Saturday, 22 December 2012

Emotional Ethics: The saving grace of the clinically sane

Introducing Lokee ... take it away, Lokee


It has come to my attention that an idea, which I imagined would be widely accepted, has in fact been a point of contention in the philosophical community since Aristotle. That is, whether, along with reason, emotions do and even should play a part in ethical thinking.

First, I will make an excuse for why I was unaware of this philosophical hot topic, and my justification is that I am comparatively new to philosophy. With this now known, hopefully your initial shock and disgust at my lack of awareness should dissipate, and in turn your need to vent your frustration at my apparent ignorance, lessen.

Upon my realization I was motivated to research, and based upon this body of research, it is my contention that emotions do and should inform ethical structures.

There are a number of emotion dependent processes and dispositions, including, behavioural dispositions, character traits and attitudes, all of which occur independent of an affective component (Starkey, 2008). That is to say, someone may be defined as a sad woman, without having the associated physiological reactions, feelings or expressions. A person may be angry with a telemarketer who continues to call, again, without having the physiological responses and elements of feeling typically related to anger. These forms of emotion are not the kind that I argue are necessary to effective ethical thinking. The kind of emotion that is essential to ethics are the emotions, which involve a cognitive and affective (physiological) component.

There are hardened rationalists who contend that emotions only weaken a person’s ability to think clearly and logically, and thus they should be avoided or at least only minimally referred to when making moral decisions. I argue, along with others I have read, that emotions are an essential part of the full understanding required to make effective and accurate ethical decisions.

“Without emotions or affects to amplify physiological drives and infuse cognitive processing with subjective meaning, human beings would not care enough to stay alive, much less mate, nurture offspring, create kinship bonds, or pursue art, science, literature or moral philosophy” (Callahan, 1988, pg.10). Emotions provoke thought and thought provokes emotion. An emotion involves a cognitive awareness of the object of one’s emotion along with a physiological reaction and experience of feelings (Starkey, 2008). For example, if a person sees a brown snake slither under their bed (cognitive apprehension), they experience an increase in heart rate, a tingling sensation (physiological reaction), and with these interwoven experiences they understand that there is a venomous snake under their bed, which they should be fearful of. The entirety of this event informs what actions they will take next. If a person were to have no sensation of fear and only register the fact that a brown snake went under their bed, what decision are they likely to make? For emotions not only register feelings, they also elicit memories. A person’s previous knowledge and experiences of snakes is brought forth and used to make an informed decision. They recall why they should be fearful of brown snakes. Thinking interacts with a person’s emotions, perception and physiology to bring forth from memory the information they need (Callahan, 1988, pg.14).

Emotion is necessary for full understanding (Starkey, 2008), which is achieved through introspection. Emotions allow a person to focus on what is perceptually relevant and identify what is most important (Starkey, 2008). Returning to the previous example, along with the brown snake slithering under the bed, there is also music playing, the neighbours next door talking loudly and the person in a rush to get to work. The emotion of fear that the person experiences provides them with the necessary information to tune out the music, ignore the neighbours and worry about their boss later, as what is most important now, according to their emotional reaction, is the problem of the possibly venomous snake making a home under their bed. This form of thinking is what has come to be known as the “frame problem” in philosophy. In any given situation a person needs to interpret the multitude of information presented to them and make inferences as to what is of import. Emotions enable people to do this by grabbing our attention

It may have come to your attention that while the example of the brown snake under the bed is effective in illustrating the interweaving of emotion and cognition, it does not involve an ethical problem. Fear not (no pun intended), this will be addressed soon.

Before I do give an example that clearly supports my contention, I will address the rationalists, who argue that emotion is detrimental to rational thought. An intelligent psychopath is clearly somebody who does not “suffer” from an average person’s emotional responses. They have the capacity to understand a society’s moral rules and can even apply them, if need be, but what they lack is the apprehension that moral rules should be reasons in their decision-making. In addition they are not held back emotions such as fear and guilt, when deciding how to act. A homicidal psychopath knows that society frowns on murder, and can apply the “no killing” rule, when it is rational and necessary to do so, for example, it’s best not to stab somebody in the centre of the mall, when there are lots of people around. However, when it comes to the act of killing their next victim, emotions and moral rules do not come into play. The fact that moral rules have no significance to them is clearly tied to their ability to tally up numerous victims without an empathetic emotional response to the individual lives they have taken.

Hardened rational thought can be just as morally dangerous as a psychopath’s lack of emotional response. An intelligent rationalist can easily argue for torture, terrorism, and the mistreatment of others through articulation of a logical dialogue. One only need to look to America for examples of all of these. For example the terror laws, which allow torture of possible terrorists and their imprisonment for indefinite periods of time. It is without the weight of emotional obligation and sympathies that people can ignore moral rules and sentiments. It is only through emotionally informed responses that a person is supported to check their moral options in light of their sympathies and in-built moral intuitions, and ensure a principled decision is made.

