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Manipulating emotions: value-based reasoning and emotive language.

During election campaigns, in many countries politicians frequently attack the opposing parties and candidates. Excellent instances of the use of this strategy occurred in the campaigns for the Italian general election of 2013, which can be appropriately described as a rhetorical battlefield, a creative exchange of ad hominem arguments (Macagno, 2013; Walton, 1998). The speeches and declarations of the competing parties (especially the right- and left-wing coalitions) were focused more on attacking the other candidates than promoting their own constructive programs. In this context, a crucial role was played by emotive words. The voters were not provided with slogans describing long-term plans, but mainly with "devil terms" (Weaver, 1985, p. 222), namely epithets and descriptions crystallizing negative properties of the opponents. Instead of reporting and describing complex reasoning or lengthy discourses, the newspapers quoted such emotive characterizations and contributed to creating a war of epithets (for a history and an analysis of this phenomenon in Italy, see Ruggiero, 2012). This political example highlights a fundamental argumentative choice, the use of ethical (or emotive) terms. From the philosophical, argumentative, and linguistic perspective these words raise some unanswered questions. What makes a word emotive? Why can such words be instruments of persuasion? What reasoning mechanisms do they trigger? And, most importantly, what are ethical or emotive words?

A clear account of ethical words was given by Stevenson (1937; 1938; 1944). He noticed there are words that do not simply describe a possible fragment of reality. For example, "terrorist" is not used simply to refer to a person who commits specific actions with a specific intent. Words such as "torture" or "freedom" carry with them something more than a simple description of a state of affairs or mere conceptual content (Stevenson, 1944, p. 210). These words have a "magnetic" effect (Stevenson, 1937, p. 16), an imperative force, a tendency to influence the interlocutor's decisions (Stevenson, 1937, p. 18-19; see also Weaver, 1985). They are strictly bound to moral values leading to value judgments and potentially triggering specific emotions. For this reason, they have an emotive dimension. In the modern psychological terminology, we can say that these terms carry emotional valence (Frijda & Mesquita, 2000), as they presuppose and trigger a value judgment that can lead to an emotion.

In politics and other domains of human communication, these terms play a crucial role (Schiappa, 2003; Zarefsky, 2004). They can be used to change the evaluation of a state of affairs, and modify the interlocutor's attitudes and choices. They provide the hearer with a pre-packaged suggested evaluation of an entity or event. The analysis of the mechanism of persuasion triggered by such words involves the complex relationship between values, decisions, emotions, and the reasoning mechanisms that have been investigated under the label of heuristics (Kahneman, Tversky & Slovic, 1982).


Some of the best examples of emotive words can be found in the public debates, speeches, and declarations of the 2013 Italian general elections. The context in which the campaigns took place was characterized by strong public disenchantment with the political class (furthered by television shows on the nepotistic structure and the corruption levels of the elite in power) (e.g., Smart, 2011), severe austerity measures introduced to curb a heavy economic crisis resulting in an extremely high youth unemployment rate, and several scandals within the ruling party including criminal proceedings brought against its leader, Mr. Berlusconi (e.g., Annicchiarico, 2014). As a matter of fact, three individuals dominated the scene, showing an incredible creativity in forging new epithets for depicting their rivals in a negative manner: Beppe Grillo, leader of the Movimento 5 Stelle, Silvio Berlusconi, the politician who ruled the country for the previous 18 years, and Mario Monti, the outgoing prime minister. Grillo's political campaign was centered on public speeches, delivered as polemic and comedic shows. Berlusconi relied heavily on advertisements and programs broadcasted by his own TV channels or published by his own newspapers and magazines, along with ads sent by ordinary mail to all citizens. Finally, Monti did not organize a massive political campaign, but rather released interviews in which he explained his political program. The communication tactics of the three parties mirror the type of ethos, or rather communicative character, of the persons representing them. Grillo acted as a comic actor and a polemical public speaker, pointing out the critical political and economic issues in a funny and entertaining fashion. Monti, as a famous professor and economist, underscored the economic problems of the country proposing a program for curbing them. Berlusconi acted as the victim of a conspiracy aimed at discrediting him and at the same time, he also embodied the prototypical ideals of the stereotypical Italian male and man of the people.

The attack strategies grounded on emotive words varied noticeably depending on the politician and the image of themselves that they wanted to portray. Grillo used the strategy of amplification (Calboli Montefusco, 2004; Quintilian, Institutio Oratorio, VI, 2, 23-30), namely the classifying of an entity or an event using indignant language (Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1401b3) and slightly altering accepted facts. Quintilian illustrated this tactic through the example of a dishonest man turned into a "robber," or the wounds of another transformed into a "simple injury" (Institutio Oratorio, VIII, 4, 1). The strategy of distorting reality is based on the similarity between the altered image of reality and what is commonly regarded as real. The persuasive effect of this dialogical move can be enhanced by other communicative tactics. In particular, Grillo exploited the use of the comic role. His characterizations of the opponents are funny and exaggerated and at the same time place the interlocutor in a situation in which the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred (Meyer, 2000; Smith & Voth, 2002). For instance consider his description of the left-wing opponent, Pier Luigi Bersani ("Ebetino", "fallito", 2012):

Case 1. Bersani "is not a fascist. He is only a loser. But I accuse him of having made arrangements with former fascists and masons for twenty years, sharing among them also the bones of this Country." (para. 3)

In this case, his ad hominem attack is highly emotional and based on heavy exaggerations. Grillo uses words such as "fascist" and "mason," (1) he describes his opponent as a "loser" and depicts his past actions as aimed at "sharing the bones of a country." However, the grounds of his attack can be shared by the audience, since Bersani directly or indirectly supported members of the Parliament having strong right-wing positions or connections with masonic organizations. A similarly charged description is given of the right-wing (Lega Nord) politician, Roberto Maroni, "He is a dreaming barbarian. He always dreams of fooling us" ("Ebetino", "fallito", 2012, para, 20). Grillo amplifies the poorly refined manners of the politician, adding a comment on his real intentions. The description of an individual consisting in few adjectives that express negative and potentially acceptable qualities leads the audience to draw an easy value judgment about him. These descriptions can be exaggerated and funny, emphasizing few negative traits (he called Berlusconi "the bouncing dwarf' and Monti "father Merrin", the priest in the Exorcist) and omitting other positive achievements or qualities. However, the audience expects the use of such extravagant epithets by a showman known for his polemical and comic shows. The force and the grounds of the attacks are assessed in a type of dialogue different from the real one, characterized by entertaining jokes and exaggerations.

