Reason, Emotion, Experience and the Right Answer

So, after things had settled down a very small bit between Richard Dawkins and the Gnu Atheist/FTB/Atheism+ group, it all started again over Dawkins using an example where he argued that date rape was not as serious as stranger rape in an attempt to provide an example of how saying that X > Y (ie more serious, worse, etc) doesn’t mean that that person thinks that Y is a good thing. When he did that, people jumped on him for claiming that date rape was not as serious as stranger rape — with some justification — and Dawkins replied with, essentially, a sigh and a “That wasn’t my point” type of response.

And then he made a post about it, which Ophelia Benson replied to, which asks this question that Dawkins invites people to consider and that Benson is considering:

Are there kingdoms of emotion where logic is taboo, dare not show its face, zones where reason is too intimidated to speak?

After eliminating interpersonal cases, Benson goes on to bring it down to discourse:

Discourse by definition rests on at least minimal reason and logic. But does that mean emotion must be banished?

Being Stoic-leaning, I’m inclined to answer that with a simple “Yes”. But even I realize that that’s far too trite an answer. And yet, the answer depends a lot on what is meant by saying that emotion must be “banished”. A reasoned and logical decision shouldn’t be settled by emotion or an appeal to emotion, but that doesn’t mean that the facts of people’s emotional states are always going to be irrelevant. For morality, I think it should be, but others disagree. It is reasonable, however, to think that when you want to predict or influence the behaviour of people who are not Stoics that you will need to consider their emotions. So the key, I think, is this: the facts of emotions — what emotional states people are in, what emotional states they will be, and so on — will be relevant to logical and rational discourse as facts, as states of the world. But emotions are not arguments, nor should they attempt to stand in for them. So, in a rational discourse, an emotion is on the same level as, say, a colour or a solid object or a conceptual truth: things that are true and are assessed for their relevance to the argument. But an emotional state does not make an argument true in and of itself; they only affect the truth of an argument if joined to it by solid logic and reasoning.

Benson goes on to talk about how she thinks emotion can impact discourse:

But more to the point, it isn’t just random daft meaningless “emotion” that make people wary of discussions of, say, abortion. It’s emotion about things like consequences and experience and the difference between being someone vulnerable to the harm under discussion and being someone who is not vulnerable to it.
So we could have another discussion about the morality of trying to discuss moral issues that have huge impacts on one kind of people but no impact on you. Does that make a difference? Should it make a difference? Is it possible that, for instance, a very rich person who has always been very rich and has no personal experience at all of what it’s like to be poor – that such a person would have a shallow understanding of the consequences of, say, a wage cut for bottom-tier workers in a company? Should very rich people be the only people deciding what wages get paid? Is that a question about reason and logic, or emotion, or both?

They might, indeed, have a shallow view of the experiences of the very poor, and thus might be missing some of the relevant facts … particularly, those facts of the experiences of the very poor. And assuming that those experiences are relevant, then they might be missing important facets of the situation that will make for a bad logical argument. However, the flip side is this: if those facts are relevant to the argument at hand, someone ought to be able to convey them in a way that doesn’t require that very rich person to have had those experiences. The key is this: if you are making an argument that is objectively true, then it has to depend on facts that are objective as well, meaning that anyone can get access to them. If you are relying on subjective facts, then only those who have access to those facts can see the truth of the argument, and so it has now become a subjective argument. And a logical and rational argument is objective, at least for any argument that you want other people to accept using logic and reason.

So if you end up arguing that people have to have experienced what you’ve experienced to see the truth of your argument, at that point you have to consider that you have either made a bad argument, or an irrational/illogical one. (Note, sometimes you want irrational/illogical arguments, or at least subjective ones. But the case listed here is not one of those; we should be able to logically assess whether the wage cut is the right thing to do by means that are accessible to everyone.)

For an example: suppose you get a group of prosperous comfortable well-fed men having a rational logical discussion of rape. Is it excessively emotional to point out that a group like that would be simply talking over the heads of the people most vulnerable to rape? I don’t think it is. I don’t think it’s excessively emotional to point out that there’s something blood-chilling about seeing people who are safe talk calmly about the risks or tragedies faced by people who aren’t like them.

Would those people be talking over the heads of the people most vulnerable to rape … or simply possibly telling them what they don’t want to hear. And I personally think that people should be able to, in general, talk calmly about issues like this without it being considered “blood-chilling” or in any way wrong. It is indeed the rational ideal that such arguments should be made calmly and, more importantly, without bias. Those who are most impacted by the choices are clearly biased, and it’s perfectly natural that they would have a bias. But if people who have a vested interest in the outcome of a discussion are the only or main ones who can argue over it, they risk introducing bias into the arguments, even unconsciously. And a rational, logical and dare I say scientific argument wants to remove bias as much as is humanly possible. Again, it comes back to what I said above: if the argument isn’t one that’s accessible and demonstrable to everyone, then it’s at best subjective and at worst illogical/irrational.

Note again that this doesn’t mean that their concerns are irrelevant; they should be demonstrable facts. But the fact that people who are in those situations have those concerns says nothing, in and of itself, about the truth of the argument. It seems to me that hinting that there’s something wrong or something missing if a bunch of uninvolved people had a dispassionate discussion of an issue is advocating for a subjective argument: you can’t see the truth of the argument unless you’re involved. And that’s wrong. It begs for an answer of “Demonstrate these facts objectively and then we’ll incorporate them into the argument, and see where they take us.”

Also note two things:

1) Dawkins’ actual complaint was about shutting down the argument or consideration of it at all due to emotional reasons, which is about an even stronger stance than I’m talking about here.

2) My take here is a bit stronger than Benson’s phrasing would insist on; she could say that she just wants the situations considered, and not to trump discussion.

In summary, emotion is not useful as part of the method of rational discourse, and only introduces bias and gets in the way. However, facts about emotions may be necessary to produce the right argument, and so should be limited to that role in rational discourse, not banished entirely. Rational discourse has to depend on things that can be demonstrated to everyone, and emotions and personal experiences can’t. Thus, rational discourse should follow the “Just the facts” model, where sometimes the facts include personal experiences and emotional states.


One Response to “Reason, Emotion, Experience and the Right Answer”

  1. So Happy Together? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] as we’ve already seen, Ophelia Benson is taking on the idea that we should take a rational and not an emotional approach […]

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