Why I am not Emotional about Emotion

Robin Hanson writes:

Vivid images of direct visceral effects [are] overwhelming less direct and visceral considerations. “Near” tends to displace “far” in policy… we don’t so much emphasize the seen over the unseen, as the feeling over the unfeeling, to signal our vulnerability to such feelings.

It’s an interesting post, read the whole thing.

But how true is it? One of the examples he gives is prison standards. But being cruel to prisoners is a sure vote-winner. Here we see direct effects about which we might tend to get emotional (prisoners suffering) versus hazy indirect effects about which it is harder to get emotional (future crime rates). Indeed, if you say to people that we are brutalising prisoners so much that it’s making future crime rates higher, they don’t care. They still want to make things as hard as possible on the prisoners.

Now you may say “Ah yes, but they are emotional about vengeance,” but I think that proves too much. I might reply that they are rational about justice. How do we separate an “emotional” reaction from a “rational” one? And even if we ascribe it all to emotion, how do we form rules about which emotions win? We care more about justice than suffering when it comes to prisoners, but more about suffering than justice when it comes to hostages (people want to pay the ransom).

Ultimately, I don’t think politics is reason vs emotion, it’s almost always emotion and reason vs emotion and reason. Hanson’s “solution” is presumptuous, people do frame issues in emotional terms, on both sides – and they always have. In the minimum wage laws example he gives, people do frame opposition to minimum wages as being pro-poor. But this doesn’t catch on with most people.

What’s really going on is that policy issues have baggage, which is accumulated over time like barnacles on the hull of a ship, and affects the steering. So Americans have somehow convinced themselves that if everyone owns a deadly weapon, they’ll all be much safer. There’s no evo-psych or signalling model here, it’s a social factor particular to American society. There are no arguments or framings for or against gun control that are made in the USA but not elsewhere. It’s just the barnacles.


3 responses to this post.

  1. When one suggests using punishments other than prison, such as torture, the overwhelming reaction is that we don’t do such things because they are inhumane. Yet the overall harm from prison is just as large – it is the mental image of the moment of torture that puts us off.


  2. Posted by I am not... on December 20, 2010 at 12:54 am

    I don’t agree. We used to torture prisoners, then we stopped, so why didn’t the mental image of torture put off our ancestors, or people in Saudi, etc? Intellectuals don’t like doing ANYTHING at all bad to prisoners, and they have managed to accumulate a lot of barnacles around the word torture. So for Westerners, saying you want to torture prisoners marks you out as “the wrong kind of person.” And it is our reaction to THAT which makes us oppose the torture.

    Frankly I think the mental image of the torture is appealing to most Westerners. What else do people mean when they say “prison is too good for Myra Hindley” (or whoever). But making prison conditions really bad doesn’t count as torture semantically, so people are cool with that. See also the waterboarding issue.


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