Struggling to Stay Rational

When I heard about what happen to Adrian Peterson’s child I felt sick. How does a grown man “assault” a two year old boy to the degree that the boy dies? There is a part of me that wished for him to be sentenced to five minutes – alone with Adrian Peterson. But that is not consistent with my stance against the death penalty; rather it is a natural emotional reaction to a horrible crime. Since my objection to the death penalty is based on rational reasoning, I have to keep my opposition to putting to death a man, even one who killed a two year old boy.

This brings a larger issue to mind. We are emotional creatures. It is part of our makeup and we should not deny it. But we also should seek to be as rational as possible when making choices in our lives. How do we embrace our emotional nature and still make rational decisions? Work on confirmation bias indicates our tendency to consider our arguments rational even when they are not. Is there any way we can make sure that our thinking has not been poisoned by what we emotionally want?

There are no certain mechanisms by which we can assure that our emotions do not bias our decision-making. Think about the logical fallacies we observe all the time in the comment section of blogs (including Black, White and Grey) and articles. Think about how hard it is to agree with the referee’s decision when it goes against your sports team. Think about how the same politician attacks those of the other party for lying, adultery, being unethical, and yet dismisses the same things in his/her own party. We see evidence of confirmation bias and emotionally based decision making all the time. Our emotions generate presuppositions that often lead us away from a rational consideration of events and issues.

We can try hard to overcome such biases. As it concerns the death penalty, I came to the decision that it is not rational to deliver the ultimate punishment given incomplete knowledge. A criminal justice system we know is corrupted by racial and economic influences will inevitably have unjust propensities. The death penalty multiplies the level of injustice in our society as certain individuals (the poor, racial minorities) will be more likely to suffer the ultimate punishment. Beyond such injustice, there are powerful arguments that the death penalty does not deter crime and is more expensive than life in prison. If this blog was basically about my position about the death penalty I would go more into depth of these issues, but these are the concerns that have led me to the sober conclusion that the death penalty is not good for us. Having concluded that the death penalty is not best, I reason that if I allow my emotions to drive me to support the death penalty for the killer of Peterson’s son then I am throwing away my logical reasoning. If Peterson’s son’s killer is put to death then we have the question of where to draw the line on the death penalty. Is it for killers of children? Is it for those who kill multiple times? Can it be used for crimes that do not include murder? If my emotions allow me to leave my previous considerations then I start down a path leading to justification of a capital punishment system containing the elements of injustice I am concerned about.

Does this mean that anyone who supports the death penalty is illogical? It would be arrogant for me to believe that I make no mistakes in my reasoning and that all who disagree with me are wrong. I accept that my conclusions are the best I have come up with given what I know at this particular time. I also accept that although I tried to come to these decisions as rationally as possible, that my emotions and social position have presupposed me to develop certain conclusions about the death penalty. For example, perhaps because I am an African-American, I am more sensitive to possible criminal justice dysfunctions making me less supportive of the death penalty. It is wrong for me to think that those who disagree with me on this, or other issues, are being illogical, but it is fine for me to expect them to explain their logical reasoning if I discuss the issue with them.

This pondering about how to deal with information in a non-emotional manner takes on particular importance since I teach. How do I relate that information in light of the biases I, and everyone else, bring to teaching? Since I teach race/ethnicity classes can I do so without the biases I bring to it as an African-American? What about sociology of religion classes since I am a Christian? I see two honest different approaches to this. I can be upfront about my biases and freely exhibit them in the classes. That way the student can factor my biases into their consumption of what they learn from me. Or I can do my best to be as balanced as possible and even go out of my way to present perspectives that differ from my own in a fair manner. I have chosen the latter approach although there is nothing wrong with the former approach. What would be dishonest is to overtly teach the course in a biased manner but to claim that I am unbiased. I have a hard time respecting professors using that approach.

Ultimately, what is called for is an honest appraisal of our ability to overcome our emotional biases. When we forget the powerful mechanisms of confirmation bias and how our presuppositions shape our decisions, we become overconfident in the decisions we make. Ideally our appraisal of our cognitive abilities should lead us to be more careful about making proclamations about what we know. If you have followed my blog, you know that I have not been shy about making controversial arguments and being around to defend those arguments. I prefer to stick around and discuss those issues, as long as those I am having those discussions with do not degenerate into insults and/or stereotyping, so that I can see how my ideas are being challenged and to learn if I need to revise them. That is not a guarantee that I will be able to see the flaws in my reasoning, but it is one way I can protect myself from being overconfident in my assertions. Naturally I do not expect everyone to expose themselves to debate in such ways. But ideally all of us will find mechanisms by which we can be careful to counter our proclivity to allow our emotional responses overshadow our attempts at rational reasoning.

