Basics of Argumentation: Purpose of Emotion
The Purpose Of Emotion: Pathos
Aristotle, you remember, pointed out that every argument has three characteristics, and all work together to persuade the audience (or to undermine the speaker's message). These are sometimes called modes of persuasion or rhetorical appeals.
- Ethos: Whether the messenger is believable—what can you guess about the messenger's character, etc.
- Logos: The logic and facts of the argument itself.
- Pathos: Whether the argument appeals to the needs and emotions of the listener.
(Some writers include a fourth appeal, Kairos, season or opportunity. The right time for me to argue that you should vote for my candidate would be a month or so before the election, not a year or two, and certainly not after the election. Is there an urgency to the appeal? Must we do something now?)
The difference between argument and persuasion is closely connected with emotion.
- Argument → Conviction
- Persuasion → Action
If I have argued a point successfully, my audience might believe it, but won't necessarily do anything. People won't usually change their behavior unless they feel it's a good idea: simple facts won't lead them to stop smoking, recycle their cans, vote for my candidate, or implement a new curriculum.
Note: Unless you are writing a diary entry, your purpose is never to make yourself feel better or to "get it all out there." The point here isn't necessarily for the writer to get emotional (angry or sad or whatever), but to use emotion as a tool to advance your argument.
Uses of emotional appeal
- Emotions build bridges. You want your audience to read everything you have to say, so you want them on your side. One thing you definitely don't want to do is alienate your opposition (unless the paper's purpose is to "preach to the choir"). Calling them names will simply result in your writing being ignored (or worse).
- Identification: If, for example, you want better accommodations for wheelchair users, you should strive to help your readers to understand the difficulties associated with using a wheelchair.
- Personal benefit: Humans naturally ask, "What's in it for me?" A wheelchair-friendly campus could benefit the rest of us too: those who are temporarily injured, those who are carrying large packages, etc. Such a campus could attract quality students who find other places difficult to manage.
- Emotions can sustain an argument. The energy that comes from the writer's sense of purpose, together with factual and logical argument, can form a powerful mix. Just don't shortchange the facts and logic for the sake of adrenaline.
Some Fallacies of Emotional Argument
Scare Tactics (Argumentum ad baculum)
- Definition: If you don't agree, you'll be beaten up.
- Example: "Senator Joseph McCarthy is hunting down communists. If I dissented from his policy, I'd be seen as supporting the communism, and as anti-American. I am a good American citizen, therefore McCarthy's policy is correct."
Sentimental Appeal (argumentum ad misericordiam)
- Definition: A tug on the heartstrings that has nothing to do with the facts or logic of the matter. Variations include an appeal to patriotism, to family values, etc.
- Example: "Your honor, my client deserves leniency because his mother is ill, his cat has a hairball, and his brother is out of work."
- Definition: In debate or rhetoric, the slippery slope is an argument for the likelihood of one event or trend given another. Invoking the "slippery slope" means arguing that one action will initiate a chain of events that will lead to a (generally undesirable) event later.
- Example: "Mothers of River City, heed that warning before it's too late! Watch for the telltale signs of corruption! The minute your son leaves the house, does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee? Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger? A dime-novel hidden in the corncrib? Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang? Are certain words creeping into his conversation? Words like 'swell' and 'so's your old man'? If so my friends, ya got trouble!" (Professor Harold Hill, from The Music Man)
- Definition: Go with the majority; don't think for yourself.
- Example: "Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat—approve the launch of the Challenger." (Before the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, several engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company which made the solid-fuel boosters, were concerned about the safety of the launch conditions, but they were pressured by their own supervisors and by NASA to approve the launch anyhow because it was a good public-relations move. The weather at launch was quite cold for Florida and the O-rings which sealed the engine parts were recycled from previous launches, so they did not seal properly, which caused the explosion, destroying the craft and killing all aboard.)
Emotion out of control
Many student papers on highly emotional topics (abortion, gay marriage, drug abuse, or gun control, for example) tell us more about the writer's feeling of outrage (or nausea) than they tell about the topic:
Abortion is the killing of a child before the birth. They usually take a needle and put it into the mothers womb, and kill it. Although that is not the only way to do it. There are other ways also of killing a child. There is a abortion called have abortion. It comes out of the womb half way, then they kill it. To me that is just sick. I think that it is in humane to kill a live child. Just think, it is alive. It needs oxygen to breath. It needs food to live. And if you don't take care of the baby, it wouldn't come out. Like if you do drugs or alcohol, it will ruin the child.*
There are so many things one could say about this paragraph:
- Begging the question: A central question in the abortion discussion is whether it's proper to call a fetus a "child" (and how early in the pregnancy that word would apply). In the first sentence, this author has announced that it's a settled issue and we're not going to discuss it.
- Faulty analogy: Somehow drugs and/or alcohol "ruin the child" in the same way abortion does.
- Ethos: All those major grammar and spelling errors undermine our confidence, along with the rather unusual statement that inadequate prenatal care will result in the fetus staying inside the mother. The author isn't in control of the facts.
- Appeal to the author's authority: The author expects the audience to agree because the author thinks these things. ("To me …" "I think that …")
- Bathos (in the sense of "insincere or overdone pathos"): The author has the pedal to the metal on the "ick factor." The author tries to recruit the audience's emotions with "Just think," but has already called the pro-abortion side "just sick" (meaning, apparently, "perverted" or "deranged").
- Red herring: The whole discussion had to do with abortion, so why are we worried about the child breathing or eating after being born?
- Audience awareness: Many on the pro-choice side of the abortion issue do not believe that the fetus is a "child." They won't be convinced by this argument, but they will react to being called "just sick."
Bottom line: There's really nothing in this little paragraph except emotion. Those who agree with the author are embarrassed because all the grammatical and factual errors send the message that their position is just a bunch of screaming. Those who disagree with the author will not be moved at all by the ranting. As an argument, it loses badly.
*This paragraph came from a paper posted on one of those websites that offers free papers you can download and submit as your own. Obviously this paper's own merits are somewhere below the D minus category, even without the plagiarism issue.
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Revised 6/25/20 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: email@example.com.