Skip to comments.A Freeper's Introduction to Rhetoric (Part 4, the Appeal to Emotion and the Appeal to Force)
Posted on 12/22/2003 5:47:04 AM PST by general_re
This common fallacy and the two that follow it are so evidently fallacious that they require little explanation. In each case, the premisses plainly are not relevant to the conclusion and are deliberately chosen as instruments with which to manipulate the beliefs of the listener or reader.
The argument ad populum, the appeal to emotion (literally "to the people," and by implication to the mob's easily aroused emotions) is the device of every propagandist and demagogue. It is fallacious because it replaces the laborious task of presenting evidence and rational argument with expressive language and other devices calculated to excite enthusiasm, excitement, anger, or hate. The speeches of Adolph Hitler, which whipped up his German listeners to a state of patriotic frenzy, may be taken as a classic example. Love of country is an honorable emotion. The manipulation of one's audience by appealing inappropriately to that love is intellectually disreputable leading to Samuel Johnson's caustic observation that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
The heaviest reliance on arguments ad populum is to be found in commercial advertising, where its use has been elevated almost to the status of a fine art. The products advertised are associated, explicitly or slyly, with things that we yearn for or that excite us favorably. Breakfast cereal is associated with trim youthfulness, athletic prowess, and vibrant good health; whiskey is associated with luxury and achievement, and beer with high adventure; the automobile is associated with romance, riches, and sex. The men depicted using the advertised product are generally handsome and distinguished, the women sophisticated and charming or hardly dressed at all. So clever and persistent are the ballyhoo artists of our time that we are all influenced to some degree, in spite of our resolution to resist. Almost every imaginable device may be used to command our attention, even to penetrate our subconscious thoughts. We are manipulated by relentless appeals to emotion of every kind.
The mere association of the product and the emotion is, by itself, no argument, but an argument ad populum commonly lies not far beneath the surface. When advertisers make claims about their products designed to win our emotional approval, and when it is suggested that we ought to make some purchase because the item in question is "sexy" or "bestselling" or is associated with wealth or power, the implicit claim that this conclusion follows from such premisses is plainly fallacious.
Some instances of the argument ad populum are brazen. Here are the exact words of a 1992 advertisement on ABC-TV:
Why are so many people attracted to the Pontiac Grand Prix? It could be that so many people are attracted to the Grand Prix because so many people are attracted to the Grand Prix!
The fallacious appeal to what is popular is certainly not a uniquely American failing. In China, a recent resurgence of irrational devotion to Chairman Mao Zedong has led to the widespread practice of hanging his picture from the rearview mirror of automobiles to ward off accidents. A taxi driver in Beijing explained:
Everybody else is doing it, so I thought it'd be a good idea too. It's high fashion.
The popular acceptance of a policy or practice does not show it to be wise; the fact that a great many people hold a given opinion does not prove it to be true. Bertrand Russell condemned such argument in language that is almost too vigorous:
The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a wide-spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.
The Appeal to Pity: Argument Ad Misericordiam
The appeal to pity (misericordiam meaning literally "a pitying heart") may be viewed as a special case of the appeal to emotion, in which the altruism and mercy of the audience are the special emotions appealed to. The attorney for a plaintiff, seeking compensatory damages for an injury, often arranges to have the client's disability revealed in the courtroom in some heartrending way. And in criminal trials, although jury sympathy has no bearing whatever on the guilt or innocence of the accused, effective defense attorneys often appeal to the pity of the jury to the extent that the circumstances allow. Sometimes that appeal is made obliquely. At his trial in Athens, Socrates referred with disdain to other defendants who had appeared before their juries accompanied by their children and families, seeking to be acquitted by evoking pity. Socrates continued:
. . . I, who am probably in danger of my life, will do none of these things. The contrast may occur to his [each juror's] mind, and he may be set against me, and vote in anger because he is displeased at me on this account. Now if there be such a person among you mind, I do not say that there is to him I may fairly reply: My friend, I am a man, and like other men, a creature of flesh and blood, and not "of wood or stone" as Homer says; and I have a family, yes, and sons, 0 Athenians, three in number, one almost a man, and two others who are still young; and yet I will not bring any of them here to petition you for acquittal.
There are many ways to pull heart strings, and virtually all are tried. The argument ad misericordiam is ridiculed in the story of the trial of a youth accused of the murder of his mother and father with an ax. Confronted with overwhelming proof of his guilt, he pleaded for leniency on the grounds that he was an orphan.
The appeal to force, to cause the acceptance of some conclusion, seems at first sight to be so obvious a fallacy as to need no discussion at all. The use or threat of "strong-arm methods" to coerce opponents would seem to be a last resort a useful expedient when evidence or rational methods fail. "Might makes right" is hardly a subtle principle.
But in fact there are occasions when appeals ad baculum (literally, "to the stick") are used with considerable subtlety. The arguer may not threaten directly and yet may convey a veiled threat, or a possible threat in a form calculated to win the assent (or at least the support) of those imperiled. When the attorney general in the Reagan administration was under strong attack in the press for misconduct, the White House chief of staff at the time, Howard Baker, opened one meeting of his staff by saying:
The President continues to have confidence in the Attorney General and I have confidence in the Attorney General and you ought to have confidence in the Attorney General, because we work for the President and because that's the way things are. And if anyone has a different view of that, or any different motive, ambition, or intention, he can tell me about it because we're going to have to discuss your status.
One may say that nobody is fooled by argument of this sort; the threatened party may behave appropriately but need not, in the end, accept the truth of the conclusion insisted upon. To this it was answered, by representatives of twentieth-century Italian fascism, that real persuasion can come through many different instruments, of which reason is one and the blackjack is another. But once the opponent is truly persuaded, they held, the instrument of persuasion may be forgotten. That fascist view appears to guide many of the governments of the globe to this day; but the argument ad baculum reliance on the club, or on the threat of force in any form is by reason unacceptable. The appeal to force is the abandonment of reason.
Have a Merry Christmas, hope Santa brings you a big 'ol rawhide bone.
Just teasing, please keep them coming, they are quite educational.
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