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.