A completely different approach can be found in Monti's statements. He is not joking at all. On the contrary, he acts pursuant to his character and his role of economist, statesman, and intellectual. He grounds his attacks, mostly directed against Berlusconi, on emotional and sour descriptions (Monti: Berlusconi, 2013). For instance consider the following statement:

Case 2. "Berlusconi continues making promises, trying to buy the votes of the Italian people with the money of the Italian people." [...] According to Monti, "this can lead to popularity, but this would be a challenge for a Country that is basically without memory. I do not want to believe that the Italians do not remember their past." (para. 1).

Monti accuses Berlusconi of buying the votes of the Italians. At the same time, he poisons the well of his possible supporters by classifying them as "people without memory" (referring to the alleged disastrous conditions of the Italian economy left by Berlusconi's government). In another interview, Monti explicitly pointed out the mismanagement of his predecessor, claiming to be distressed when "some jackasses say that they have left Italy in good conditions in 2011" (Monti sulle inchieste, 2013, para. 4). This attack is aimed at arousing both anger against his opponent (Berlusconi is deceiving and stealing) and contempt towards the supporters thereof (people without memory are like puppets). The emotion of anger is combined with fear in the following similitude drawn between Berlusconi and the Pied Piper:

Case 3. According to the outgoing prime minister, the promises made by Silvio Berlusconi "are similar to the Pied Piper of Hamelin who lures away the mice. The fact that the Italians can believe some words stated by that mouth reminds me of the Pied Piper, who takes the mice to drown", said the professor. He admits: Berlusconi "has already deceived the Italian people three times. The first time I was deceived too." (Monti: Berlusconi pifferaio, 2013, para. 1)

Monti underscores the deceitful and treacherous character of Berlusconi by describing his promises as aimed at "luring" the Italians to disaster and "deceiving" them. He points out Berlusconi's unjust and detrimental actions against the people to trigger anger, while the story of the Pied Piper is intended to underline the dangers of Berlusconi's mismanagement through the fear of possible future consequences.

Berlusconi's reaction to this attack is coherent with the character that he plays. He acts as the victim of an injustice (a conspiracy) and as a man of the people, embodying his idea of the stereotypical Italian man (aggressive, womanizing, vulgar, and a soccer fan) (emphasis added):

Case 4. "Who claims this is a scumbag; this is an action of a scumbag, as the spread is something that is independent from everything. These are the claims of the left wing; these are lies, it is not the truth". Berlusconi raises his voice and states again that "this is part of the conspiracy, as they wanted to clear the government away in order to pursue the interest of the other European countries." And then concerning the "pied piper": "I am pied piper? He also deceived us, and this is a real hoax and we have been all deceived. We hoped that this man was what he appeared to be. Probably he also wants to tax my "pipe" ..." (Berlusconi attacca Monti, 2013, para. 5)

Berlusconi personal attacks are based on vulgar and ungrounded epithets, and off-color jokes, aimed at showing a resemblance between the billionaire and the ordinary man. Using indignant language, Berlusconi takes for granted the falsity of the claims of the famous economist ("these are lies") and a secret plan of the European countries ("conspiracy"). In this fashion, Berlusconi intends to depict himself as a victim, to be sympathized with. He replies to Monti's attack (which was actually grounded on economic figures) by accusing him of deceiving the people. However, while Monti's remarks were substantiated by economic analyses, Berlusconi's counterattack is not grounded on any reason, except for the popular dissatisfaction with the austerity measures.

In this political debate Berlusconi's criminal charges (and convictions) could have also played an important role, but the leader of the right-wing coalition managed to present them as part of the conspiracy against him (emphasis added):

Case 5. The judges of the court of Milan should be tried, as they are horrible defamation machines. "It is a true scandal." Then Berlusconi added that Ms. Bocassini "should be tried for her use of the resources of the state to set up an inexistent accusation." "It is a barbarous country, in which one is accused of indirect support to the Mafia only because he goes to a dinner. We have reached a level of sickness that we need to defeat now." (Berlusconi attacca Monti, 2013, para. 16)

With his emotive epithets, Berlusconi presupposes facts (the judges aim at discrediting honest citizens; the charges against him are false) that cannot be considered as commonly shared, and arouses anger against what he calls the "dictatorship of the public prosecutors." He does not provide reasons countering the alleged facts and the previous judgments. Instead, he amplifies the presupposed injustice of the Italian legal system and minimizes the charges pressed against him and his collaborators (the connections with the Mafia of which he was accused are depicted as simple "dinners").

These examples show how emotive words can be used as instruments for crafting emotional descriptions and representations aimed at arousing emotive reactions. However, this tactic is not as simple as it appears. The three political characters use the same instruments of persuasion combined with different and more complex tactics. Grillo's emotional epithets were accepted as hilarious caricatures in the framework of his comic role. Monti's sour remarks are grounded on his presupposed and commonly shared authority and superior knowledge. Berlusconi uses emotive words to turn the political confrontation into a street fight, where the criticisms against his political figure become attacks against him as an ordinary man. His acting mirrors the impulsive and indignant reaction of a person offended unjustly.

Emotive words can have a noticeable impact on the audience's judgments and decisions. In order to analyze their effects, it is necessary to take into consideration their two distinct and connected dimensions: their logical function as implicit and condensed arguments, and their rhetorical effect consisting in arousing emotions.

