The Ethical Use of Irrationality

Friday morning at Skepticon, James Croft and I ran a workshop on the ethical use of irrationality. When I first proposed the session to James, I had in mind a discussion of story and persuasion. We tend to focus so strongly on rationality that we sometimes neglect to look at the rest of our lives in any kind of structured way. I thought we should fix that.

Demonstrating both that this is a much larger subject than can be discussed in an hour and that audience-focused sessions end up going unexpected but useful places, we spent most of the hour talking about the ethics of the emotional appeal.

We started by asking people to give examples of things they thought were both entirely irrational and entirely unethical. We ended up with an interesting list. It included war, capitalism, consumerism, and political advertising, to name just a few.

If that list makes you want to raise objections, that was exactly the point. While the person who added war to that list was quite adamant, most of the room appeared to believe self-defense is both rational and ethical.

I should note here that one audience member helpfully raised the distinction of an action being intrinsically rational–based in rationality–versus being rational because it achieves its desired end. For the discussion in general, we were talking about the first kind of rationality. Or irrationality.

James brought up political advertising, noting that there are at least parts of it that are arguably rational. Wanting to challenge the pairing of ethical action and rationality, I described the ads used by Minnesotans United for Marriage. This is the organization that very effectively fought the proposed amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would have defined marriage as only one man and one woman. I figured almost everyone in the room would support those ends, and I wanted to give that a chance to affect their perception of the means.

These ads were designed after analysis of prior campaigns on marriage equality votes. Researchers had found that the appeals, particularly appeals made to equal rights and secularism, made during those campaigns did not effectively resonate with voters. Thus Minnesotans United’s campaign was entirely based around the emotional appeal. The ads showed families, couples of lots of demographic, gay and straight, young and old, some with generations of children. They very simply affirmed marriage as a Good Thing™ that should be available to everyone.

Then I asked the room whether that was unethical.

We received a number of responses as to why it wasn’t. I don’t think anyone argued directly that it was.

Someone suggested that it was ethical because it appealed to positive emotions rather than negative emotions like fear and anger. I pointed out that positive emotions can be invoked unethically, as happens with patriotism, one of the behaviors that made the audience’s original list. Other people pointed out appropriate uses of fear, including the fact that fear is sometimes an entirely rational reponse and necessary for good decision-making.

Someone else suggested that this emotional appeal was rational because the underlying issue was rational. While the appeals to equal rights and protections under the law may not change the minds of many voters, it’s sound ethical reasoning. Other were uncomfortable with an argument based on the ends justifying the means. This is where someone came closest to suggesting that the ads were unethical, saying that this kind of emotional appeal took some of people’s self-determination away by bypassing their reason.

Someone in the audience argued that the emotional appeal was ethical because marriage is an emotional question. Another said that because the opposition to same-sex marriage is an emotional appeal, countering it with another emotional appeal was ethical. We also discussed how emotion adds information to an argument. Aside from one person who insisted that emotion always makes us less rational, no one argued against this proposition. I recommended Julia Galef’s “Straw Vulcan” presentation from last year’s Skepticon. I also mentioned the scientific data that tell us that when we’re making decisions about what will make us happy, snap decisions based largely on emotion are often better than formally reasoned decisions made more slowly.

We were running out of time at this point, and it looked like we were converging on agreement on an ethical role for the emotional appeal, so James changed the subject slightly. He brought up church architecture and music that inspires awe by making people feel small and insignificant. We didn’t have a lot of time left, so we didn’t realy get a chance to pull that apart. I’m not sure we got much beyond the fact that church art was created in service of something we all already consider to be unethical. There was some discussion of whether the amount of money that went into creating the art made the art irrational because it could/should have been spent directly on the physical well-being of people, but we could have spent an entire hour just talking about the art.

Only at the end of the workshop did someone bring up story and narrative. The person who introduced the topic introduced story as an imperative. Because humanity seems “wired” for narrative, he suggested we have something of an obligation to present our views in narrative form. He mentioned the stories that are inherent in science. James brought up Carl Sagan. I noted that we also have personal stories to tell of living as atheists and plugged Atheist Voices of Minnesota as people doing just that. This, again, was something we could have discussed for an hour and had only a minute or two to cover.

