Wednesday, February 07, 2007

emotions, rationality and morality

I've just spend several hours catching up on the blogospherical activity of the past few days. Despite all the interesting stuff going on about the "no pork" podcast (which I plan to blog about later) and the PAP counter-insurgency, it was actually this article Yawning Bread which I found most thought provoking.

With reference to the hanging of Tochi (still remember him?), Alex Au describes a boundary-drawing factor on how individuals in the blogosphere talk about issues such as capital punishment or homosexuality. He calls these factors "moral horror" or "moral disapproval", and states that these factors are essentially "irrational", meaning that "they cannot be reduced to rational arguments". He also makes very interesting revelations about the global opinions of teenagers with respect to capital punishment, and in particular, about the teenagers of London, and how they seem to be against the death penalty by virtue of the fact that they grew up in a state of affairs where the death penalty was abolished and have come to accept that state of affairs as normal, and not purely by rational considerations.

After thinking about it, I realized this was actually what I have already been talking about, except using different terminology. This is about differing worldviews. I think Yawning Bread was right that our individual worldviews set the boundaries of what kind of arguments we are able to accept and what kind of arguments we do not. I think this also helps to explain why the teenagers of London are more anti-death penalty. Our worldviews are shaped by our experiences and our environment, and the worldviews of young Britons growing up in an environment where the dealth penalty has already been abolished, is perhaps more likely to be anti-dealth penalty than the older Britons, who did not grow up in such an environment.

With regards to the article, there are still two questions which I want to address.
1) How "irrational" are worldviews (or "moral horror")? What does this mean for reasoned discourse?
2) How can we encourage a worldview shift ("perspectival shift") in detractors? Should we do this even if we can?

There are (at least) two factors which determine our worldviews: experiences and deliberations. Experiences such as if you have physically observed a murder trial sentencing, or a seen a video of an execution, could very possibly cause you to react (emotionally?) in a way that prods you towards an anti-death penalty stand. Certainly, it does not make much sense to label such experiences as "rational", as experiences are not really arguments or propositions. And if we want to claim such reactions to be emotional reactions, some individuals might be willing to label such reactions to be "irrational" and deem them as invalid data points in a rational argument. Perhaps such individuals might even cry "appeal to emotion!", and discredit such views as fallacious.

My personal opinion is that, the role of emotions and intuitions in rational discourse (allow me to call this"affective reasoning") should not be totally disregarded. In fact I think, if we refuse to allow any affective reasoning at all in our rational discussions, then the only subject matter we can talk about is mathematics. One cannot reason in a vacuum. There has to be starting points in any rational view we take, and these starting points have to be assumptions. How do we arrive at these assumptions? From our experiences yes, but also from affective means. This is also why there is a great diversity of worldviews (collection of such assumptions). Not only do individuals differ greatly in individual experiences but the same experiences affect individuals differently.

[Some individuals might want to argue that fundamental assumptions derived from experiences are permissible but those through affective means are not, in a rational discussion. (Quick rebuttal: why do they feel so? Is it not by their intuition? Is that not affective?) Indeed, whether "intuitions" can be considered as data in philosophical reasoning, is something which is something which philosophers argue about and disagree over. Nevertheless, most of us are not philosophers, and I have yet to come across anybody in the blogosphere who argues that intuitions aren't permissible in a rational discussion.]

Does this diversity in worldviews mean we cannot have rational discourse? I don't think so, but I think it means that we cannot have agreement on some issues. This, of course, is not new to us. The question is rather, how should we engage with each other when we come from differing worldviews? I had previously urged bloggers to agree to disagree and to try and understand the worldviews of their detractors, and this I think is the first step that most of us do not do enough. Nevertheless, is this all that we can do? Could we perhaps, try to prod others and try to shift their worldviews to be more aligned with ours? If we do so, does this not sound like brainwashing?