The Structure and Strategies of Ethical Words

Stevenson defined ethical terms and definitions as descriptions or expressions involving "a wedding of descriptive and emotive meaning," which are frequently used to redirect and intensify attitudes (Stevenson, 1944, p. 210). These words are used to refer to a fragment of reality, but at the same time they have the tendency to encourage future actions (Stevenson, 1938, pp. 49-50) by affecting the interlocutor's system of interests (Stevenson, 1944, p. 210). This tendency amounts to a disposition of such terms to be used to achieve a specific effect, namely to move the hearer and to change his attitude towards action. In Stevenson's behavioristic account, meaning is treated in terms of reaction (cognitive or emotive), which empties the emotive meaning from any cognitive dimension. His approach, however, highlights a fundamental distinction that can be developed in non-behavioristic terms. In particular, the differentiation between the two dimensions of meaning mirrors the analysis of semantic phenomena as constituted of descriptive and expressive properties (Croom, 2011). In particular, various types of terms normally considered as "emotive," such as slurs or charged metaphorical expressions, are characterized by (or rather, they are the subject of essential predications of) predicates that are both categorical (namely descriptive) and evaluative (namely expressive). In some cases (such as "loser" or "jackass") the value judgment is a property that distinguishes the term from the co-referential, non-slanderous ones. In other cases (such as "barbarian," "mason", or "deceiver") the value judgment is the result of an assessment of the referent that is meant, or communicated, by the speaker through the utterance (Croom, 2008, p. 43; Macagno & Walton, 2008; 2010; 2014; Macagno & Zavatta, 2014). While in the first case the value judgment is implicit in the use of the term (even though it can be neutralized in some metaphorical uses), in the second case it is the result of an evaluative process.

Ethical (or emotive) words can be used in different ways to lead the interlocutor to a value judgment on the target. In the examples mentioned above different strategies of value-laden classifications are noticeable. These strategies are depicted in Table 1.

The three strategies used to trigger value judgments differ according to the complexity of the underlying reasoning. In the first case, a habit, i.e. a disposition of the character, is attributed to an entity (to be a loser; to be a dreaming barbarian). In la) the negative judgment is an implicit evaluative property that belongs to the fundamental characteristics of the predicate (distinguishing it from its synonyms "unsuccessful" or "incapable"). On the contrary, in lb) the habit is commonly valued negatively by a certain community based on specific grounds (dreaming barbarians are unable to make sound and realistic judgments. ...) A habit can be an instrument for predicting a person's future behavior ("habit causes act by way of efficient causality" Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 25, la 2ae, 71, a3). For this reason, habits commonly associated with negative actions are strictly and prototypically bound to negative value judgments.

The second and the third strategies are indirect. They do not involve a direct attribution of negative habits; instead, they suggest a pattern of reasoning leading to a classification. The second strategy consists in listing or mentioning the victim's negative behaviors, emphasizing their wickedness or their occurrence. In both cases the reasoning is grounded on a causal relation between actions and habits: "act causes habit, by way of final causality, in respect of which we consider the nature of good and evil" (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 25, la 2ae, 71, a3; see also 51 a2). A habit is a disposition to act in a certain fashion, which is caused by previous actions. The speaker should show that the subject matter of his attack commonly perpetrates a certain negative action, which is often hard to show. Monti's inductive generalization in 2b, based on Berlusconi's previous behavior, can represent this type of reasoning. However, sometimes the speaker cannot provide evidence of the victim's past actions, or wants to yield a stronger conclusion that is less subject to rational assessment. In this case, he can use ungrounded generalizations containing indignant language ("sharing the bones of the Country;" "fascists and masons"), which are hard to disprove and at the same time can lead to immediate emotive reactions (anger).

The third strategy consists in the use of metaphorical expressions or the comparison with entities that are prototypically bound to a specific value judgment. The clearest case is Monti's comparison of Berlusconi with the Pied Piper (3a), who is prototypically considered to be a deceiver, a person luring people to a disaster. In this case, the reasoning is by analogy, as the two entities are simply compared. Another similar tactic is the use of metaphorical exaggerations ("defamation machines" in 3b), which convey the negative judgment through classifications that can be judged as non-serious. The use of metaphors and indignant generalizations are extremely effective both from a reasoning and dialogical perspective. The speaker leads the interlocutors to a conclusion based on an emotion.

However, at the same time he relies on the hyperbolic nature of the rhetorical language, curbing the risk of being criticized for expressing an incorrect or ungrounded judgment. The language used can be presented as purely fictional, aimed at venting emotions and not at describing a state of affairs, and to this purpose the speaker can avail himself of other ancillary tactics. For example Grillo takes advantage of his comic character to justify his exaggerations, while Berlusconi plays the role of the offended person acting out of just indignation or anger. In both cases they shift the nature of the dialogue they are engaged in from a persuasion or information-seeking dialogue to a quarrel. In this fashion, they turn metaphorical descriptions into expressions of emotions (rhetorical hyperboles), avoiding criticisms.

This distinctions between evaluative and descriptive properties of terms, and between the two types of judgment that the use of an ethical term involves, lead to two interrelated analyses. On the one hand, it is possible to investigate the structure and the defeasibility conditions of the reasoning leading from the predication of a word to a reason to act. This problem will be addressed in section 3 below. On the other hand, Stevenson's account of the "magnetic" force of emotive meaning hints at a specific effect that some "emotive" words (or at least some uses thereof) may have. Such an effect cannot be captured by an investigation of the systematic patterns of reasoning involved. In this case, a different approach is needed, which can account for the impact that the use of such terms may have on the interlocutor's behavior. This issue will be addressed in sections 4 and 5 below.


The three aforementioned strategies are characterized by the same purpose, that is to attribute a specific habit (a judgment on the character) to an entity, which is ultimately aimed at affecting the interlocutor's or the audience's decision-making process. These passages can be described according to three distinct reasoning steps. The first is the classification of the entity, or the behavior thereof, in order to trigger a value judgment. Such a value judgment results in the next step which results in transferring an abstract commitment (honesty shall be praised) to a specific one (this man shall be praised). The last step of reasoning, proceeding from values, may lead from the commitment to an abstract desire to a concrete goal. The argumentation schemes developed in Walton, Reed and Macagno (2008) will be used to represent and analyze the idealized and systematic processes underlying the movement from value judgment to action. These schemes, providing the structure of the most common and prototypical patterns of defeasible reasoning, translate into a dialectical procedure (the critical questions) for the assessment of the defeasibility conditions of an argument.

