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Out of the Fallacy Pan and into the Fallacy Fire
Logical fallacies are part of everyday life. Ironically, sometimes when pointing out a fallacy we commit another one in the process. I hope to avoid that error as I discuss two fallacies in this newsletter, appeal to emotion, and false dilemma. Because I believe these particular fallacies are the product of imbalanced left-brain thinking, I’m going to start with a story rather than with the fallacies themselves.
As many of you know, in May, 2022 my wife Kristen was fired from her position as a women’s ministry director. In November of the previous year she received her first performance evaluation from the senior pastor. Using a 5-point scale ranging from poor to excellent, there was only 1 average, a few above average, and the rest were all marked as excellent. The comments section included 4 areas of strength, and then a final section titled “particular areas for concentration.” That last area only listed one item:
“1) Overly bearing the burdens of those under your ministry has the possibility of clouding your judgment.”
I wonder what do you make of that statement on first impression. In isolation you may think, sure, it is theoretically possible to become so closely attached to people and their lives that it’s hard to see objectively. But consider this context:
Kristen had been advocating for an adult woman who alleged attempted rape by a church elder. The pastor, along with the few elders who weren’t being kept in the dark, did not believe the woman’s story. In the course of disagreeing over how to respond, the pastor apparently came to believe he couldn’t work with a woman who disagreed with him. He certainly didn’t trust her judgment.
The perpetrator had only been ordained for 2 months before these allegations came to light. About 8 months prior, Kristen had pleaded with the senior pastor to not ordain this man. Although she didn’t have hard evidence, she reported concerns of infidelity. “Please don’t make him an elder,” she said. The pastor said, “No, I know [elder’s name], he’s a good man.”
“He’s a good man.” But because the pastor didn’t listen to my wife’s intuition, the elders had to remove this man from office within a few short months of ordination (which they did secretly against professional abuse specialist recommendations). Despite being obviously wrong about that man, the pastor used Kristen’s emotions as evidence of her untrustworthy judgment. But her emotional intuition was right. That performance review was a particularly manipulative form of spiritually abusive gaslighting.
But what does that have to do with logical fallacies? This is the kind of story that comes to mind when I hear men criticize arguments for abuse reform as illogical on account of “appeal to emotion.” It is particularly angering.
PCA pastor Cal Buroughs recently shared this observation in reaction to a debate at this year’s PCA General Assembly:
“A puzzling thing from the recent PCA GA is the critique of speeches as appealing to emotion. As opposed to cold, hard logic? I do not remember this criticism in the past. What do you make of this? I have my suspicions.”
I contend that we don’t have a problem with emotional reasoning. We have a problem with how we feel about emotional reasoning. Being unaware of that emotional reaction, critiques of appeals to emotion struck me as avoiding one fallacy by falling into another. Two particular aspects of that problem are important here: false dichotomies, and disembodied reason.
I. The False Dilemma
“Because of [the left hemisphere’s] need to collapse things to a certainty, false distinctions and dichotomies thrive, with an emphasis on ‘either/or’ rather than ‘both/and’.”1
Left-brain cultures are prone to the false dilemma fallacy. Faced with two opposing options, the left brain can’t see how to hold both in tension. Reason vs. emotion. Logic vs intuition. One or the other, rarely both.
But as Jean Porter, in Justice as a Virtue: A Thomistic Perspective, writes,
“[M]oral judgments cannot function properly when the capacities for feeling in certain ways are damaged.”
Such affective deficits “make it difficult or impossible for the agent to grasp particular situations as morally significant in some way.”2
Christians should be less concerned about fallacious appeals to emotion and more concerned about the false dilemma of choosing between emotion and reason.
II. Gnostic Justice Is Not Justice
But the false dilemma doesn’t explain everything. It is still possible to err on the side of only using emotion and intuition. Why do left-brain cultures pick logic over intuition?
My wife exercised both reason and emotion and was right. She could do this because of her high emotional intelligence (intuition) along with her professional knowledge of abuse and trauma (reason). Leaders with low EQ will think they are simply using rational judgment and remain blind to the influence of their own emotions.
Jonathan Haidt refers to this as the rational tail wagging the intuitive dog.3 The tail makes a lot of movement, but it does not control the dog. Haidt’s model of social intuition starts from the first principle of moral psychology, that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”4 That is, we only come up with supporting reasons after we make a moral judgment on the basis of embodied intuition. That’s just how humans have been wired by God to function.
And that’s where our second problem lies: lack of mindful connection to one’s body—a prevalent problem in left-brain cultures—leads to low emotional awareness. It is a kind of disembodiment that leads to difficulty making intuitive judgments.
To rephrase that pastor’s criticism, remaining unaware of your bodily emotive states has the possibility of clouding your judgment. To attempt to seek justice without emotion, feeing, or intuition is to seek gnostic justice. It’s trying to decide the right course of action without allowing one’s body to be properly acted on by the situation or issue at hand.
The fact of the matter is, there is no such thing as unemotional reasoning. There is only emotionally unaware reasoning, and emotionally aware reasoning.
It’s time we all accepted this and moved on toward more wholistic pursuit of justice. A good place to start is training our intuition through spiritual formation.
Quote from Jonathan Haidt
“Therefore, if you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue, talk to the elephant first. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusions. They will almost always succeed.”5
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.
How comfortable are you with intuitive reasoning? How might you speak to the intuitive elephant of those with whom you disagree?
Jonathan Rowson and Iain McGilchrist, Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the Best Part of Us Struggles to be Heard, p. 19.
Jean Porter, Justice as a Virtue: A Thomistic Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016), p. 200.
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012), pp. 32-60
Haidt, p. 106.
Haidt, p. 59.