All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 1973

Appeal to the Intellect

There are a thousand and one faults responsible for the sorry lack of moral and intellectual progress we decry; even more serious are the evils which cause the devolutionary plunge so apparent to any discerning eye. No one will ever spot all the errors; but let each one that is spotted be held to the light that others may recognize it.

Here is an error that has been bothering me, at once enormous and malicious, a fault so common that it appears, on the surface, to be a virtue. What might this be? It is the tendency to appeal not to the potential intelligence of others but, rather, to play upon, to take advantage of, their weaknesses. The fact that one’s potential — the undeveloped capacity in each of us — is incomparably greater than his intelligence may explain the deplorable tendency here in question. For, unless one acts as wisely and conscientiously as he can, the road of least resistance must lead to decadence.

To illustrate: Sales researchers have discovered that a price of $4.95, for instance, gives the impression to most people that the item is more in the $4 than $5 range. While nearly everyone believes with Ben Franklin that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” it is not necessarily a mark of frugality to spend 99 nickels to save one. It may be false economy and bad arithmetic. But such weaknesses are exploited. This explains why an item may be priced at $99.99 — 9,999 cents — rather than $100.

“Why,” I asked a passenger agent in an airport lounge, “do you advertise a trip to Hawaii for $159.95? Why not $160?” At least he was honest with me: “It fools people; that figure makes it look like a bargain.” However, I must not leave the impression that this appeal to ignorance rather than to intelligence is a practice peculiar to business. We find it featured in every field of human activity.

Political Promises

Appeals to weakness are the stock in trade of politicians. What will the people fall for? If it is something-for-nothing, then political platforms will promise delivery.

So-called teachers, economists, clergymen by the tens of thousands stoop as often to such cheap tricks as do labor unions, chambers of commerce, PTA’s, and countless other organizations. Find out what weak and thoughtless people will demand, support, cheer, follow — be it consumerism or socialism — and “away we go.”

Further, those who deplore this appeal to ignorance are well advised to look in the mirror. Any such widespread error tends to “rub off” on everyone. Is there an identifiable form of immunity to this malady? Yes; merely observe if integrity prevails. If one is saying or writing only that which his highest conscience dictates as truth, then, definitely, he is appealing to strength or intellect rather than to weakness. Why this claim?

When one acts with integrity, his eye is not cast on cheers, applause, fame, fortune, profits, and other worldly emoluments. Instead, the pursuit of truth and its accurate reporting commands the individual’s attention. Is this to wave aside the things of this world? Hardly! Seek ye first Truth and Righteousness, and these things shall be added unto you.

To Reverse the Trend

How, then, are we to reverse course and be rid of this mischievous habit of appealing to weakness? The answer: appeal to intellect. No matter with whom one is communicating — whether a customer, student, voter, employee, spouse, child, or other — assume his intelligence. How? By making certain that every utterance —written or oral — accurately reflects the truth as one sees it. And watch the recipient of the message rise to the challenge. To expect and believe in another’s intelligence has a drawing power, an attractive or magnetic effect.

To test this conclusion, simply ask yourself: When do I best respond? When someone assumes I am stupid and tries to “pull the wool over my eyes,” or when he assumes I am as bright as can be? As the famous psychiatrist, Dr. Fritz Kunkel observed: “Immense hidden powers lurk in the unconscious of the most common man — indeed, of all people without exception.” Tap these immense hidden powers by an appeal to intellect. Let integrity feature one’s every word and deed.

“What? You expect me to give up the practices that are keeping me in business or in office?”

Frankly, I do. I expect better of those who are now or I who have been appealing to weakness. But when a switch is made, if at all, it will be in response to explanations and demonstrations by a few that an appeal to intellect is the way best to serve one’s self-interest. No one can prosper for long —materially, intellectually, morally, spiritually — in a society based on appeals to weakness, be the appeals intentional or not.

Always address our appeals to the other person’s intellect. For all you or I know, his hidden or latent powers may be greater than yours or mine. In any case, we will have tried our best, not our worst and, by so doing, will have helped ourselves.



Knowledge and Learning

The intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another.

CARDINAL JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, The Idea of a University 

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”