The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Go for the Gut

Part of a Series: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook


  • The dispassionate view of the mind – the idea that people are rational actors who weigh positives and negatives when selecting a political candidate or position – is wrong.
  • We are driven to a great degree by our feelings and emotions when deciding which causes or people to support.
  • Managing emotions is therefore a primary component of any persuasive effort.
  • The New Atheists have been successful precisely because of their ability to arouse moral passion and emotion – not because of the dispassionate nature of their rational arguments.
  • If you want to read one book on effective political campaigning, read Drew Westen’s The Political Brain. Like, right now.

The Rationalist’s Dilemma

In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Drew Westen provides a magisterial overview and analysis of our current state of our understanding regarding how people make political decisions. Drawing on his own research as a neuroscientist, and on countless psychological, cognitive scientific and political studies, he argues that Democrats and progressives in general (among whom can be counted most Humanists) have long languished under a delusion: the “dispassionate vision of the mind”. Under this model, voters, when making a political decision, rationally weigh the negative and positive attributes and policies of different political candidates, finally choosing the one who will provide the greatest benefits for them.

If this were true, the best way for a political candidate to appeal to people would be to provide lots of detail about their policies, showing precisely how their policies would benefit the particular group they were targeting. And, indeed, this is often how progressive candidates (and Humanist organizations) campaign. Consider the original atheist bus campaign, funded by the British Humanist Association:

The argument is clear and eminently “rational”: 1) God probably doesn’t exist; 2) therefore you can stop “worrying”; and 3) this will help you enjoy your life. Not believing in God, suggests the advert, will provide greater utility when compared with believing in God, and therefore, weighing the positives and negatives, you should not believe in God. The language used is anodyne and emotionally inert: the “probably” softens the blow of the initial statement, and “stop worrying” and “enjoy your life” are both  tepidly-worded sentiments. The ad seems, in short, to be appealing to the dispassionate view of the mind.

The problem with this view of the mind, as Westen draws out using numerous empirical studies, is that it is almost completely false. While people’s rational evaluation of differing policy positions or value-stances do have an impact on voting decisions, the vast majority of variance in political decision-making can be explained by how people feel about a given candidate, party or (by extension) set of values. The gut is central to political decision-making, and should therefore be central to all attempts to convince and persuade.

That persuasion requires more than logical argument has been understood since Aristotle, who divided the mechanisms of persuasion into three categories: Logos (rational argument), Ethos (the personal characteristics and credibility of the speaker) and Pathos (the capability of the presenter to arouse emotions in the audience). As I’ve argued, while Humanists and freethinkers tend to be exceptionally comfortable with Logos, they often seems oblivious to the importance of Ethos and antagonistic to Pathos.

That progressives tend to deny or ignore Ethos and Pathos, Westen argues, is a symptom of their “irrational emotional commitment to rationality”: they have such an emotional commitment to the value and importance of rationality that they are incapable of recognizing that the form of rationality they espouse plays little role in political decision-making. I call this the “Rationalist’s Dilemma”: freethinkers are committed to rationalism, and therefore feel that their appeals to others should be in the form of meticulous logical arguments, and that rousing the emotions is ethically suspect. At the same time, as freethinkers they are compelled to bow to the scientific evidence which demonstrates that human beings infrequently make important decisions following the model of the dispassionate mind. What are we to do?

Bow to the evidence.

As Elizer Yudkowsky poetically describes, “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can.” The truth is that we are emotional creatures. Speaking to people’s emotions - going for the gut – is smart, not unethical. As Westen argues, “There is no relation between the extent to which an appeal is rational or emotional and the extent to which it is unethical”.

If we want to win in the marketplace of hearts and minds, we have to speak to hearts as well as minds. In any case, as philosophers like Nelson Goodman and Catherine Elgin have argued, the emotions are an essential part of our cognitive apparatus, and cannot be avoided. An emotional response is a necessary by-product of any accurate, detailed description of human values and experience. To eschew emotion is to eschew accuracy, to deny detail, to banish the very stuff of human life from our persuasive pursuits.

