The Rightful Place of Emotion in Human Decision-Making: Lockdown Debates as a Case Study

Reason and emotion both have a place in moral decision-making. And yet, as we’ve seen in recent lockdown debates in the UK, the important place of emotion in argumentation has been downplayed, even as it has dominated discussion in the background.*

On the pro-lockdown side, there is the constant appeal to data, numbers, and all that can be quantified. Yet I do wonder if this side of the argument is perhaps more honest than the lockdown-sceptics about the role of emotion in making individual health decisions. There have been direct appeals to the instincts of fear in government campaigns (see here and the hard-hitting “Look into my eyes” campaign). Yes, there have been good appeals to science, at one point in the form of daily press conferences, bar charts and graphs (though one wishes that the data was more refined, including on hospitalisations as the Chief of NHS Providers recently admitted…and yes there have been appeals more dubiously, to following “the Science”). But along side this, there has been a series of much more sustained and effective campaigns aimed at emotional appeal.

On the lockdown-sceptical side (which I have broadly advocated for here and here, a stance which is separate from my pro-vaccine position, on which see here), there seems to be much more of a reluctance to discuss the role of pathos. One notable exception is the Time for Recovery group’s “lockdown victims” section. Indeed, many sceptics seems suspicious of any hint of an appeal to emotion and instead engage in a full-on data offensive. Now, there are very good reasons for this. The suspicion towards pathos seems to me to be a reaction to the perceived manipulation of emotion inherent within nudge campaigns, which purposefully bypass the channels of persuasion altogether. And many sceptics, like many of their pro-lockdown counterparts, feel that reason should not be fully abandoned in public debate. If we are unquestioningly making decisions on the basis of whim then that’s worrying, right?

And yet, to avoid pathos completely is foolish on three grounds: it’s false to human nature, it’s dishonest to the way that debates are actually being carried out and, more normatively, it is ineffective, since pathos deserves a place in human debate.

First, it is false to human nature because we make decisions in large part on the basis of pre-cognitive instincts. That is, to deny the power of emotional appeal doesn’t accord with the way we live and make decisions as humans. Social psychologists tell us that we all make judgments to some degree on the basis of pre-cognitive instincts, habits and affections. Check out Jonathan Haidt’s elephant and rider analogy, for example, in which he argues that we first of all take a position on a moral issue on the basis of instinct (like an elephant that lunges forward) and then, only after the fact, provide a post-hoc rationalisation to ourselves and others (like the rider who seems to be in control of the reins). This reasoning process appears to provide a rational basis for what are often primarily pre-cognitive, gut reactions. The denial of emotion in argumentation also runs contrary to other epistemological facts. There is, for instance, the related issue that we decide based not only on what we know but who we know. We come to ethical stances on the basis of an appeal to authority, or loyalty to individuals who share our underlying commitments. We first need to acknowledge these human instincts if we are to have an open and honest debate.

Second, it is dishonest to avoid instincts because the way that we have debated lockdowns has patently involved appeals to emotion. We not only rely on instinct in the general, but we’ve seen this play out in particular with recent debates over lockdown. Whether sceptical or pro-lockdown, each person’s “moral taste-buds” are at work, and appeals made to those moral taste-buds have been plentiful. And yet, we should note that the differences in taste-buds are sometimes very finely grained indeed. For instance, both sides favour safety; the only difference is in the type of safety prioritised. Those who are pro-lockdown primarily favour safety against covid. (There is also the related fact that one can accept the curtailment of liberty, another moral foundation, because safety is so highly prized). Lockdown sceptics, I think it is fair to say, generally have a broader definition of safety which encompasses mental health safety and safety against child abuse (they would also, to varying degrees, reject the curtailment of liberty in favour of increasing safety from the virus). Or, to take another example, we can also see the small margins of difference with competing appeals to solidarity. Pro-lockdown folks favour solidarity through blanket rule actions, such as mask mandates. In wartime, everyone takes the same action and is in step against a common enemy. Lockdown sceptics might favour a different approach to masks in certain scenarios on the basis of social solidarity of a different kind. For instance, out of a desire for child development, and the fact that infants do not seem to pick up social cues from mask-wearing parents, some parents opt to avoid wearing masks when out in public with their children. This is all to say that examples of appeal to emotions, or more accurately our underlying moral foundations, have abounded over the last 22 months.

Third and finally, it is ineffective and self-defeating to avoid appeals to emotion, because they work. At a pragmatic level, appeals to emotion work effectively because of the primacy of our instinctive reactions. The pro-lockdown argument has recognised this fact and performed much better on this score. And some lockdown sceptics have admitted as much [edit 31/12/21: see also this piece which was published after I posted this blog]. Yet it’s also vitally important that we go beyond mere pragmatism and consider the kinds of emotional appeals each side is making. Is the situation seriousness enough to warrant the kinds of emotional appeal made in, say, June 2020? Moreover, there is ample space here for tapping into a broader base of more positive emotions. Why not appeal to good virtues such as courage or competence, or individual responsibility, for instance?

Ultimately, we are both creatures of emotion and reason (even if our reason is severely impaired). And it won’t do to deny either part of this reality.

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

*In the realm of theological debates, we often seem to set up a false choice between divine impassibility—the notion that God is above emotion—and divine pathos, the argument that God feels emotions like suffering, wrath and so on deeply). Yet both are true, as God is not subject to emotional whim as humans are, but is also not indifferent to human suffering. In denying divine pathos, do we demonstrate that we have an underlying problem with seeing God express emotion? Do we perhaps have a problem with emotions and their expression, more generally?

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