Consider this thought experiment. There was a time in the past, in some cultures, where the majority of the people thought it was okay to keep slaves. "That it is morally permissible to own another human being as a slave" was an assumption in most worldviews of the people of that time. Imagine you are a time traveler and returned back to that era, and engaged in rational discourse with the people there. After trying hard to understand where they are coming from, but still disagreeing, are you going to say, "let's agree to disagree", and be happy with their keeping of slaves? Or will you perhaps, try to change their worldview, by bringing some of them back into the future, and showing them the history books and the great speeches? I believe most of us will choose the latter. But isn't that brainwashing? No we probably don't feel so. If we truly attempted to understand the other point of view but still feel that it is "less enlightened" than our own, we feel that it is quite morally permissible to attempt to prod them to change their worldview, by introducing new experiences.

How about if we apply these principles to an issue like homophobia, or abolishment of death penalty? Is it morally permissible to handcuff a homophobe to a homosexual for 24 hours, forcing him/her to engage in a conversation with a homosexual and helping him to experience that homosexuals are just humans and not monsters? How about we force proponents of the death penalty to view videos of executions, or a movie like Dead Man Walking? It appears that these two examples, although well intentioned, probably cross the line of what is morally permissible, or at the very least, what is civil.

So how can someone attempt to change his detractor's worldview? Rational arguments is always a possibility. Some worldviews are probably more coherent than others, and rational deliberation is also (in addition to external experiences) a determining factor no how one reaches one's own worldview. But as we are quite well aware of, rational arguments usually isn't enough to sway another. Then what? Rhetoric and polemics (manipulation of emotion)? Perhaps. But another way we can "enlighten" each other is by sharing your own experiences. Giving personal anecdotes and narratives (although some will be more skillful than others in doing this), instead of bashing each other with "reason", may perhaps may be your best chance of persuading your opponent.

A final word: before you try to convince your detractors, have you really tried to understand where your detractors are coming from? Or do you just care to win the debate, and you want to try whatever tactics necessary to win? If so, are you so sure it is not you who needs to be enlightened?


Anonymous said...

Actually, scientific experiments in cognition have proven that you can't think without emotion.

Anonymous said...

Could we perhaps, try to prod others and try to shift their worldviews to be more aligned with ours? If we do so, does this not sound like brainwashing?

The former is: Let me give you something to think about. There's implied consent, specifically, that the person exhibits a willingness to think about what you say/argue.

The latter is: Let me tell you what you should think, because I think it so.

Of course, rhetoric is somewhere in between.

Elia Diodati said...

Which is why, unfortunately, sometimes, old ideas die hard. Sometimes arguments peter out not not because one side wins, but because both sides die and dwindle over time.

kwayteowman said...

Harlo Fearfully Opinionated,

There seems to be an underlying assumption that the purpose of blogs is to persuade the reader to agree with oneself. This assumption may not always be true. :-) But to give you some credit, the KTM admits that this assumption seems to be a reasonable one.

This is the fact of life: it is very hard to persuade people with logic. People who try to do propaganda or persuasion using brute logic are stupid (perhaps this is why the ruling party is so lau pok in their PR?). So you are absolutely right: for those who are trying to win people to their side, it is easiest to write in such as way as to appeal to the emotions. :-)

have you really tried to understand where your detractors are coming from?

What turns out to be a very common problem however is that people have NO IDEA where they are coming from. This might sound strange, but the KTM has found this to be true. :-P The KTM will leave you to think about this. :-)

Debate in public policy has always been and will always been about values. Strangely enough, many people also seem to miss this point. If people are able to articulate their principles, most debates over public policy can be resolved relatively quickly. Sadly, most people just wanna prove that they are right.....

Take care and have a good CNY.

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Harlow KTM!!

Long time no see! I thought you don't like to read my blog liao or something. =P

I'll be a good boy and own up that I've been saying some naughty stuff about KTM on ben's blog about you. =P

Aiyah, I where got say the purpose of ALL blogs is to persuade the reader?

NO IDEA where they coming from? Alamak. Like that how to be coherent? Or is that your point exactly? =P

Happy CNY to you too!

kwayteowman said...

Harlo Fearfully Opinionated,

Wah sei, KTM got give you advice on how to pick up girls meh?? Eh, what you said about the KTM is bordering on scandalous.

Ben's idea on doing some STOMP blogger VD date thing is actually good. If he had raised it earlier, the KTM could have suggested to Jennifer Lewis (STOMP editor) and it might just have flown. A bit late now lah. :-P

Take care and have a good CNY. May you get lucky and find a date for tonight. :-)