The Argumentative Structure of Value Judgments

The first step consists in analyzing the relationship between a classification and a value judgment, which can be represented by the following scheme (adapted from Walton et al., 2008, p. 319):
Argumentation Scheme 1: Argument from Classification

Premise 1    If some particular thing a can be classified as falling
               under verbal category C, then a has property V (in
               virtue of such a classification).
Premise 2    a can be classified as falling under verbal category C.
Conclusion   a has property V

The reasonable and correct application of this scheme can be assessed dialogically by taking into account its defeasibility conditions, represented by the following critical questions:

CQ1: What evidence is there that a definitely has property C, as opposed to evidence indicating room for doubt about whether it should be so classified?

CQ2: Is the verbal classification in the classification premise based merely on an assumption about word usage that is subject to doubt?

In particular, the second critical question concerns the strength and reasonableness of the definitional criteria (including definitions or heuristic criteria of classification, see Walton & Macagno, 2010), and the matching between the entity and the definitional proprieties (Macagno & Walton, 2014, Ch. 3).

This pattern of reasoning accounts for two crucial steps: the attribution of a predicate classifying the entity according to specific characteristics (the process of "naming" reality) and the attribution of a value judgment. For example, in case 3, Berlusconi is classified as a "deceiver" because he deceived the Italians already three times. Since a deceiver is a person who deceives repeatedly, and Berlusconi committed this action three times, he can be classified as such. Clearly, the problem is whether the acts committed by Berlusconi can be classified as "deceits."

The second step leads from a classification of a state of affairs to a value judgment (where values are considered as culture-dependent reasons for classifying something as desirable or not: see Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1363b 1-5; Topics, 115b 19-27; Capone 2010; Hare, 1963, p. 24; Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1951). For instance, if a man willingly ruins his own country, he will be classified as "evil" or "contemptible," while someone who fights to improve it will be classified as "honorable." Depending on what is considered desirable or contemptible (see the second book of Aristotle's Topics), the habit will lead to a value judgment on the entity. This value judgment can be directly bound to the desirability or undesirability of the entity or the state of affairs, depending on whether the habit is directly associated with a value judgment (cowards are contemptible) or, rather, with a more generic moral habit (deceivers are untrustworthy). This scheme can be applied to the analysis of case 4 above:
Application of Scheme 1

Premise 1    If Berlusconi can be classified as a deceiver, then
               Berlusconi is untrustworthy (dangerous ...).
Premise 2    Berlusconi can be classified as a deceiver.
Conclusion   Berlusconi is untrustworthy (dangerous ...).

This type of reasoning is bound to a distinct one, representing the passage from a value judgment to a commitment to bring about a specific state of affairs. A dangerous or untrustworthy person can be negatively judged (he is bad), but a subsequent step is needed to link a judgment with a commitment, or a potential disposition, to act accordingly. For this reason, the idea of reasoning from values is crucial, as it leads from a generic and commonly accepted reason to act to its specific instantiation. For instance, in Italian culture untrustworthiness is a reason for disapproving of a person, or not believing in him. As mentioned above, the hierarchy of values is culture-dependent (Weaver, 1985, p. 224). In Italy accusing a politician of lying is not directly linked with a strong negative value-judgment, for example, screenwriter Alessandro Bencivenni said, "Italians are so used to politicians lying and stealing it's not notable any more" (1) (Smart, 2011, para 16). However, in the specific context of a financial crisis, scandals, and most importantly, disappointment with the ruling class, pointing out the unfulfilled promises of the leader allegedly partially responsible for Italy's critical situation can lead to utterly disapproving of him, and to further commitments. The passage from the instantiation of a value to the specific commitment can be represented as follows (adapted from Walton et al., 2008, p. 321):
Argumentation Scheme 2: Argument from Values

Premise 1    The state of affairs x is positive/negative as judged by
               Agent A according to Value V (value judgment).
Premise 2    The fact that x is positive/negative affects the
               interpretation and therefore the evaluation of Goal G
               of Agent A (If x is good, it supports commitment to
               Goal G).
Conclusion   The evaluation of x according to Value V is a reason for
               retaining/retracting commitment to Goal G.

The generic shared value is a reason to act accordingly. This reason needs to be specified in order to become a principle triggering a specific behavior or action, namely "an assent to an evaluative impression" (Brennan, 2005, p. 87). This scheme can be applied to the aforementioned example as follows:
Application of Scheme 2

Premise 1    According to the values of trust and sincerity, Berlusconi
               is untrustworthy (which is negative as judged by
Premise 2    Untrustworthiness supports the commitment to the goal
               of not trusting the agent (not supporting him,
               disapproving of him ...).
Conclusion   Berlusconi's untrustworthiness is a reason for retaining
               commitment to not trusting him (not supporting him,
               disapproving of him ...).

This reasoning step binds the judgment to a specific commitment. Values are considered to be reasons to act, and need to be specified according to the predication. This type of reasoning also explains the effect of classifying a person according to a commonly shared value, which leads to a commonly accepted commitment. The value judgment binds the interlocutor, belonging to a certain community, to the behavior that is commonly accepted to be the most appropriate in the given circumstance.

The schemes account for the passage from a classification to the commitment to a moral goal. The possible effect that emotive words can have on the interlocutor's behavior needs to be accounted for using other types of reasoning which characterize the decision-making process.

From Judgments to Actions

The second component of ethical reasoning is the passage from moral judgment--to a commitment-to a specific action. The decision-making process can be thought of as a pattern of reasoning connecting a desired situation-or rather a "declaration of intention," a commitment to bringing about a state of affairs (von Wright, 1972, p. 41)-with its grounds (Anscombe, 1998, p. 11). A speaker can reason in two distinct fashions (von Wright, 1963b). The first type of argument proceeds from a obtaining the audience's commitment to bringing about a specific state of affairs to then obtaining the audience's commitment (or consensus) to the carrying out the actions or processes necessary to bringing about the state of affairs:
Argumentation Scheme 3: Practical Reasoning

Premise 1    I (an agent) have a Goal G.
Premise 2    Carrying out this Action A is a means to realize G
               (Unless A is brought about, G will not be attained).
Conclusion   Therefore A should (not) be brought about.

This type of reasoning can be assessed using the following critical questions:

CQ1 What other goals that I have that might conflict with G should be considered?

CQ2: What alternative actions to my bringing about A that would also bring about G should be considered?

CQ3: Among bringing about A and these alternative actions, which is arguably the most efficient?

CQ4: What grounds are there for arguing that it is practically possible for me to bring about A?

