentally, he did it about 100 years before academics got around to debunking Descartes). Intelligence is light and truth that is somehow connected to our physical bodies at resurrection, spirit is matter… This ought to teach us, I think, that thought and emotion and spiritual intuitions are embodied processes, and therefore similar. Oliver is enjoined to study it out in his mind and then pay attention to sensations in his body, doctrines distill like dew–there are dozens of ways, it seems to me, that Joseph’s language (or his way of interpreting God’s) suggests that truth is discovered not by some supposedly “rational” exercise disconnected from feeling, or, conversely, by merely wallowing in emotion and sentiment. (Here, of course, insert a lengthy disquisition on how Mormon culture in the last several decades has swung towards extreme anti-intellectualism in its description of spiritual experience, and a long list of the deleterious effects of that misunderstanding).
    Of course it won’t do for us to try to develop some novel form of discourse that unifies “reason” and “emotion”, especially if what we’re hoping to do is talk about policy with non-Mormons. But I do think the kind of conscious deliberation about how emotion can inform and enrich our understanding that Natalie here undertakes is important and potentially helpful. If nothing else, it ought to jolt those of us inclined to think we’ve won the day because our logic left someone else feeling beaten into a more sensible posture and kindly disposition.

  16. clarkgoble says:

    Clark, spiritual knowledge is non-rational by definition, becauser you cannot arrive at spiritual truth through rational means:

    MCQ, I’m afraid I just can’t buy that in the least. Certainly 1 Cor 2 isn’t saying that. It’s drawing a distinction between the natural man and spiritual man not between reason and irrationality. I think it’s really twisting those verses to make it say that.

  17. Clark, if I’m twisting them, then I’ll rest comfortably in the knowledge that I’m in good company, because that’s always how I’ve heard these verses taught. It seems to me practically an article of faith that the natural man is always trying to use only his reason to discern the things of God and is always failing, because you cannot gain spriritual truth that way.

    This story is played out in the BOM more than once; Else how are we to read the story of Korihor, who preaches pure reason to the Nephites and is struck dumb by Alma when he refuses to believe unless he receives a sign?,23,36,43,48,50-52,56-58#12

  18. Also, reading that whole chapter of 1 Cor 2 seems to support the idea that a distinction is being drawn between the wisdom of the world (i.e. intellectual wisdom, rationality, reason, that which can be discerned with the natural mind) and the wisdom of God, which is discerned only by and through the Spirit.

    I don’t see how you can read that chapter any other way than that you can’t arrive at spiritual knowledge through rational or natural means. Spiritual knowledge and spiritual truth is received only through spiritual means, wth the Spirit of God testifying to our spirit.

    Therefore, my conclusion is that a testimony of the gospel is always and inevitably irrational, and seems like foolishness to people who think pure reason, rationality and logic alone are the way to knowledge. This doesn’t really address the role of emotion, but to my way of thinking, emotional responses are how we experience communication through our spirit.

  19. RE: #18 I think the key thing you say is in the last paragraph: that some think that “pure reason, rationality and logic alone are the way to knowledge.” The operative word here is “alone.”

    But it is a mistake to then turn the other way and say it comes through emotion (alone) because emotion is just as much a matter of human existence and being as rationality. It take Paul to say the Spirit is the key thing, not rationality OR emotion. The Spirit, of course, could accompany or bear witness to someone’s reasoned thought or a deeply felt emotion. Emotion does not equal the Spirit.

    Emotion can be just as misguided/wrong as reason. Reason and emotion can also be truthful and of/in the Spirit.

  20. Keith, I wasn’t trying to equate emotional with spiritual, just as I also am not trying to demonize reason. Both intellectual and emotional arguments and aspects of our being are important and god-given. My only point was that testimony, i.e. a witness of God and spiritual truth, is not rational at it’s foundation.

  21. clarkgoble says:

    MCQ, the natural man can’t know spiritual things because by definition he denies spiritual phenomena. But saying that is irrationality is as silly as saying it is irrational to know there’s an apple in front of me because I see it. The issue isn’t reason but the data reasoned about.

    Likewise Korihor isn’t preaching pure reason. He’s preaching anti-traditionalism, the denial of foreknowledge, etc. I could see someone arguing it preaches a nascent positivism, although even that’s stretching it. But one can be rational without being a positivist.

  22. Clark, you’re arguing about semantics. Of course it’s anti-traditionalism! But why is he against the traditions of their fathers? Read the words:

    13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.
    14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.
    15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.
    16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.
    17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.
    18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

    Why are all these spiritual truths foolish and vain and the product of deranged and frenzied minds, Clark? Because they are not rational. They can’t be proven by reason. They can’t be seen or touched. They require faith, which is a product of the spirit.

    Also: “the natural man can’t know spiritual things because by definition he denies spiritual phenomena.” and the reason that he does that, Clark, is because the natural man relies on his senses only, which is a very reasonable and rational thing to do, but it is not spiritual, which is the only way to learn spiritual truth.

  23. clarkgoble says:

    While there’s definitely a semantic argument going on, I’m not sure that’s all that’s going on. (I confess though I’m confused about exactly what you consider “reason.”) To deny a class of truths doesn’t appear to address reasons. In Korihor’s rant (which admittedly we only get indirectly from a biased source) it sounds more to me like competing religions with one side simply denying claims of the other.