The choice freethinkers face is not between emotional appeals and rational appeals, but between effective appeals which intelligently harness the emotions, and ineffective appeals which do not. If we want to lead more people down the Freethought Road, we should heed Westen when he says that ”sometimes leadership isn’t about moving to the left, or moving to the right. It’s about moving the electorate.” Managing emotions, not marshaling facts is, Westen argues, the primary goal of any political campaign.

Let’s Get Emotional

Freethinkers are not always, and have not always been, so emotionally tone-deaf. Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic” and hero of the American Golden Age of Freethought, was a peerless orator with an uncanny grasp on the emotional aspects of persuasion. In his 1877 speech on ‘The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child‘, he spoke out against corporal punishment and in favor of the rights of the child, way ahead of his time:

I do not believe in the government of the lash. If any one of you ever expects to whip your children again, I want you to have a photograph taken of yourself when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind. Have the picture taken. If that little child should die, I cannot think of a sweeter way to spend an autumn afternoon than to go out to the cemetery, when the maples are clad in tender gold, and little scarlet runners are coming, like poems of regret, from the sad heart of the earth — and sit down upon the grave and look at that photograph, and think of the flesh now dust that you beat. I tell you it is wrong; it is no way to raise children!

Note the nature of the argument here. Ingersoll does not dispassionately list the reasons why he is against corporal punishment. Rather, he paints a detailed, emotionally-compelling picture designed to rouse moral outrage and disgust. The descriptive details – the dimpled chin of the child, the maples and “scarlet runners” in the cemetery – are strictly logically irrelevant to his argument, but are central to its emotional power. Someone trapped between the horns of the Rationalist’s Dilemma might argue that removing such details would make the argument more honest, more logical, more rational - and in so doing they would rob it of its power to sway the listener.

Indeed, much of the success of the New Atheists (particularly Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins) can be seen to stem from their emotional appeals. The arguments they present against the existence of God are, without exception, old news. None of them add anything truly “New” to the discussion. What is new is the passion and emotional force with which the New Atheists have made the question of God a moral issue, a question of values. Consider the now-famous opening of The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

There is is no argument here: what Dawkins offers is a moral indictment of the character of God, designed to illicit outrage (or amusement, indignation, surprise, or some other emotion) in the reader. Much the same can be said of Hitchens and Harris. While they certainly provide arguments in favor of their positions, what captured the popular imagination, and inflamed the modern atheist movement, was their emotive appeals to the moral sense of their audience: their spirited attacks on honor killings, female genital mutilation, restrictions on free speech and other questions of moral value. That these gut-grabbers are so often spoken of as the epitome of disinterested rationalists demonstrates how deep a hold the ”irrational emotional commitment to rationality” has on the freethought movement.

What Westen’s research (and others, like Marcus’ The Sentimental Citizen and Brader’s Campaigning for Hearts and Minds),  Ingersoll’s speeches and the success of the New Atheists indicate is the necessity of consciously and intelligently crafting Humanist appeals to active emotions in readers, listeners and viewers. Humanists have moral values – the values of reason, compassion, and hope for the future – which we want to spread in the public sphere, and that means being effective persuaders. We need to ditch the dispassionate vision of the mind in favor of a fuller, more accurate view of human cognition and motivation. If we want to be successful in the marketplace of ideas, we need to go for the gut.

Future posts will show you exactly how this can be achieved.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his Doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

19 comments on “The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Go for the Gut

  1. This article is full of evidence citations and appeals to rationalist arguments; I therefore summarily reject it, as I can only be persuaded by emotional appeals.

    • Hah! You touch on an extremely important issue here. The fact is that we have to take notice that the argument people like Westen is making is based on huge amounts of empirical data supplied by the sorts of rationalistic studies and arguments he claims aren’t effective: a potential paradox!

