Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

8.7: Legitimate and Illegitimate Emotional Appeals

  • Page ID
    56601
  • Audio Version: Click to stream recording of page (June 2020):

    We made the case at the beginning of this chapter that emotion is a legitimate part of argument. But there is a reason emotional appeals have a dubious reputation: they are often abused. If a writer knows there is a problem with the logic, they may use an emotional appeal to distract from the problem. Or, a writer may create a problem with the logic, knowingly or unknowingly, because they cannot resist including a particular strong emotional appeal. In Chapter 4, we looked at fallacies, or problems with arguments’ logic. Many of the fallacies we have already looked at are so common because the illogical form of the argument makes a powerful appeal. The writer chose the faulty reasoning because they thought it would affect readers emotionally. Arguments that focus on a “red herring,” for example, distract from the real issue to focus on something juicier. A straw man argument offers a distorted version of the other side to make the other side seem frighteningly extreme.

    To be legitimate, emotional appeals need to be associated with logical reasoning. Otherwise, they are an unfair tactic. The emotions should be attached to ideas that logically support the argument. Writers are responsible for thinking through their intuitive appeals to emotion to make sure that they are consistent with their claims.

    Emotional appeals should not mislead readers about the true nature or the true gravity of an issue. If an argument uses a mild word to describe something horrific, that means the argument can’t connect its emotional appeal to any logical justification. A euphemism is a substitute neutral-sounding word used to forestall negative reactions. For example, calling a Nazi concentration camp like Auschwitz a “detention center” would certainly be an unjustifiable euphemism. Given the amount of evidence about what went on at Auschwitz, using the phrase “Death Camp” would be a legitimate emotional appeal.

    A more controversial question is what to call the places where people are detained if they are caught trying to cross the U.S. border without permission. An argument calling U.S. Customs and Border Patrol detention centers to “concentration camps” would need to justify its comparison by arguing for significant similarities. Otherwise, critics would claim that the comparison was a cheap shot intended to make people horrified by detention centers without good reason. Even if the argument simply called the centers “camps,” the word would still bring to mind Nazi concentration camps and also the Japanese internment camps created by our own government during World War II. The word “camp,” when referring to a place where people are held against their will, has inevitable overtones of racism and genocide. An argument should only choose a word with connotations that it can stand by and explain.

    A question like this about whether an emotional appeal is legitimate or not often is often at the heart of any disagreement or productive discussion of the argument. If we agree that the comparison to concentration camps is legitimate, we will certainly agree that the detention centers, as they are currently organized, should be done away with.