Pathetic Argument in Constitutional Law

82 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2013 Last revised: 27 Sep 2013

See all articles by Jamal Greene

Jamal Greene

Columbia University - Law School

Date Written: September 15, 2013


Pathetic argument, or argument based on pathos, persuades by appealing to the emotions of the reader or listener. In Aristotle’s classic treatment, it exists in parallel to logical argument, which appeals to deductive or inductive reasoning, and ethical argument, which appeals to the character of the speaker. Pathetic argument is common in constitutional law, as in other practical discourse — think of “Poor Joshua!” — but existing accounts of constitutional practice do not provide resources for understanding the place of and limitations upon such appeals when they appear in judicial opinions. This Article begins to fill that gap. Pathetic argument is one of the acceptable modes of persuasion that constitutional argument shares with other deliberative domains, though at its best it can be used to amplify arguments within the set of discourses — text, history, structure, precedent, and consequences — that make constitutional law a distinctive form of politics. Normatively, appeals to emotion are most easily justified in opinions that seek to declare rather than apply law; in separate writings; when addressed to accepted subjects of constitutional argument rather than the ultimate outcome in the case; and when they arouse other-regarding rather than self-regarding emotions. A nuanced account of the proper place of pathetic argument in constitutional law is instrumental to understanding what it means to engage, and not to engage, in constitutional discourse.

Keywords: pathos, ethos, logos, rhetoric, constitutional interpretation, modalities, originalism

Suggested Citation

Greene, Jamal, Pathetic Argument in Constitutional Law (September 15, 2013). Columbia Law Review, Vol. 113, 2013, Forthcoming, Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 13-357, Available at SSRN: or

Jamal Greene (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

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