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Friday, January 4, 2013

How do we form opinions?


[Today's post is reprinted from "Yeah, but..."]

Philosophers have proposed, and studies have suggested, that people form opinions based on their emotions first, and after the opinion is formed they find a way to rationalize it.

Emotion ---> Opinion! ---> Rationalization

We may like to believe we first carefully think about the logic behind ideas, then form our opinions, and then let our emotions follow the conviction of our rational minds. And maybe some people do that, or at least do it better than others.

Thoughts ---> Opinion! ---> Emotions

Or maybe the emotions do come first, but some people are better at separating out the emotions and forming opinions without them. I'm sure it varies from person to person.

Emotion (set aside) ---> Thoughts ---> Opinion!

Overall, though, I suspect most of us have emotions first, thoughts after. Think about the times you've debated someone about politics or religion or anything else and their counterarguments have been nonsensical. If their thoughts make no sense, why are they so convinced of their perspective? Because it's not their thoughts that guide them. It's their emotions.

The abortion debate is no exception. None at all. I expect people form their opinions based on feelings even more often when an issue is more morally complex. Complexity makes it harder to think it through. And abortion--despite what some  insist--is morally complex.

Perhaps this is part of the reason one side talks much more about abortion in cases of rape, even though those situations account for less than 1% of abortions. Perhaps its the reason the other side uses photos of late-term abortions or late-term fetal development, even though over 90% of abortions are performed in the first trimester. People gravitate toward the extremes, where the morality gets a little less complex, the emotion a little more raw.

I suspect it's also true that opinions formed based on emotion are harder to change than opinions formed based on thought. Perhaps this explains why American views on the morality of abortion haven't varied that much in so long?

What do you think? Should we separate out our emotions when forming opinions? If so, how can we do it? If not, why not?

7 comments:

Jameson Graber said...

When it comes to moral reasoning, I don't think we can separate our emotions from our rationality, nor should we, unless we reserve the word "emotion" for those sentiments which are the most primitive. As I see it, moral development and reasoning is a matter of gaining attachments, not losing them. We naturally have attachments to the people we know, particularly our parents and our friends, but that's not all. Our attachment to more abstract groups, such as our country, the less fortunate, the oppressed, or humanity itself, is what makes us moral beings.

The complexity of a moral question arises precisely because of the competing nature of these attachments. In the abortion issue, we feel for women--the integrity of their bodies, their struggle for independence--and at the same time we feel obliged to humanity as a race, with the integrity of each and every human body no matter how small having great importance. These attachments are strong. What happens in the abortion debate is that the strength of one attachment tends to override the other attachment altogether. But the solution is not to become detached. We want to maintain both commitments to the greatest extent possible, and once we recognize this goal, then moral reasoning begins.

This is mostly a philosophical point, but it's also supported by the history of social movements. Emotionally detached people do not change moral problems in society. On the other hand, people who prize one attachment over all others tend not to be able to make a lasting difference. As much progress as the pro-life movement has made, I think it needs to keep looking inward and ask whether we have an appropriately balanced set of attachments. Feminists for Life comes to mind as an exemplar in this regard.

NorthStar156 said...

"[A]bortion...is morally complex."

This sort of nonsense is why I am not a member of SPL. While a tiny percentage of abortions are arguably morally dubious, nobody with a conscience should be debating about whether the killing of an unborn baby is wrong when another option is to simply refrain from engaging in an act of sexual intercourse. Abortion is about as morally complex as the Holocaust.

NorthStar156 said...

"Perhaps its the reason the other side uses photos of late-term abortions or late-term fetal development, even though over 90% of abortions are performed in the first trimester. People gravitate toward the extremes..."

Supporting late-term abortion bans is not extreme. Seventy-nine percent of self-described pro-choicers support banning abortion in the third trimester.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/148880/Plenty-Common-Ground-Found-Abortion-Debate.aspx

Laura Nicholson said...

I'm not saying late-term abortion *bans* are extreme. I'm saying late-term abortions are extreme compared to earlier term ones.

Laura Nicholson said...

I have no doubt that killing an unborn baby is wrong, and I agree that it should be simple for people to refrain from sex if they don't want to risk procreation. However I also think it's important for people to have control of their own bodies, and while I don't consider that factor enough to justify legalizing most abortions, I think that factor does make things complex.

Laura Nicholson said...

"In the abortion issue, we feel for women--the integrity of their bodies, their struggle for independence--and at the same time we feel obliged to humanity as a race, with the integrity of each and every human body no matter how small having great importance. These attachments are strong. What happens in the abortion debate is that the strength of one attachment tends to override the other attachment altogether. But the solution is not to become detached."


Very well put!

NorthStar156 said...

"...I agree that it should be simple for people to refrain from sex if they don't want to risk procreation."

There is no "should" about it -- It usually is easy for people to refrain from sex.

"...I also think it's important for people to have control of their own bodies..."


If people controlled their bodies, no one would need to worry about unintended pregnancies.