      I think the way to respond to this is that the rules of argumentation established within a community of inquiry (like an academic journal) are very different to those which individual human beings are governed by in their day-to-day interactions – and even then they are extremely imperfect. It’s clear that the sort of respect for evidence and the reliance solely on logos that exists in ideal academic communities A) does not exist in REAL academic communities and 2) absolutely does not exist in the population as a whole.

      The electorate does not function like an academic journal…

      This being said, it’s crucial to point out (and perhaps I should foreground this more in my article) that detailed arguments DO have an effect (apparently they explain about 20% of the variance in political decision-making, which is quite a lot). The point is not so much “don’t provide well-evidenced arguments (logos)”, but “don’t ignore pathos and ethos”.

    • Actually, a better way to respond to the problem you so insightfuly realise is to note that what works EPISTEMOLOGICALlY is not what works PERSUASIVELY. Determining what is true is a different task to persuading someone that something is true. Well-designed studies work for the former, but simply describing well-designed studies does not work for the latter.

      Perhaps that’s why hyper-rationalists like Yudkowsky use literature as a vehicle to convey their ideas in a compelling way.

      • Well a few things should be noted.

        The logos/pathos/ethos distinctions are fictions. Anything persuasive, that is influencing a person’s choice or belief, is by definition emotional in nature. Imagine you were to persuade me against smoking by saying “70% of smokers eventually develop cancer, emphysema, or other health ailment as a result” This is a fact devoid of flowery prose or beguiling imagery. It can still work, but if so, why? Well, because health is something I want. Ill health is bad. But wanting is an emotion. “Bad” is a subjective condition I *feel* not *reason*.

        Similarly, emotional appeals work because they effectively communicate information about conditions a person would prefer or not prefer. But the act of choosing an alternative which is preferable is the single most rational choice I can imagine. Increase the magnification.. there is no line between rational and emotional, just a spiraling fractal with two edges that have those labels.

        The real difference here, imo, is the difference between knowing something as a semantic bundle of ideas and understanding what it means experientially. It’s the difference between reading a sentence like “During World War II the Nazi regime forced Jews into deathcamps, marked by disease, malnutrition, torture and murder.” and watching video footage from those camps. You could convey the same semantic content either way, but one is just much better at delivering the most salient information- and yes the “emotional” scenes are just a kind of information.

        • I kind of agree with you here, and kind of not. The distinction between Logos and Wthos, for instance, makes sense because they are LOGICALLY distinguishable (even if they aren’t in practice completely separable). In principle, what I think of the speaker should have no bearing on the logical quality of their argument. In practice, it tends to have a large bearing.

          You’re absolutely right about emotional content being information. This is why I think the oft-repeated “the plural of anecdote is not data” is a little problematic. Anecdotes are a form of data, if they are well-chosen and exemplary.

      • I disagree with part of your thesis about the “rationalists” believing that people will respond to purely objective and factual information. A big part of the problem is not that they do not realize “pathos” and “ethos” are effective. It’s that those things have an incredibly bad, well-deserved reputation.

        Let’s consider where we very commonly see emotional appeals: used car salesmen, media talking heads capitalizing on fear (killer bees! bird flu! run!), clergymen (repent or BURN because you’re GUILTY), over-zealous activist nutjobs such as sometimes employed by PETA (having pet dogs is slavery!) or greenpeace (the ice age is coming to destroy you!) or kooky feminist orgs (all sex is RAPE!), and worst of all politicians. Vote for me, unless you want homosexual terrorist muslims to turn your kid gay for Allah.

        For every Ingersoll and Sagan, there are 100 Bill O’Reilly’s and Jerry Falwell’s. Now, is it strange to you that honest intellectuals elect not to go down that road? I’m not arguing that using the so-called pathos and ethos in activism is wrong, just because they are badly abused by morally-compromised women and men. I’m saying their stink is all over it. This is partly why the “atheist activists are just as bad as fundys” canard is trotted out so very easily in America. So very easily.