CQ5: What consequences of my bringing about A should also be taken into account?

This type of reasoning connects the commitment to a generic goal with the commitment to a particular action. For instance, if I am committed to disapproving of Berlusconi, and the best way to express my disapproval is not to vote for him, I should not vote for him. Clearly this decision is only one possibility among different courses of action leading to a similar outcome (for example, I could affect negatively his political career by attacking him publicly, etc.).

It is possible also to reason from a desirable or undesirable state of affairs to the action that is the necessary or productive cause thereof. We represent this type of reasoning, called argument from consequences, as follows (adapted from Walton et al., 2008, p. 332):
Argumentation Scheme 4: Argument From Consequences

Premise 1    If action Q is brought about, good (bad) consequences will
               plausibly occur.
Premise 2    Good (bad) consequences are (not) desirable (should
               (not) occur).
Conclusion   Therefore, Q should (not) be brought about.

The assessment of this pattern of reasoning can be performed using the following questions (Walton et al., 2008, p. 332-333):

CQ1: How strong is the likelihood that the cited consequences will (may, must) occur?

CQ2: What evidence supports the claim that the cited consequences will (may, must) occur, and is it sufficient to support the strength of the claim adequately?

CQ3: Are there other opposite consequences (bad as opposed to good, for example) that should be taken into account?

For instance, if voting for a certain party results in negative outcomes, such as a financial and economic downturn, such a party should be not voted for (necessary cause). On the contrary, if the support to a certain party results in beneficial or desirable consequences, such as lowering the taxes, such a party should be voted for. These patterns of reasoning need also to take into consideration the so-called foreseeable consequences (von Wright, 1963a, Ch. 6). My goal of having my taxes reduced can be good. However, if the productive cause thereof also leads to economic problems for the country or the election of a person unfit to govern the state in which I live, I will be pursuing an unreasonable goal (I would choose a hierarchically inferior value over a superior one).

Argument Structures

The aforementioned argumentation schemes combine in a more complex argument structure (van Eemeren, 2010, p. 169) or chained argument, where the conclusion of each step of reasoning constitutes the premise for the further argument. In particular, consider the classification of Berlusconi as a "deceiver" in case 3 above, showing the reasoning mechanism that it ideally triggers. Monti's statement is represented in bold in the bottom left box. The implicit premises are shown in the boxes with dotted borders; the implicit conclusions are in italics, in the boxes with bold borders. The conclusion of the argument from values is indicated in bold and italics, as it can be considered as the most immediate type of commitment intended by the speaker when attacking Berlusconi. The practical reasoning based on it can be thought of as a further step.


This reasoning structure can mirror the quasi-logical dynamic effect of emotive words. However, we notice that this reasoning is complex and requires noticeable effort, in addition to information that cannot be provided by a mere classification. The ideal model of rationality is often quite different from reality. As mentioned above, the types of classification can rely heavily on generalizations or descriptions that are inherently weak or ungrounded. Despite their weakness, however, such classification can be strongly persuasive. In order to account for this effect of emotive words, their emotional impact, and their relationship with the complex reasoning structure, we need to take into account the distinction between systematic (or central) and heuristic (or peripheral) reasoning, and focus on the mechanism of practical rationality (Brennan, 2005, p. 82-83). This simplified evaluative and decisional process can be analyzed by examining the second dimension of ethical words that was pointed out above, namely the emotive nature of ethical terms.


How can a word, an instrument that represents concepts commonly used to refer to reality, bring about an emotional state? A possible answer can be found in the relation between value judgments and emotions, which is investigated by cognitivist approaches to emotions. These studies focus on the rational, or rather conceptual, dimension of emotions, showing how they are strictly interwoven (Pugmire, 1998, p. 7; Elster, 1999, Ch. 4). For instance, an emotion of "fear" presupposes a value judgment on what is feared (for example we fear an action or an entity because of the negative consequences it can bring about). If a state of affairs is not considered as undesirable and probable, it cannot be feared (Leighton, 1988, p. 205; Ben Ze'ev, 2000, p. 475). Similarly, anger involves the perception of an offense against the self. Emotions presuppose a specific evaluation of a state of affairs, which makes them essentially different from feelings (De Sousa, 1987). To feel an emotion corresponds to implicitly appraising a situation, namely to classifying it according to normative and often moral judgments (Solomon, 2003).

Emotions can be described according to their appraisal component and action tendency (Keltner & Lerner, 2010; Pugmire, 2005). The first component corresponds to the "evaluative judgments of whether an event is good or bad and whether people's current actions and environment correspond to their personal goals and expectations" (Keltner & Lerner 2010, p. 315). This component is of fundamental importance, as it can be modified by means of argumentation. As Elster put it (1999), "if [.. .] emotions do not act like charms or enchantments but depend on beliefs, they are amenable to rational argument designed to change the belief' (p. 56). The second component is the organizing principle that motivates specific behaviors or reactions. For instance, the emotion of fear will result in a tendency to flee or reduce uncertainty, while anger will lead the agent to restoring justice. The value judgment (or rather the cognitive change) provides a reason for a physical and psychical reaction that can drive us to action (Frijda & Mesquita, 2000).

The relationship between value judgments and emotions highlights another important characteristic of emotional appraisal, namely its cultural dependence (Keltner & Lemer, 2010). As emotions are grounded on value judgments, and most values are placed in hierarchies that partly depend on the culture and the individual disposition, emotions are also influenced by culture (Smith & Lazarus, 1990, p. 627; Lukes, 2008; Wong, 2006). An individual's past experiences become criteria for evaluating a state of affairs as good or not (Damasio, 1994, p. 246). However, a culture embodies the experiences of a community and in this fashion provides the criteria for an evaluative judgment (see Frijda & Mesquita, 1998). On this perspective, an emotion is in part culture-dependent, as it is "a system of concepts, beliefs, attitudes, and desires, virtually all of which are context-bound, historically developed, and culture-specific" (Solomon, 2003, p. 87). The same action can be considered as offensive in one culture but in another (Frijda & Mesquita, 2000; Mesquita & Walker, 2003). In Italy, Berlusconi's attack on the judges is accepted and can be regarded as a sign of his strength and spontaneity, eliciting admiration. In other cultures, such as North American, the same behavior would have resulted in quite different judgments (such as insolence) and therefore negative emotions, in this case, likely anger (e.g., Donadio, 2013; Elster, 1999). The impolite nature of the politicians' attacks is justified in the contemporary Italian culture, as it is regarded as the sign of the spontaneous nature of "a people's man" who is against the good manners that characterized the old-style (and therefore worthless and potentially deceiving) political discourse (Ruggiero, 2012, p. 312). For this reason, the impolite style does not result, in this context, in scandals or public contempt, but rather in approval and popularity.

