Emotion as Logic

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We shouldn’t use the adjective “logical” as a reward for people who think like we do.  Nor can we dismiss the views of others we oppose by simply naming their statements as “emotional.”

One of the overworked judgments we often make about the communications of others is that the things which excite them are motivated by more “emotion” than “logic.”  This is an old and stale dichotomy that clings to communication analysis like Velcro.  Even though the distinction goes back as far as Aristotle, it’s proven to be nearly useless as a useful tool of insight.  But this mental habit is slow to die. Thus, a law school professor regrets that “emotion can activate any behavior which has not been inhibited by reason.”1  And a defense attorney in a recent murder case expresses satisfaction that “We got 12 people that said they could look at the case based on reason, based on the evidence and not based on emotion.”2

There was perhaps a time when a person might appear to be saying something insightful about another’s errant thoughts by selling them short as “emotional rants.”  But the judgment is now mostly a cop out: usually an attempt to dismiss another’s ideas as not worthy of serious consideration.  Most of us have an image of emotion as the wayward and undisciplined child that parents could never control.

The more accurate view more in line with current thinking about everyday reasoning and cognitive psychology is that when we have strong feelings about some subjects, our heightened emotions are actually a function of a reasoning sequence, not a replacement for one.  The next time you find yourself particularly agitated, consider the reasons you feel that way.  You’ll surely find them. Just because someone else’s good reasons are not our’s is not sufficient justification to waive off the legitimacy of what has been said.  The critic Kenneth Burke made the same point years ago, noting that descriptions of Adolph Hitler prior to and during World War II made a hash of understanding his appeals by calling them “emotional.”  Hitler had his reasons for striking out at his neighbors and demonizing segments of his own population.  To be sure, they were awful.  But there was an internal logic at work flowing partly from a long-embedded norm of antisemitism, as well as psychic wounds that remained after World War I.

Important thinkers like Stephen Toulmin have reminded us that practical argumentation proceeds from logics that may indeed have faulty premises or bad evidence.  But even logics of hate are often built on reasoning sequences that need to be understood as entailing a conclusion or world view.  That’s what practical logic is about: reasoning from premises and evidence to a conclusion that follows.

The proper ground for assessing another’s view is usually with reference to the moral consequences of their assertions.  Give people their due: they probably have a reasoning process for their understanding of how the world is constituted; that reasoning has no doubt intensified their feelings.  What is more productive as a critique of a passionate conclusion is whether the advocate has considered the consequences of their reasoning, especially cherished principles that may be violated. From this perspective we may understand why someone has concerns about undocumented workers “taking” the jobs of Americans. We may question the factual basis of the claim.  We may want to call the claim irrational and emotional. But we would get further to ask if the remedies to this ostensible problem (mass deportation, separating family members, and so on) creates more misery than it solves. That question begs us to consider whether we have the compassion to treat all humans–regardless of their status–with a reasonable level of decency.  With this kind of analysis we are bound to create more light than heat.  As the conservative critic Richard Weaver sought to remind us, “Ideas have consequences.”

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[1] Gray L. Dorsey, “Symbols: Vehicles of Reason or of Emotion?” in Lyman Bryson, Louis Finkelstein, R. M. McIver, and Richard McKeon (Eds.), Symbols and Values: An Initial Study (New York: Cooper Square, 1964), p. 445.

[2] Katharine Seelye, “Tragedy From Last Season Lingers in Lake George,” New York Times, April 21, 2017, p. A24.