“Well how would you feel if someone did that you to you?” Libertarians, among others, often pose this question in response to what they presume to be statist propositions. It is a sort of emotional appeal intended to cause their opponent to second guess his own position and, instead, consider an offered alternative. In some cases, it receives moderate levels success. Some individuals can be thoroughly persuaded by such rhetoric, but that is precisely what it is: rhetoric. Appeals to emotion are one of the basest fallacies which defenders of liberty can commit, and they ought to be absolutely avoided.
For one thing, emotions are not primaries. Instead, emotions are the conclusion of a complex set of sensory inputs which are then implicitly read, translated, and comprehended by the brain. Or, in some cases, emotions are elicited through retained sets of these inputs in the form of “memories,” or from internal imaginative extrapolations upon these inputs which are expressed in the real world in the form of art. The output of an emotion, any emotion, is entirely involuntarily in a psychological sense insofar as these processes will occur automatically regardless of whether man is actively engaged in conscious processes of thought or not. Upon examining man’s emotions in a philosophic context, the degree of control which man can exert over exactly which emotions he feels and exhibits in relation to certain inputs becomes apparent. Though this certainly warrants further discussion below, the more immediate point to make is that emotions are secondary responses to the primary foundation of man’s knowledge: metaphysical reality.
Sense data are the root of man’s knowledge. It has been argued by some philosophers, David Hume being one of the most notable examples, that while our senses are our only links to reality, they are untrustworthy. After all, the data collected by our senses mean nothing until deciphered by the brain into comprehensible sights, sounds, feelings (i.e. the sense of touch), tastes, and smells. Furthermore, there are instances in which people can hallucinate and believe that they are experiencing something that is, in fact, nonexistent. Thus, concludes Hume and other skeptics, we can never truly be certain of anything and we trust our senses only as a matter of pragmatism – we do not know why they work, and we do not even know if they do work, but they appear to work, and we employ them on a daily basis as a consequence. Does this mean that human beings have no true, reliable basis for their knowledge as asserted by the skeptics?
No, and furthermore, the entire argument is an evasion of the Law of Identity. All knowledge is necessarily tautological, meaning all things which are true must necessarily be true. Man is an animal with five senses and a faculty of reason – he is afforded no other means of understanding reality and, as it applies to his senses, no other means of even detecting it. The only thing relevant to man is the internal validity of these senses. Desiring another standard of validation by which man could confirm his existing faculties is a desire for man to be something other than man – for him to possess that which he does not and for him to be that which he is not. This is contrary to the Law of Identity which states that man (including all associated properties with omitted measurements) is man. It suggests that man’s cognitive faculties could be wrong by some alternate, undetectable standard that man does not possess in the first place. If one man experiences a deficiency in one or more of his senses, he must rely on his faculty of reason, based off the examination of other men, to realize he possesses the deficiency (the examination, still, being the standard of validity). But, he cannot bring into question the whole of his cognitive being and do so effectively for he possesses no means to do so, and need not – the world as it is to man, not to “non-man,” is all that is important to man.
But how does this relate to arguments from emotion? Well first, it validates the proposition that man’s senses are a legitimate standard which he can utilize in order to understand reality. The necessary next step is to demonstrate that man’s emotions are not legitimate foundations on which man can rest intellectual arguments. This requires a joint understanding of two things: philosophy and psychology.
As stated, emotions are triggered either by external stimuli or internal memory/imagination (jointly referred to as “reflections” for the purposes of this piece), but the stimuli and reflections themselves do not give any indication of the emotional response which will follow from them. The simple fact that people displayed such a wide variety of emotional responses on something as deeply important as the killing of Osama bin Laden alone demonstrates the truth in this assertion. So what, then, is the link between stimuli/reflections and man’s emotions?
