Why Appeals to Emotion Don’t Work

Have you ever seen an anti-abortion protest, replete with disturbing imagery of destroyed fetuses overlaid with text imploring God to stop the “murder of innocent babies”?

You were probably rather repulsed by the individuals — the men in particular — who deemed it necessary and noble to stand outside the Planned Parenthood and harass passers-by about the supposed modern-day Holocaust going on behind closed doors. You probably felt the urge to scold them about a woman’s right to have control over her body and the patriarchal overtones of their religious scripture.

What you probably didn’t feel was any sort of sway on the topic of abortion. On the contrary, you were likely more entrenched in your views that the right to abortion access must be protected from these modern-day theocrats.

This is because weaponizing one’s own emotions in an attempt to strong-arm others into having a similar emotional reaction on a topic in order to change their mind and behavior simply doesn’t work.

People often talk about emotion and reason as being opposing forces. It’s true that a particularly strong emotion can make it extremely difficult to think clearly. We can all relate to the lapse in judgement experienced by a character in our favorite movie when the villain is hot on their tail. Or picking a not-so-compatible mate at the end of the night when the party dies down and it’s looking like you’re otherwise going to turn up empty. More mundane is the experience of grocery shopping while hungry, causing us to make food choices that our satiated selves know better than to make. (Perhaps those last two are more similar than I intend…)

But the truth is that reason and emotion are almost always working in concert. In a very important sense, there is no one without the other. Without any emotion at all, we’ll struggle to make even the simplest choices, while emotion without reason is pure tragedy.

When animal rights activists march into restaurants, or otherwise appeal to emotion in advocating for a vegan lifestyle, their audience feels just like you felt walking by those Planned Parenthood protesters (leaving aside the scientific and rational basis for veganism, which is absent in anti-choice activists). People are either vegan or they are not; when vegan activists walk in the door shouting, each person’s emotional reaction is preordained. In the off-chance that someone in the audience is already vegan, they may be glad (or embarrassed). But otherwise, they’ll react negatively and become more entrenched in their feelings that veganism is not an ethical imperative.

Instead, we — vegans and non-vegans who are open to conversation — have to work from a common identity: as creatures who are capable of reason. There is simply no other reliable way. Most vegans grew up as non-vegans; the emotions connected to the horrors of animal agriculture were not always there. We learned how they came to our plate and we made a rational, ethical decision to no longer take part in such a brutal system. We must appeal to that compassionate side that resides in all of us, non-vegans and vegans alike.

Just because we’re emotional about the plight of livestock doesn’t make us wrong. But arguing from that emotion does not work on people who do not see any reason to be vegan. We must meet people where they’re at, and walk them through the logic and rationality of veganism. It can be quite easy to do.

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  1. I’ve never really cared much for animals, still don’t despite being vegan for nearly 2 years; the cold hard facts about health and agriculture getting thrown in my face are what made me start to change.

  2. OK. Funny thing is that I was in the middle of a long, convoluted, and countering response when my system crashed. I’m glad. My comment was needlessly inflammatory, addressed specifics without touching upon fundamental issues (stupid and I should practice what I pedantically preach), and was just worthless.


    Please tell me how you can reconcile what appears to be your “Pro-Choice” stance and your specific stance / reasoning for veganism. Let’s get that out of the way first. Let’s also get out of the way any assumption that I disagree with your “bullet-proof” case; I don’t disagree with a single point – with the caveat that science has shown many animal-like characteristics in plants and that I’m no longer absolutely sure of their lack of a “pain” response (quoted because it may not be pain per se, but an analog).

    Also note: I’m a hunter and am potentially as bothered as you by the mindless use of animals as you are.

    1. My position toward abortion is that it is preferable that people not do it, because I believe it is wrong to end a life, but I do not believe that “life” – never mind the capacity for experiencing pain – begins at conception. So I am not “pro abortion” in any sense of the term. I am in favor of choice, particularly before “life” and the capacity for experiencing pain, which almost certainly develops before birth, starts. After that point in development, I believe it is wrong to terminate a pregnancy. However, this still doesn’t mean that I wish for women to be locked away if they have an abortion after that point. One can be pro-choice and against abortion; the fact is that someone who wishes to have an abortion will not suddenly want to have and take care of their child simply because the alternative is illegal. They’ll be more likely to undergo dangerous, illegal, unregulated procedures in an attempt to terminate their pregnancy, which would lead to arguably more suffering and death than if abortion were accessible, safe, and regulated.

      In the same way that I am pro-choice and against abortion, I am pro-choice with respect to food. I am not in favor of outlawing eating meat or animal products; that would be a preposterous failure. Instead, I want people to recognize that eating animals is morally and ethically wrong because cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock are capable of feeling pain, and they very much suffer due to the nature of animal agriculture.

      I do believe that consuming meat and animal products is more unethical than having an abortion. The fact is that the animals we eat, as mentioned above, are capable of suffering, and they do suffer under animal agriculture as a necessity. Livestock consist of fully developed members of their species, with functioning nervous systems and brain regions.

      Fetuses, on the other hand, are not fully developed members of their species, and have only a rudimentary nervous system and brain. It may be true that during the last trimester or last month of pregnancy, a fetus has the capacity to suffer just as much as, say, a fully grown cow; in that case I would feel that an abortion at that time would be as unethical as killing a cow, but that the cow suffered more altogether as a result of spending its entire life in the animal agriculture industry. Therefore, an abortion before a fetus develops the capacity to suffer is simply not as unethical as raising and killing a cow on a factory farm, even taking into account the likelihood that a fully developed human being should be granted more moral consideration than a member of any other species.

      As for plants, they do not have brains, and therefore are incapable of any experience whatsoever, including that of “pain,” however one defines it. If it somehow turns out to be true that plants can feel pain, the ethical thing to do would still be to go vegan, since a vegan diet results in the destruction of less plants. (Livestock eat plants, and the calories they consume convert into just a fraction of that number of calories in meat.)

      Thank you for reading.

  3. Great post.

    The failure of these demonstrations ultimately rests on the fact that only the conclusion is stated. It’s as if one were to walk into a courtroom and exclaim, ‘x did it!’, without providing any proof for this assertion they make; whether they in fact have a proof available, is, as you indicated of the vegan protestors, a separate question. Slogans like ‘meat is murder’ too are certainly of this kind. Such things do very little to educate people, for educating consists in explaining why something is so (as opposed to merely asserting it), and learning, in the understanding thereof.

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