I’m incredibly glad that Skepticon put together the space for workshops like these. There is obviously hunger to talk about these questions, even though we were more brainstorming than coming to any firm conclusions. About a third of the “audience” for this workshop contributed to the discussion. I’d love to do something like this again next year, maybe with a slightly more narrow topic so we don’t break up the hour.

Brianne also did a write-up on the session here.

The Ethical Use of Irrationality
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11 thoughts on “The Ethical Use of Irrationality

  1. 1

    Because humanity seems “wired” for narrative, he suggested we have something of an obligation to present our views in narrative form.

    I have always preferred data to anecdotes, but then I guess I am weird.

  2. 2

    I teach college-level composition. When I’m assigning research papers, I tell my students that they ought to strive to use the three main argumentative strategies — logos (reason), ethos (respected experts) and pathos (emotion).

    Humans are not Vulcans, much as we might wish we were. There is plenty of evidence that we are motivated by unconscious, irrational reasons for our decisions all the time — even when we think we’re being logical. If you seek to persuade someone, reaching the head is not enough — you need the heart as well (or the limbic system, or wherever the heck scientists say emotion resides these days).

  3. F

    …appeals made to equal rights…

    …marriage as a Good Thing™ that should be available to everyone.

    As appearing in text, presented as such, these both reduce to the same thing. Equal rights is a good thing. There is nothing inherently rational about equal rights or marriage and its availability. Nor are they particularly irrational in the common sense. Being afraid or otherwise set against these things, however, would be irrational, as it certainly wasteful of time, brain space, and resources to no real point. The fear of gay marriage itself is irrational, because there is no reason for the fear. There is no possible harmful consequence.

    Almost anything one does that is not motivated by homeostasis is, at its root, arguably irrational. But you can build completely rational and monumental frameworks upon irrational motives, like mathematics or the scientific method.

  4. 4

    They very simply affirmed marriage as a Good Thing™ that should be available to everyone.

    *This* is, to me, where it gets unethical – because marriage is not a Good Thing, or even just a good thing. To promote, protect, and institutionalize the (committed and monogamous, of course; society would just crumble if polyamorous people got plural marriages) Acceptable Relationship, and even the idea of “a relationship” at all, as opposed to the alternative, is in no way a good thing or ethical.

    I support what currently passes for “marriage equality” because it’s the best available way for gay people to have those rights at a time when eliminating government recognition of marriage altogether isn’t feasible, but I won’t be enthused about it until the day when I, as an aromantic asexual, can have the “benefits of marriage” without having to lie, too.

  5. 5

    I’m so sad I missed this!

    I think there’s a difference between arguments that are used in things like political ads (as in your Minnesotans United example) and arguments used in intellectual discourse (or pseudo-intellectual discourse, as the case may be). People who create ads in support of marriage equality are well aware of the “rational” arguments for it, but they recognize that, unfortunately, in order to capture the public’s attention, you often have to use appeals to emotion.

    People who create ads against marriage equality, on the other hand, rarely have arguments that are grounded in evidence and skepticism. Have you ever seen an argument against marriage equality that doesn’t hinge on simple prejudice and/or religious ideology? I haven’t.

    I guess that doesn’t mean that using appeals to emotion is necessarily ethical…but maybe whether or not appeals to emotion were used isn’t enough to determine whether something is ethical or not.

  6. 7

    im, which one? This was a discussion among 50+ people (don’t tell the fire marshall; the room was rated for 35) using several definitions of both “rational” and “ethical”.

  7. 8

    I think im might be referring to how “rational” is not synonymous with “logical.” That’s one sense in which it is used– the most common used by skeptics/atheists– but not the only one. For example, in economics a rational actor is a person who acts in his or her own best interests. In an anthropological sense, the beliefs and behavior of a society are rational if they are internally consistent. “Rational” in that case means that they have reasons for what they do, though those reasons might not be logically justified.

  8. 9

    I think “the story” can be an incredibly powerful tool, even when communicating normally “dry/objective” things like scientific fact.

    The best example I can think of is Simon Singh’s book “Big Bang”, which is basically a historical narrative, telling the stories of those who searched, discovered, disagreed, argued, theorized and confirmed the scientific theory as we know it today. Singh doesn’t leave out the scientific detail though, and the story really ties it all together into a really memorable picture.

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