The answer is man’s philosophy or, more specifically, his values which follow from that philosophy. If man’s mind is the computer which automatically processes this information into its consequent emotions, then a man’s philosophy is the programming which determines the outputs in relation to the inputs. He has no control over his emotions insofar as they are automatic responses, but he does control them insofar as he can choose the “programming” he possesses.
Emotions are responses to stimuli/reflections as they affect man’s internal value system. Those things which affect his values positively will be followed by positive emotions – things which affect his values negatively will be followed by negative emotions. The intensity of each response is determined by the importance of said value to man (determined by its relation to his ultimate value, whether it be his life, as under a rational philosophy, or something else) coupled with the degree to which these values are affected. But, the emotions which follow from these values make no distinction between whether said values are rational or not – those with irrational philosophies experience emotions as well (or apathy, if their philosophy is one which places value in nothing), but those emotions are in direct conflict with how man should respond to those stimuli/reflections under a rational code of values.
This rational code of values is the result of a philosophy which accepts man’s own life as the only metaphysical end in itself. Additionally, man’s life serves as the ultimate value from which the correctness of all subsequent values can be determined, and a morality of long-term, rational self-interest allows man to pursue those values. Such is the philosophy which produces rational emotions, and such is the philosophy which few men demonstrate consistently.
Because all men do not possess a rational philosophy, appealing to emotion is no basis of objective argument from which one’s position should be defended. There is a wide level of variation in responses which different men could exhibit to the same situation, and one immediately concedes the validity of one’s position, even if it is rational, when it is defended from the perspective of how it “makes one feel.” This fallacy opens the door for individuals who possess any number of irrational codes of values to disagree and instantaneously turn the premises of the original arguer against him. For example, the simple question, “How would you feel if the government forcibly took your income and reallocated it to someone else?” would immediately serve the benefit of altruists like Warren Buffet who would respond, “Most [of us] wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.”
Instead, man should constantly argue from unshakeable principles of logic. These principles are either necessarily true, such as the Law of Identity, the Law of Noncontradiction, and the Law of Excluded Middle, or are derived in some way or another from more basic and necessarily true principles, all of which are derived from metaphysical reality. As an example, I will repeat an excerpt from a previous piece entitled “A Brief Overview of Just Law”: “For any and all values, an ultimate value must exist by which the lesser values can be judged – the same goes for all actions undertaken to achieve those values. For man, the ultimate value is life, his own life, without which all other values would cease to exist. Because man faces no alternatives to his state of existence which he could actually experience after death, it is impossible for him to have any values in death. Though a man has the right to give up his life if he wants to (as it is his), man’s life is still the only metaphysical end in itself, and it applies to all men. As a result, life is the objective ultimate value from which objective codes of ethics and law can be derived.”
Can and will people argue against this? Of course – as John Locke stated in Chapter II of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, even principles as infallible as the Law of Identity and the Law of Noncontradiction will receive dissent from the likes of children and idiots. Even so, it is irrefutable, lest philosophic opponents manage to prove that man can somehow attain alternatives to his state of existence in death or that the correctness of all values is determined by something other than a teleological end goal – both of which situations would be an evasion of the Law of Identity as it relates to concepts such as “values,” “correctness,” “life,” “man,” and “death” among others.
As they are, emotional appeals are an extension of subjectivist schools of thought – they allow for different conclusions to be drawn based off a variable epistemological foundation. They fail to identify secondary mental products of emotions from the primary objective premises which are reality, and they fail to identify the link between the two. Not only that, but they make no distinction between correct responses from those premises and incorrect responses, instead falsely presupposing that all men experience the same emotion from the same hypothetical situation (or, worse, that all men are correct in the emotion they experience even if it does vary). All such appeals to emotion are equally faulty and, even in a situation in which one’s value system is the same as that of one’s opponent, it is not the defense that rational positions deserve – reality is the ultimate defense against the onslaught of irrational fallacies, and it is the only defense necessary. So leave the ethos to high school debate teams; true argumentative strength is derived from logos.