What is Emotional Appeals?

It would be a strange world if none of us were influenced by emotions. This influence steps over the boundary into the territory of logical fallacy, however, when it becomes the means of deciding the soundness of an argument. The emotions which influence our behaviour should not influence our judgement on questions of fact. While it might be appropriate to show pity to a convicted criminal, it is certainly not sound procedure to let pity affect our judgement of whether or not he committed the crime.

Recognition that reason and emotion have separate spheres of influence is as old as Plato’s division of the soul. David Hume put it succinctly, telling us that passion moves us to act, whereas reason directs the course of those actions. Emotion, in other words, motivates us to do things, but reason enables us to calculate what to do.

Separate spheres they may inhabit, but sophists and tricksters have long known ways of making emotions invade the territory of reason. Once whipped up, the emotions can be set at such a gallop that they easily clear the gulf between their domain and that of reason. A complete range of fallacies is available, with as many names as there are emotions to draw on.

In addition to the ones important enough or common enough to be covered by separate treatment, there is a list of assorted and miscellaneous emotions, complete with Latin tags, which can be drawn upon at one time or another to lead reason astray from its intended course. The unwary sailor is entranced by the alluring calls of the appeal to fear (argumentum ad metum), to envy (ad invidiam), to hatred (ad odium), to superstition (ad superstitionem) and to pride (ad superbiam). There is even more to tempt our preference for a quiet time with an appeal to a just proportion of everything (ad modum), and one which actually says straight out that sentiment is a better guide than reason (sentimens superior). Unless one deliberately blocks out the pull of these emotions, as the sailors of Odysseus blocked up their ears to the allure of the Sirens’ call, it is difficult not to be influenced. Therein lies their enduring effectiveness as fallacies.


Those who still oppose nuclear disarmament should study the effects of a thermonuclear blast. It can melt the eyeballs and vapourize human flesh from great distances.

(This argumentum ad metum can be intensified by the use of photographs and films and simulated burns, and anything else which might distract the audience from asking whether nuclear disarmament will make it more or less likely.)


There is no way in which Robinson could have solved the problem.

It would make him better than we are.

(Right. Envy will not affect the outcome, though a timely ad invidiam might persuade people not to believe it.)


The secret of using these fallacies is a simple one. Take the trouble to discover the emotional disposition of your audience and use language calculated to arouse that emotion. When you have built it up assiduously by means of graphic descriptions, you turn it to bear on the question of fact. Very few audiences are able to turn it off abruptly; most will allow it to flood out onto the area normally reserved for reasoned assessment. Whether your appeal is to fear, envy, hatred, pride or superstition makes no difference. Indeed, you can use them alternately. Pride in one’s own race, class or nation can be appealed to, even as envy of others is built up, perhaps to the point where an ad odium becomes possible.

The argumentum ad modum deserves a special mention because its appeal is to the audience’s desire for gradualism. An audience is most vulnerable to it when they are trying to be reasonable. They equate reason with a quiet life, thinking that something admitted in due measure is more likely to be right.

Like the argumentum ad temperantiam, which urges the middle course between extremes, the ad modum appeals to that most ancient of maxims which recommends moderation in all things. You should always introduce your subtle appeal to lure them away from reason by urging your audience:

Let’s be reasonable about this.

(A strong emotional appeal for the quiet life.)


Sentimens is a clever fallacy. Its idiotic claim, that emotion is a better guide, is most alluring to an intelligent audience. Intelli-gent people are often afraid of being thought rather cold because they use reason so much. They do not want to appear to be emotionally deficient, and are easy prey to a speaker who assures them that they are just as sensitive, loving and compassionate as the next person, who is also a bit of a bore. This permits them the delusion that they are welcome into the common fold, instead of remaining aloof from it. They happily abandon reason as the price of their admission ticket to the human race.

An individual can be ensnared with sentiments, and led to drop a carefully thought-out position after being assured that he or she cares just as much about humanity as the rest of us. A denial would hardly count as a good response. A crowd is even easier to lead by the nose on a sentimental string. I have rarely seen an international gathering which did not give a standing ovation to any gaga idiot who urged them to forget reason and concentrate on loving each other.


‘Most of the troubles of this world are caused by people thinking things out, instead of responding naturally with warmth and humanity. We should ignore these facts about Third World dictatorships, and reach out with love in our hearts and … ‘

(And yuk.)


The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!