Emotion


Last time, I pointed out how some writers worry that the cure for a common enemy of critical thinking (disinformation) might be worse than the disease.


Continuing along those same counter-intuitive lines, might other alleged enemies of good reasoning actually be friends?


For example, I was recently on a panel at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, TX where I and fellow panelists discussed the role critical thinking plays in media literacy. A point the panelists argued was whether emotions – particularly the kind of emotions ginned up on social media – make solid reasoning difficult, if not impossible.


Long-time LogicCheck readers may have read this piece on pathos, part of a series on Aristotle’s three Modes of Persuasion (alongside logos – logic, and ethos – connection).

Pathos translates to "emotion," and in that piece on pathos I described why including emotional appeals in an argument is not necessarily illegitimate, especially in situations where logic alone cannot settle a matter (such as situations involving selecting between competing, equally legitimate goods).


I also pointed out that all emotions are not the same since some of them (such as compassion, curiosity, and love) are clearly good, while others (like anger, fear, and hatred) are generally bad. So emotional appeals that draw on good emotions, used judiciously in arguments that are also built on a solid logical foundation, can make those arguments more powerful and persuasive without necessarily making them mushy or manipulative.


Reflecting on that SXSW debate over the role of emotion in social-media, I think the concern was not over emotion per se, but rather over the prevalence of bad emotion driving discourse on these platforms.


Not that good emotion cannot also be found in tweets and posts, from the warm feelings people get while looking at shared photos of puppies and babies, to the sympathy and concern generated by TikTok videos featuring human suffering (such as those coming out of Ukraine). But even here we need to be on the lookout for times when people are trying to take advantage of good emotion to manipulate an audience.


For example, human suffering generally has a cause, and when that suffering is the result of war, there is often suffering that takes place on both sides of a conflict. Ignoring the causes of human suffering, or intentionally communicating the suffering of one side but not the other, are common ways people try to take advantage of human compassion to get others to accept a narrative or point of view without thinking things through.


So I would say that concern over the role emotion plays in social-media communication was not a broadside against emotion generally, but rather an argument that claimed the brevity of social media communication combined with the tendency of arguments that appeal solely to “high-valence” emotions (such as anger, fear, or even misplaced or de-contextualized sympathy) to go viral make this form of communication highly susceptible to demagoguery.


While these concerns are legitimate, you will likely find in your social media feeds links to articles that make less impassioned pleas, ones that rely primarily on factors like logical arguments supported by evidence and reasons. For example, I suspect that the near unanimous US and European support for the Ukrainians in their current war with Russia has as much to do with reasoned judgement that Russia is the aggressor in that conflict as it does with images of horrific suffering.


Given that critical-thinking is a real-world skill, rather than an exercise in purely mechanical steps, those who want to master that skill need to understand that human beings are emotional as well as rational animals. We also need to internalize, through understanding and experience, how emotion can overwhelm as well as support reason.


If the notion of emotion supporting reason seems counter-intuitive, consider an example many of you may be familiar with: child rearing. Speaking as a parent, I can think of countless occasions when love for my children proved to be a valuable source of data that supported reasoned decision-making.


For example, even before my kids could talk, the emotional bond we shared helped me understand when a cry meant they were hungry, tired, or in pain. That data – provided through the emotions of caring and concern – help me choose the best course of action, whether that action involved feeding them, comforting them, or putting them to bed.


In LogicCheck terms, information provided through emotional connections became the premises of arguments, the conclusions of which determined what course of action stood the best chance of ending a baby’s cry. While I didn’t think of what I was doing as a parent in those terms at the time, upon reflection I realize that cutting myself off from emotion would have made me less effective as a parent and as a critical thinker.