Skepticon: Ethics of (Ir)Rationality

Skepticon is off to a great start!

Thursday night consisted of a few of the early arrivers having a relaxed pre-convention hangout in the University Plaza hotel lobby. I ran into old friends, made new friends and sipped some pretty tasty scotch.

The first workshop I attended on Friday morning was led by Stephanie Zvan and James Croft. They presented Ethics of Rationality…or perhaps it was the ethics of irrationality. The workshop was very much a workshop; it was based on audience participation and discussion. Stephanie and James opened with the premise that irrationality can be unethical. They then invited all of us to give examples of arguments or issues that we believe use irrationality unethically. Suggestions included arguments for religion/belief in a god, war, pro-life campaigns and marketing, to name a few. We then spent some time ripping apart whether any of those topics in fact engaged in unethical uses of irrationality, and if so, how often or too what degree.

Stephanie provided an example of the emotional arguments in political ads, specifically the recent Minnesotans United campaign to encourage voters to reject an anti-gay amendment to the Minnesota constitution (which totes passed!) The ads were very emotional, showing pictures of loving families and sharing stories of same sex couples who would be effected by a constitutional ban on gay marriage. The campaign incited feelings of love, compassion, empathy and outrage in those of us who support marriage equality.

We know that an appeal to emotion is a fallacious argument.  Of course, if you are evoking emotion while providing valid logic for your argument, that isn’t the appeal to emotion fallacy. Whether the ads invoked the formal appeal to emotion fallacy wasn’t the main point of the example, though.

Using an emotional argument to achieve your ends because you know it works seems to be rational, but is it ethical? Does whether it’s ethical to tug on someone’s heart strings to achieve a goal depend on the ends? Is using an emotional appeal okay if one is using it to incite positive rather than negative emotions, to do good rather than harm?

Stephanie asked that if evoking positive emotion makes an argument or position ethical, is patriotism a good thing? As you might imagine, the ensuing audience discussion filled up a number of minutes. Personally, I don’t think so. Patriotism might at times incite good feelings in those who engage in it, but patriotism ultimately establishes “us and them” boundaries and as such can be a dangerous tool. Religion also incites good feelings in those who participate, but I do not believe religion is an ethical pursuit.

James brought us back to to the use of emotion in marketing, political ads, etc and asked us to consider what the responsibility of the viewer or consumer of such messages is. Because while it may be rational to use irrational or unethical arguments to achieve an end, doesn’t the receiver have some responsibility to not be duped?

YES. I think that’s why so many of us strive to learn more about our brains and the ways we can be fooled. That’s why we seek out logical fallacies, point them out, try to define them when they appear (see – it’s not just because we’re anal retentive assholes!). As skeptics we believe that we have an obligation to not fall for bullshit. And it is hard. It is work. As one audience member pointed out, all you have to do is go to the ER to see what happens to our decision-making when we’re emotional. Even the most rational people in the world can lose their perspective when overcome with emotion.

But – another speaker noted – emotions aren’t all bad. Emotions give us an immediate source or information, and can give our our body a way to tell us something is wrong. Of course, our immediate response to the emotion(s) may not be rational.

At some point, James Croft transitioned us into religion. ‘Cuz apparently that’s something that some people at Skepticon are interested or something.

He made the point that religious spaces are incredibly emotional – art, ritual, music. These are things that are not formal propositional arguments, and they can be emotionally compelling even for those who don’t share the beliefs. There was more audience discussion and response to this idea, but…

…when you try to answer all questions of logic and rationality in under an hour, you don’t always reach a satisfactory conclusion. I left the workshop with new ideas and things to think about, so I give it two thumbs up.

And I’ll leave you with this ad, which might be fun to think about through the lenses of rationality and ethics: The Skepticon “Kittens are cute.” billboard! I think it’s a rational argument in irrational-looking clothing. I mean, it looks like a non sequitur, until you understand the thoughts behind it (okay, it’s still a non sequitur, but it’s a non sequitur with a purpose!). Snarky, thought-provoking and 100% ethical (no kittens were harmed in the making of this billboard).

Skepticon: Ethics of (Ir)Rationality
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153 thoughts on “Skepticon: Ethics of (Ir)Rationality

  1. 1


    When I realized how manipulatable many/most people were, I gave up and became a consequentialist. “Does whether it’s ethical to tug on someone’s heart strings to achieve a goal depend on the ends?” So I guess my answer is “yes”, although the question “Is it actually going to work” matters too.

  2. 2

    Determinations of what’s ethical and unethical are difficult. For one person, all killing is unethical. For another person, killing in self-defense or legally mandated executions are ethical. So if a specific action cannot be judged as ethical or unethical, then the means to support that action become even mirkier.


    The phrase is “non sequitur”.

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