The strict relationship between value judgments, culture, and emotion is basis for the rhetorical construction of emotions. Because emotions involve value judgments, a value judgment (suggested or argued for by the speaker, also using emotive words) can be a fundamental element for triggering an emotion. This (potential) passage from a judgment to an emotion has its background in Aristotle's account (set out in his Rhetoric), which influenced and anticipated many findings of modern theories of emotions (Elster, 1999). In the construction of the beliefs that are presuppositions of an emotion, words play a twofold role. On the one hand, they can be used to suggest or lead to value judgments that in turn constitute the grounds of emotive reactions. On the other hand, emotions have an epistemic effect, altering our perception of the described events. The words and descriptions have an effect that goes beyond the mere outcome of informing us of an event. They depict a scene that we can imagine, compare to our memories, and evaluate (see also the notion of "vividness" or "framing" effect described by Frijda, 1998, and Elster, 1999). For this reason, words can lead us to experience a specific emotion, something that we can perceive as an "apparent reality" that we sense viscerally and we do not doubt (Clore & Gasper, 2000, p. 26; Frijda & Mesquita, 2000, p. 69). As Elster put it (1994, p. 27), "A crucial fact about the emotions is that they have the capacity to alter and distort the cognitive appraisal that triggered them in the first place." From this perspective, emotive words can create the grounds for instilling beliefs and generating emotions that are "irrational" because such beliefs do not stem from objectively verifiable information (Elster, 1994, p. 36). By providing the audience with an emotional representation of a person, a group, or an issue, it is possible to arouse an emotion, thus giving the interlocutor something more powerful than sheer information or truth: the sensation or the appearance of truth.

There is a twofold connection between emotions and beliefs. On the one hand, they are grounded on beliefs. On the other hand, they can alter them. A speaker can trigger emotions and modify the interlocutors' perception and evaluation of a state of affairs. She can depict individuals, groups, or issues from an emotional perspective, representing people as actors in emotional events. In this fashion, she can evoke emotions, and in turn such emotions will instill the beliefs constituting their appraisal dimension into the hearers (Frijda & Mesquita, 2000, p. 47). However, these descriptions need to draw on the audience's previous beliefs in order to result in emotional effects. Such beliefs can correspond to what is commonly known to be true or accepted as such. In ancient rhetoric, this concept was expressed by the notion of likeliness, or eik'os. Eik'os refers to what "is accustomed generally to take place, or which depends upon the opinion of men, or which contains some resemblance to these properties, whether it be false or true" (Ciceronis De Inventione I, 46). The potential deceptive dimension of emotions lies in this twofold relationship with common knowledge (or truth). What is likely can be true or simply similar to truth. For this reason, an emotion based thereon can lead to a perception of truth, or to a perception of a state of affairs that only appears to be true or commonly shared.

This relationship between likeliness, emotions, and beliefs can be used to interpret the persuasive effect of the aforementioned examples, in which the grammar of emotions and emotive words is pivotal. When Grillo calls Renzi (a left wing politician) "little moron" and Bersani (the leader of the left wing coalition) "a loser that has shared with masons and ex fascists the bones of Italy," he is not simply telling jokes. His first description, aimed at depicting Renzi as an inferior, is grounded on the common perception of the man as a golden boy without much experience (Davies, 2014, para. 18). This evaluative characterization can lead to contempt, namely to the emotion expressing "the subject's superiority over the object" (Ben Ze'ev, 2000, p. 390). The second funny characterization relies on the commonly shared opinion of Bersani's political mistakes, in particular, his failure to challenge Berlusconi's political agenda when he was the leader of the opposition party. However, the description distorts his image, so that a judgment on his political decisions becomes an accusation of extremely unjust and evil actions, providing the presuppositions of the emotions of anger and contempt. Similarly, when Monti attacks Berlusconi calling him a deceiver, he taps into the very roots of Italian disappointment with the ruling class (they have deceived the Italians), and the fear of Italy's critical situation. Berlusconi's attacks against Monti (describing him as a "scumbag" or a "madman") are based on previous negative emotions of the audience's dissatisfaction with the austerity measures more than their beliefs about his policies. Similarly, from a rhetorical perspective his insults against the judges, calling them "defamation machines" or dictators, are justified by the large support that the politician has among the masses who trust him despite his numerous charges and trials. Finally, Monti's image of the Pied Piper provides a strongly emotional representation of the alleged dangers from which the Italians are running, thus awakening their fear. The emotive effect that this description triggers derives from their commonly known economic hurdles and Berlusconi's incapacity to face them.

In order to understand the persuasive effects of emotive words it is necessary to investigate the role and the mechanism of emotions. Emotions are grounded on audience doxa and are transferred using messages which result in newly formed beliefs. The analysis of the reasonableness and potential precariousness of emotive words leads to us to examine the other dimension of emotions, which consists in redirecting attitudes, evaluations, and choices. To this purpose, we need to address some crucial questions. How can the rational dimension of emotions affect the rational assessment of a state of affairs? How can we model the rational dimensions of emotions to understand how and why they can be used for manipulative goals? A possible explanation can be found in the analysis of the kind of reasoning that emotions trigger.


As mentioned above, emotions can be instrument for instilling beliefs, creating an apparent reality, and leading us to act on an amount of information that is often not optimal (Elster, 1994, p. 23). When we hate the officers of a public institution, we do not need further proof to judge their actions as unjust. Emotions provide us with a picture of reality that seems more likely than the one supported by data and reasoning. This emotional reasoning is different from the one that we reconstructed and formalized above, but it can also be retrieved and assessed using such argumentative reasoning patterns.

