Alias: Irrelevant Emotional Appeal1
Mark Antony: If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle. I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on.…
Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through.
See what a rent the envious Casca made.
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabbed,
And as he plucked his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it…
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all.
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquished him. Then burst his mighty heart,
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statue,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.
O, now you weep, and I perceive you feel
The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.
Kind souls, what, weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar's vesture wounded? Look you here,
Here is himself, marred, as you see, with traitors.7
An appeal to emotion is a type of argument or rhetorical technique that attempts to arouse the emotions of its audience in order to gain acceptance of a conclusion or bring about a change in behavior. Such an appeal is fallacious when emotion bypasses or overwhelms the audience's reason, leading to irrational beliefs or behavior.
Despite the example of Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek television series, emotion is not always out of place in logical thinking. So, emotional appeals are not always fallacious.
When are appeals to emotion appropriate, and when are they fallacious? No student would attempt to prove a mathematical theorem by playing upon the teacher's sympathy for the long hours of hard work put into it. Such an appeal would be obviously irrelevant, since either the proof is correct or it is flawed, despite the student's best efforts. In contrast, if the teacher attempts to motivate the student to work on proving the theorem by invoking the specter of a failing grade, this appeal to fear is not irrelevant.
So, one distinction between relevant and fallacious appeals to emotion is based on the distinction between arguments which aim to motivate us to action, and those which are intended to convince us to believe something. Appeals to emotion are usually fallacious when intended to influence our beliefs, but they are sometimes reasonable when they aim to motivate us to act. The fact that we desire something to be true is no reason to believe it, and the fact that we fear something being true is no reason to disbelieve it; but the desire for something is often a good reason to pursue it, and fear of something a good reason to flee.
Even when appeals to emotion aim at motivating us, there is still a way that they may fail to be rational, namely, when what we are being persuaded to do has insufficient connection with what is arousing our emotion. For instance, a familiar type of emotional appeal is the appeal to pity or sympathy, which is used by many charities. Photographs of crippled or hungry children are shown in order to arouse one's desire to help them, with the charity trying to motivate you to write a check. However, there may be little or no connection between your check and the poor children you wish to help. Certainly, your money will probably not help the specific children you see in such appeals. At best, it may go to help some similar children who need help. At worst, it may go into further fundraising efforts, or into the pockets of the people who work for the charity.
In such cases, what is needed is an argument that there is a causal connection between the action motivated by emotion and the circumstances that arouse that emotion. Will writing a check help the pitiful children? Will voting for this candidate help prevent frightening circumstances? If all that a charity or candidate does is arouse emotions, that is no reason to give them money or votes. When we feel strong emotions, we want to do something, but we need good reasons to believe that the something we do will work.
This passage is part of Mark Antony's famous, rabble-rousing funeral oration for Julius Caesar from Shakespeare's play. Antony is using an appeal to pity to stir up the crowd to riot against Caesar's assassins. He does so by, first, pointing out the holes in Caesar's mantle―a cloak―made by the assassins' daggers; then, at the end of the passage, he whips away the cloak to reveal Caesar's dead body with its wounds. Antony's emotional appeal is successful and, at the end of the speech, the crowd departs to burn the houses of the assassins. Antony knows exactly what he's doing, for he comments as the crowd leaves:
Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot;
Take thou what course thou wilt!8
- T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (3rd edition, 1994), pp. 44-56.
- In Latin: argumentum ad invidiam; translation: "argument to envy". See: Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (1985).
- In Latin: argumentum ad metum; translation: "argument to fear". See: David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970), p. 304.
- In Latin: argumentum ad odium; translation: "argument to hatred". See Fischer, p. 304.
- In Latin: argumentum ad misericordiam; translation: "argument to pity". See: Eugene Ehrlich, Veni, Vidi, Vici: Conquer Your Enemies, Impress Your Friends with Everyday Latin (1995), under "ad misericordiam".
- In Latin: argumentum ad superbiam; translation: "argument to pride". See Fischer, p. 304.
- William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar", III.ii.160-163, 165-169 & 172-188.