        • To return to the essential Star Wars analogy (I’m playing a lot of Star Wars online right now =P), I can understand why the prevalence of Dark Jedi might make Padawans wary of the Force, but I can’t see what makes them think they will WIN without it. Han Solo is awesome and all, but without Obi Wan, the droids would have been discovered back on Tatooine!

          • You mean TOR? hrm.

            I don’t disagree with your conclusions. To me it’s just plain effectiveness in communication. In fact, I have some personal experience in this area. You’ll no doubt notice my public speaking and blog-writing almost always has an emotive component, certainly this is no accident. The only times I’ve had my writing quoted by the larger media (Fox News and the Washington Post) they picked the most emotionally-charged lines.

            Conversely, I had a Chicago Sun Times reporter call me during the Prof. Howell firing scandal. He told me that the diocese paid the professor’s salary and asked if I knew. He was greatly surprised that I knew and wasn’t angry about it. Since I didn’t have anything angry to say, I was not mentioned in his story.

  2. Were I not so relentlessly rational, I would swear it was fate that I happened upon this the day it was posted! The skeptical community’s failure to harness what we know about human cognition has long been a pet peeve of mine. Your post makes this point in a very compelling way. A few comments:

    - The role of technology (specifically the Web and email) both in advancing and opposing the freethought cause is fascinating. Most of the ways we come upon Web content amounts to a popularity contest, e.g., Google’s PageRank algorithm, various “hot topic” lists. This has little to do with the quality of that information and the general population is ill-equipped to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thus studies have shown that people are no better informed now than before the Internet age. How can technology be harnessed to give a fundamental advantage to facts and reason?
    - Chapman Cohen noted: “Gods are fragile things; they may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense.” One might thus assume that facts would be more robust than fiction, but this is true only if one has the appropriate epistemological toolbox. Conversely, the truth and facts are constraining and not always what we would LIKE to be true. A former colleague recently forwarded a story about curing all cancers in 4 weeks using sea salt – how great would that be? Given that there is an infinite supply of such nonsense, it seems the reader must be armed with an appropriate bullshit detector rather than expecting every outlandish claim to be demolished by an appropriate expert.

    Thank you for your fine work and I look forward to your subsequent posts.

    • Thanks Rob! I;m delighted you found us and that you found this useful! Your questions are very provocative. On the second question, I am writing my thesis currently on the development of intellectual autonomy, part of which I see as developing for oneself a bullshit detector, just as you describe!

      • The observation that the New Atheists’ impact is based on emotional appeals is profound; I intone that Dawkins quote like a monk reciting Hail Marys. Given that we’re all manipulated by our guts, is it your contention that intellectual autonomy is the canonical foundation leading to expression in believer/non-believer spectrum?

        We have done a great job of preaching to the choir. Now let’s go after the rest of the congregation and put some more asses in the pews (metaphorically speaking, of course).

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  4. Great post James. As a graduate from an analytic philosophy department, I remember a time when I wanted all political arguments to include a predicate calculus “proof” of the validity of their arguments. A little time in the real world of Montana educated me that people, as much as we might want them to behave like purely rational beings, are very much emotional beings, and often choose sides in arguments based on emotions, not reason.

    Now an attempt at a counter-argument: once you say we should use emotional appeals and other rhetorical/manipulative tricks in our arguments, we run the risk of making irrational arguments and masking that irrationality under a layer of rhetoric and emotional manipulation. For example, a lot of what the good Mr. Stedman calls out as simple-minded/poorly constructed criticism of religion is largely an emotional appeal against Islam. If we begin to let emotional manipulation play a larger role in the Atheist movement, how are we to guard against our own illogic?

    An attempt at an answer: We could say that in order to make an emotional argument, you should first construct the argument in a dispassionate and unemotional fashion. Then, once you are convinced you’re not committing fallacies or other logical mistakes, one can translate that argument into emotional terms, knowing that you have a firmly grounded epistemic defense of your position in addition to your emotive appeal.

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