    When you say the natural man “relies on his senses only” that’s not really a claim about reason versus unreason. At least as I can see. For several reasons. For one there are a whole lot of people who deny empiricism (of which I take positivism as a more narrow form). Not all these people are theists. There are many atheistic non-empiricists. Do we really want to say that they are irrational?

  24. clarkgoble says:

    Let me give an example, by the way. Is mathematical thinking rational? Is it knowing via the senses? (Some empiricists of course claim this, saying it’s either arbitrary rules or generalizations based upon sense data)

    Likewise look at what Korihor teaches. It’s moral relativism. There are lots of people who are moral realists (say Utilitarians), who aren’t theists, and who would deny much of what Korihor says. Are they being rational?

  25. Intriguing questions Clark.

    “it sounds more to me like competing religions with one side simply denying claims of the other.”

    Only if you consider agnosticism to be a religion. To me, he’s denying the possibility of faith or belief in God because it is not provable by the only means that he recognizes: His senses (remember that he asks for a sign).

    “When you say the natural man “relies on his senses only” that’s not really a claim about reason versus unreason.”

    It’s about reason because it always considered logical and rational to rely on empirical data for knowledge. That is the way the natural man learns things. Anything outside of that is considered foolish and irrational, and is therefore rejected.

    Is mathematical thinking rational? Is it knowing via the senses?

    Yes, I think so, but that’s hardly relevant. What we’re talking about is whether a testimony of the gospel can be based on the rational or intellectual, or whether it is, by definition, irrational because it can only come through the spirit. I don’t see how math enters into that question.

    I’m not sure if I’d say that Korihor is a moral relativist per se, but again, I don’t think it matters. The story is in the BoM, in my view, to teach the same principle I am arguing for here: spiritual truth is discerned by the spirit. Intellectual inquiry, while valuable, is not the way that we arrive at a knowledge of God.

    Korihor was trying to teach people to focus on the rational only, because he knew if they followed his advice, they would reject God as ever knowable. Alma showed the flaw in this approach and ultimately, that Korihor was not just a competing religionist, but a liar.

  26. think, that thought and emotion and spiritual intuitions are embodied processes, and therefore similar.

    Perhaps some of the problem is when emotion and/or thought are brought to the table without Spirit, then.

    I can think of many situations where one or the other has dominated, so I think Natalie has an important point. But maybe it’s as “simple” as saying that what needs to be present for barriers to come down and communication to really happen is the Spirit.

  27. Well I tend to see Korihor as preaching a competing religion that isn’t monotheistic and is not tied to Judaism. But since there’s a fair bit of speculation in that I’ll not push it. I will say it is quite anachronistic to read into Korihor modern secular humanism which you appear to be doing. I don’t think it fits the text although as you note others have done so.

    In any case lets look at the issue an other way. It is equivocating over the term “rational” to take Korihor’s perceived use of reason and then extend it to other senses of reason. Korihor is at best providing an idiocyncratic view of what reason is. Just because Korihor says it doesn’t mean he’s right. Further to be in opposition to Korihor’s view of epistemology doesn’t mean that somehow you are being irrational simply because Korihor might think you are.

    My whole point about bringing up those other movements was to show that reason is much broader than some claim it. So to say that the natural man is the rational man and the spiritual man is not is simply to buy into Korihor’s views. But if Korihor is an anti-Christ (and by the BoM account very deceptive) why should we accept his view of what reason is at all?

    Effectively you are accepting Korihor even as you argue against him.

  28. BTW – the reason mathematics is very relevant is because if it is not known by the senses but is known rationally then one argument against a testimony fails. So I’m surprised you don’t see the relevance of this. The whole point is to attack how you are using the the word “rational.” There’s a lot of equivocation going on.

  29. “Effectively you are accepting Korihor even as you argue against him.”

    LOL Clark!

    I did not say that a spiritual man is not rational. I just said that a testimony of God is not based on reason, but on the spirit, which the natural man rejects. A spiritual person rejects neither, but relies on the spirit for spiritual knowledge.

    I’ll concede the point that mathematics is rational while not being directly perceived by the senses, but I still think that the “natural man” is essentially a rational being who relies on reason and rejects anything he perceives as irrational, including anything spiritual. That is why the natural man is an enemy to God and will never accept spiritual evidence of God’s existence. Think Bill Maher.

    My point was that a testimony is necessarily derived from spiritual i.e. non-rational sources. You said you didn’t buy that, but you still haven’t come up with anything that refutes it.

  30. And my point is that you only say that by buying into Korihor’s definition of reason. If you reject Korihor as deceptive why accept his sense of reason when many non-theists don’t even buy it.

  31. To add I just don’t think the spiritual is necessarily non-rational. Again we have to be clear on what reason is. Korihor’s answer (to the degree we don’t simply fill it in with anachronistic readings of positivism) just isn’t a good one.

  32. “And my point is that you only say that by buying into Korihor’s definition of reason.”

    Come on Clark, that’s silly. I just used the Korihor story to point out that the BoM is telling us that those that enshrine reason as the only way to truth are deceiving themselves and others.

    “To add I just don’t think the spiritual is necessarily non-rational.”

    Fine, but that’s not what we’re talking about. My point is more specific than that: Not all spirituality, but specifically a testimony of the gospel comes throught the spirit and not through reason. If you think my definition of reason is off then give me a better one. If you think a testimony of the gospel can be based on reason or intellectual evidence, then give me an example of when that has ever happened in the history of the world. I think you can’t.