Emotional Reasoning

The reasoning triggered by emotions was clearly described by Quintilian as distinct from the one we described using the argumentation schemes. Quintilian suggests the orator should amplify a description to arouse a passion because passions trigger a different form of reasoning one based on a systematic logic. The judge, when overcome by passions, "abandons all attempts to enquire into the truth of the arguments, is swept along by the tide of passion, and yields himself unquestioning to the torrent" (Institutio Oratoria, VI, 2, 6). Emotions, as seen above, presuppose and provide the agent with an appearance of reality, an appraisal that is not the result of a careful assessment, but the outcome of an immediate and simplified perception-an interaction between the individual's concerns and the object (Clore & Gasper, 2000, p. 30).

Emotive (or ethical) terms are the keystone of complex patterns of defeasible reasoning from classification, values, and consequences, whose defeasibility conditions need to be investigated. On the contrary, emotions make us jump to conclusions and trigger generalizations based on single experiences (Frijda & Mesquita, 2000, p. 55). The result is the attribution of a single episodic characteristic ("he looks dangerous") to inner, essential properties (he his evil), or the extension or repetition of an action ("he behaved badly") over time ("he has always been bad"). Such beliefs are strong as they are felt, and an event that "is present to the senses cannot easily be doubted to exist" (Frijda & Mesquita, 2000, p. 67). The emotion itself is not hasty or biased, but it does lead one to process arguments in a biased way. If a person feels strongly against a proposition, any evidence or reasoning on his side will be good enough no matter how flawed, and no evidence on the other side will suffice no matter how well reasoned or supported by the facts (Damasio, 1994; Greene & Haidt, 2002). Emotions cannot be evaluated in the same way as propositions because emotions are not true or false, they are simply experienced so it does not seem relevant to engage in such an evaluation for people who are experiencing the emotion at the time (Keltner & Lerner, 2010, p. 331). This fast appraisal triggers an immediate action tendency, a sudden decision to act in conformity with the emotion experienced (Loewenstein & Lerner, 2003). This combination of hasty and biased judgment and decision-making characterizes emotional thinking (Frijda & Mesquita, 2000, p. 64). Emotional thinking is extremely powerful because it requires little processing effort by the agent. An agent does not need to carefully evaluate all the evidence concerning complex issues and synthetize it. Instead, a momentary feeling can trigger empirical generalizations, leading to strong and persistent value judgments (Keltner & Lerner, 2010, p. 331).

Mere emotional reasoning has been analyzed as different from the "central" or systematic type of reasoning, which requires effort, time, and information (Chen & Chaiken, 1999). Emotions provide the individual with easily accessible information, namely mental contents that immediately come to mind (Kahneman, 2003, pp. 699-706). These accessible contents, constituted by prototypes or stereotypes (namely generalizations accessible because of their emotional valence), affect one's emotions and spare the individual the effort of processing information, leading directly to an easy, heuristic judgment (Kahneman, 2003, p. 716). For instance, the similarity of an object with a prototype results in similar judgment (Kahneman, 2003). Likely, the similarity between two emotional experiences supports a judgment on the similarity of the situations or the objects triggering them (Clore & Gasper, 2000, p. 26). This fast and easy route to persuasion has been distinguished from the more systematic one (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Petty et al., 2004) and has been analyzed as a heuristic process of reasoning (Chen & Chaiken, 1999). Instead of assessing a political leader based on his achievements, records, or values, which would result in great effort, a person may resort to a much less complex judgment, grounded on a "heuristic attribute that comes more readily to mind" (Kahneman, 2003, p. 707). For instance, the attributes of being a "madman", a "scumbag", a "moron", a "dictator", a "barbarian," or a "pied piper" come easily to mind, as they have triggered an emotional response in the past. Even when such attributes are completely irrelevant ("scumbag") or utterly false ("dictator," "madman"), they provide us with a criterion, a heuristic route to judgment.

Sound and Unsound Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is still a form of reasoning, which can be assessed as grounded or not on shared premises using the criteria of the systematic route. Sometimes emotive words are needed in order to summarize in a condensed argument a more complex type of reasoning. Monti's choice to engage in the battle of insults can be partially explained by the need to provide the voters with an alternative route to a judgment, a shortcut to his complex economic and political considerations. As a matter of fact, he did provide systematic reasons supporting his judgment of Berlusconi, but he summarized some of them with the emotive image of the Pied Piper. In the examples mentioned above, Grillo amplihes (by generalizing or ignoring qualifications) states of affairs that can be shared in part or that he backs up with reasons. When he claims that Bersani "made arrangements with former fascists and masons (1)," he oversimplifies and overstates decisions and mediations that can be explained otherwise, and emotively classifies some members of the Italian right wing. In this case, the emotive reasoning excludes the analysis of the default conditions of the systematic patterns of reasoning from classification, values, and consequences. A hearer, also acknowledging the exaggeration of Grillo's categorizations, is then led to overlook the consequences of the emotive reasoning that they trigger.

The appearance of reality can be used not only for simplifying actual reality and hiding potentially relevant details, but it can be used also to conceal it, and to trigger a value judgment that is not based on sound premises. When Grillo describes Renzi as a "little moron," he is relying on shared stereotypes related with his known behavior, way of talking, expressions, and age, but on no information concerning his conceptual skills. A value judgment triggered by this description can be misleading and mischievous. Berlusconi does much worse when he insults the judges and Monti. He cannot prove any of the premises supporting the classifications that he advances. On the contrary, the information commonly shared is conflicting with such descriptions. He takes for granted actions that were never committed (falsely accusing people; deceiving people) and that he could not prove or even support with any acceptable reason. These emotive words represent shortcuts to chains of reasoning that if modeled according to their argumentative structure would be unsound, as stemming from premises commonly accepted as false.

On this perspective, the distinction between systematic and heuristic reasoning can be used for analyzing the soundness of the inferences triggered by emotive words. The systematic reasoning, reconstructed using the argumentation schemes, can be compared with the emotive and heuristic one, highlighting the various defeasible steps. In this fashion, the beliefs presupposed and triggered by an emotive word can be brought to light and the reasonableness of its use assessed. In this sense, emotive words can be shortcuts, simplifications of chains of arguments, but also condensed deceptive reasoning. When arguments supporting honesty or correctness cannot be provided, when judgments based on past records cannot be suggested, when reasons for believing that a candidate is credible or is acting for the good of his country cannot be found, the only resort is to take the other route. In this case emotive words are no longer pre-packaged reasoning, but masks, instruments for deceiving. The effect of emotional epithets can be devastating on a person's ability to reason using the systematic route (Loewenstein & Lerner, 2003). Emotive words can inhibit the more effort-requiring type of reasoning and trigger the other, fast and biased, process (Clore & Gasper, 2000, p. 30).