  • Andrew G.

    Sometimes knowing about biases can lead you to be less rational, not more.

    A genuine difference between two sides of an argument, for example, can be simply written off as “confirmation bias”. If I tell you, for example, that conservative leaders and organizations tell far more, and far more egregious, lies than liberal ones, you can simply assume I’m a liberal and attribute the statement to confirmation bias. If I go on to point out that the statement is overwhelmingly supported by media sources (just check Politifact’s “pants on fire” category), then the next reaction is to blame that on “liberal media bias”. (In fact, the media substantially understates this problem thanks to the fallacy of false equivalence, aka. “both sides do it”.)

    The effect is however completely real, and is the consequence of well-understood aspects of political psychology. Most importantly, conservatives are much more motivated by fear than liberals, and since the modern western world is relatively free of serious threats, lying or grossly exaggerating about such threats is an effective conservative political strategy. Hence, we see lies about the risks of foreign terrorists; lies about the risks to religious liberty; lies about the risk of economic collapse due to government deficits (only when a liberal administration is in power of course); and so on.

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      Sometimes sophistry serves to confirm prejudice and encourage misdeeds.

    • georgeyancey

      I have read Politico. Sometimes they are spot on and sometimes they
      seem to use optionated statements to make accusations of lying. Simple fact is that unless they have an objective criteria for selecting which statements they analyze and how they determine what is lying then I am not included to take that website as proof that conservatives lie more than liberals. It would also be nice to know the political ideology of the people behind Politico and the ones who determine what a lie is as we often believe we are being objective when in fact our biases are shaping our conclusions. That is why knowing one’s biases upfront is a good approach to take.
      For example, the inclination that fear drives conservatives more than liberals is questionable. I will have some research coming out later
      which takes on the right-wing authoritarian theory that supports this notion. But one example that it is not just conservatives, when I interviewed cultural progressive activist they often discussed how their fear of Christians imposing a theocracy was part of what drives them. I consider the reality of Christians setting up a theology in the U.S. at least as unlikely as Obama setting up a European style socialist state which is a common irrational fear that drives conservatives. Until there is comparative research that assess the level of irrational fear about a theocracy among progressives to the level of irrational fear about socialism among conservatives, then I do not accept the simple assertion that conservatives are driven more by fear than progressives.

      • Andrew G.

        Politico and Politifact are not related; are you confusing them?

        • georgeyancey

          Yeah I think I am. I have read “fact checkers” and I think Polifact is one of them but now I am not so sure. Do you have a link where they describe their methodology?

          • Andrew G.

            http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2011/feb/21/principles-truth-o-meter/

            PolitiFact is operated by a Florida newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times.

          • georgeyancey

            I appreciate their attempt to find the truth. But this is not a systematic objective criteria for selection. I I fear they may be subject to confirmation bias more than they know. Definitely not an academically sound way to determine that conservatives lie more than progressives.

  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    You may satisfy the emotional side of your rage at such monsters – which I regard as a necessary and justified first line of defence – by contemplating the decades in jail they will now endure – if they are lucky, since child abusers are very unpopular among other jailbirds. I think that life without parole is a more dreadful punishment than almost any kind of death penalty, and the record shows that many convicts would rather have the latter than the former.

    • georgeyancey

      I must admit Fabio that although I do not support the death penalty that when one of those monsters are killed in prison I have no sadness to their death whatsoever. Maybe that is irrational but it does help feed my emotional side. ;-)

  • Barry Vaughn

    I feel that the death penalty makes logical sense. We have a military that is fighting all foes foreign and domestic at the risk of their own lives or well being. We employ them with our taxes. We do not try to isolate cancers within our bodies, we remove them before they spread. Sometimes what is the right thing to do is too hard emotionally for us to cope with so we look for easier solutions.

    • Noah Smith

      Humans aren’t cancers. Not even child murderers.

  • Barry Vaughn

    This is a blog about staying rational versus emotional. I feel it is also important to remember the name of the blog. Two ultimates,always and never, should be avoided at all cost. There is truth in the middle. If we say no human is a cancer is just not being a student of history. We have examples of people who have killed many for their own needs(. Hitler,,Hussein) To allow their killing to go unpunished is to say the life of the unjust is worth more than the life of the innocent.


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