So now for my example of an ethical quandary. I have recently been reading a text written by Julian Baggini, titled Ethics: The Big Questions (2012). In one particular chapter he explores a long-standing ethical question, “Do the ends ever justify the means?” To aid in this investigation he relates a decision made by Dick Cheney on September 11th2001, which was only made public 10 years after the fact. Dick Cheney made the ethical decision, after being informed that two commercial passenger airliners had hit the Twin Towers in New York City, to shoot down two other hijacked commercial passenger airliners, which were on a similar path of destruction. Dick Cheney had decided that, while the loss of the hundreds of passengers on the airliners was terrible, the thousands of potential victims that would be saved justified their sacrifice. As history now tells us Dick Cheney’s decision did not need to be enacted, due to the courage of passengers on one, and the timing of the other. We can only imagine what Dick Cheney experienced that day, while making that ethical decision. There are two possible paths he took, that of a hardened rationalist, or that of a person who garnered a full understanding of the situation. Let us explore the latter.

Cheney cognitively apprehends the event that is about to take place, with the shock of the realization, his adrenaline increases represented by an increase in heart rate and sweat, he feels fear and trepidation at the decision he is faced with. As he weighs up the number of potential victims and the aftermath of such a loss of life, he feels both sorrow and guilt as either way innocent people are going to die as a result. Emotions enable him to recollect previous instances in his life bringing forth similar scenarios, as well as the knowledge he needs to make an informed decision. Logic informs him that the ends do justify the means, while emotion supported him to reach a point where sympathies resonated with the tough moral principles involved.

A rationalist is just as likely to decide that the ends justify the means in this case. As we’ve explored an intelligent hardened rationalist is more than capable of logically arriving at any number of decisions. However to gain a full understanding of such a layered and murky ethical decision, emotions are needed. They support the person to not only perceive the ethics involved, but also to feel, recall and gather the memory necessary to act appropriately. In considering the loss of life, the individuals involved, the magnitude of such an event, emotions are not only needed but also expected. Emotions help us support the intent of an action, rather than merely following a flow diagram leading to a potential action with no real understanding of why that action might be necessary, and in some way, right.

I’ll leave you with this question. If you were a potential victim that day, either on the plane, or on the ground, would you want a hardened rationalist who intentionally ignored the emotions involved, or a human who experienced the event fully, to make the decision?

List of References

Baggini, J. (2012). Ethics: The Big Questions. London: Quercus Editions Ltd.

Callahan, S. (1988). The Role of Emotion in Ethical Decisionmaking. The Hastings Center Report Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 9-14

Starkey, C. (2008). Emotion and Full Understanding. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice Volume no.11 August

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to play the devil's advocate here for a while. It is a well known problem in ethics that emotional and intuitive thinking can be a _hinderance_ to arriving at the correct decision, parcicularly in tough dilemmas you've never faced before. Let me give you a few examples.

    The trolley problem. Do I push the fat person onto the tracks, in order to save five? Since this calls for actively killing someone, most people say they would not do it. This has to do with how we view actively doing something (killing one person actively is intuitively wrong to us) but passivly watching five die can be ok. Peter Singer is one who argues for more clearthinking (and less emotion) on this. Actively turning off a respirator might for example be more humane than passively letting a person suffer greatly, for hours if not days.

    The ticking time bomb. Do we torture a terrorist when we know a bomb on a timer is about to go off, killing lots of people? Is torture always wrong? A nuclear bomb? 10 nuclear bombs? Here your emotions might guide you wrong. This dilemma is quite well illustrated in the movie Unthinkable.

    The "ad for aid and relief problem". If you show one cute African child on a poster and ask for $10, many might be willing to give, but if you show an entire village, people tend to get "emotionally overwhelmed" and will give less or nothing at all. This is related to how people in general view suffering. They might ignore a genocide or a civil war, with thousands upon thousands dead, but they will go out of their way to say, look for one kidnapped person, spending millions on police or FBI resources and so on. We also get emotionally detatched while watching the news. Children without legs, people starving, refugee camps etc. Being ethically hardened would surely help here.

    Now the interesting question: what IS hardened rationality, hardened ethics? Would it ever exist without feeling compassion and empathy for at least that single child on a poster? That single person on a respirator who might be our family member? As far as I can tell, a purely hardened rationalist would be a sociopath. A sociopath might "program" themselves to act ethically, but where does ethics come from in the first place if not from some basic, evolutionary instinct? There is much evidence for proto-ethical behavior in monkeys and apes and even in some other animals. Reciprocity - I scratch your back, you scratch mine. Yet no one is arguing that monkeys think rationally, do they. And isn't that what ethics is fundamentally all about? The golden rule, "do unto others..."

    So to sum up my view: This either-or approach is a bit of a false dichotomy. You simply need both. use your basic intuitions and emotions about what is right, then apply a large portion of cold, hard reason (say an ethical theory such as utilitarianism). Furthermore, in defense of rationality this time, who knows, maybe people would be nicer to eachother if we taught some basic, rational ethics in school? (NOT framed in a religious context though, for god's sake (pun intended)).



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