From this perspective, emotive words are instruments of decision making that can be extremely effective. The emotion of anger is built through narratives, metaphors, and stories, turning a public figure into an enemy, against whom it is possible to channel the emotions of fear of the critical economic situation and disappointment and disenchantment towards the political class (Ruggiero, 2012, p. 314). Anger is thus used by Grillo, Berlusconi, and Monti in their characterizations of their opponents, which trigger a heuristic step from a potentially controversial and defeasible classification, to the intended value judgment and the possible further commitments. The conclusions are reached ignoring the defeasibility conditions of the reasoning, pointed out by the argumentation schemes. However, just like all powerful instruments, emotive words can be also extremely dangerous. The fragment of reality that they bring to the interlocutor's attention, the apparent reality that they provide, can be a synthesis or a mask. Emotive words can provide a symbolic, summarized reason for a conclusion, but at the same time they can prevent a careful assessment of a situation.

Side-tactics and Dialectical Shifts

When the evidence that such words are simply lies or exaggerations is too clear, their use risks backfiring. For this reason, other tactics are used to prevent possible criticisms or increase the burden of an attack. Grillo acts in a satiric environment, where exaggerations are regarded as instruments for triggering humor and entertainment, while at the same time reporting important pieces of information. Accusing him of distorting reality with his epithets would be like accusing him of being entertaining (Macagno, 2013). An accusation would amount to using the criteria of a dialogue game (such as a persuasion dialogue) to assess the behavior aimed at a different dialogical purpose (to give vent to emotions or entertain the public). Berlusconi plays between two roles, acting as a light-hearted and mundane entertainer and a serious politician, depending on his communicative purposes. Moreover, by turning political attacks into a fight of personal insults and playing the indignant and angry role, he manages to shift a debate into a quarrel, twisting the intentions of his opponents. In this sense, both tactics are based on the relationship between dialogical purposes and interpretation (this issue is clearly treated in defamation law in the United States Greenbelt Pub. Assn. v. Bresler, 398 U.S. 6, 1970). An attack is placed in a dialogical context characterized by the goal of expressing one's emotions or arousing the interlocutor's or the audience's. In this fashion, its communicative goal is interpreted accordingly not as an accusation or a piece of information, but rather as an insult or a fictional description.


In the late-medieval dialectical theory, fallacies were described according to two criteria: the reason for their plausible appearance that makes the people assent, and the reason for their failure, for their being weak or invalid (Kretzmann, Kenny & Pinborg, 1982, p. 124). Emotive words provide an appearance of reality, a perception of a state of affairs that makes them instruments for drawing a value judgment in conditions which provide reduced processing time, resources, or information. Emotions are described in terms of perception and experience. They are triggered by assessments of states of affairs and lead to an action. Both the evaluative and the action-tendency dimensions can be analyzed from a quasi-logical perspective as defeasible steps of reasoning. Argumentation schemes can describe the defeasibility conditions of two processes, the one consisting in classifying an action, an event, or an object based on values, and the other leading from an evaluation to a possible action. The comparison between the heuristic and emotional route to persuasion, and the one reconstructed with the argumentation schemes allows one to assess the heuristic paths presupposed and triggered by emotive words. In this sense, the use of emotive words, the emotions that they elicit, and the conclusions to which they lead can be judged as reasonable or not depending on whether they are justified by sound premises. While some emotive reactions can be considered as grounded on sound reasons, others are ungrounded and can become mischievous. The logical analysis of the grounds of emotions can be used as an instrument for describing when and how emotions are used to distort reality, namely when and why they can be "unsound." This approach can shed some light on the crucial distinctions between reasonable or acceptable personal attacks (ad hominem arguments) and the manipulative ones.

Emotive words are powerful and dangerous instruments, both for the audience and for the speaker. Sometimes the grounds of their use cannot be supported by acceptable reasons and the risk of incurring criticism can become high. To avoid this, the speakers can use side tactics, in particular introducing pragmatic ambiguity. The communicative setting can be altered or claimed to be different from the shared one, thus reinterpreting the communicative intention underlying his words. A comic actor cannot be accused of exaggerating or being irrelevant; an angry man cannot be blamed for being aggressive or voicing his personal opinions (even if publically and when acting as a public figure). In this fashion, false, incorrect, or unsupported classifications cannot be judged to be unacceptable and the emotions that they trigger cannot be claimed to be manipulative.


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(Note 1) Masonry is illegal in Italy, and frequently associated with high-level criminal organizations.

Author Note Fabrizio Macagno, ArgLab, IFILNOVA, Faculdade de ciencias sociais e humanas

Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal. The author would like to thank the Fundacao para a Ciencia e Tecnologia, Portugal, for research grant IF/00945/2013, the anonymous referees and Michael Baumtrog for their insightful comments. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Fabrizio Macagno, ArgLab, IFILNOVA, Faculdade de ciencias sociais e humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa Edificio I&D--4 andar

Avenida de Berna 26 Lisbon, Portugal, 1069-061. E-mail:
Examples of Value Judgment Argumentation Strategies.

    Strategy                             Examples

1. Attribution of    a. Bersani is a loser (case 1).
  a negative habit   b. [Maronil is a dreaming barbarian.
2. Mentioning        a. [Bersani] made arrangements with former
  previous             fascists and masons for twenty years, sharing
  actions              among them also the bones of this Country
                       (case 1).
                     b. Berlusconi has already deceived the Italian
                       people three times. The first time I was
                       deceived too. (case 3).
3. Metaphors and     a. [Berlusconi] reminds me of the Pied Piper, who
  comparisons          takes the mice to drown (case 3).
  (prototypes)         b. The judges of the court of Milan are horrible
                       defamation machines (case 5).
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Author:Macagno, Fabrizio
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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