[lit-ideas] Re: When you're hot you're hot, when you're not ...

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 07 Sep 2009 16:33:18 -0700

Eric refers to an experiment in which brain-damaged subjects were asked to decide on a day for their next appointment with the researcher that ?suited them best.? (The subjects were said to have ?damaged emotional centers.?) The researcher found that the subjects took an unusually long time to make such a prima facie simple decision, and concluded that had he or she not intervened, the ?deliberations? might well have gone on forever.

The researcher offers the hypothesis that what the subjects lacked was any emotional attachment (here reduced to a ?good feeling? or a ?bad feeling?) to any element of what was to be decided, and therefore got stuck, unable to weigh one consideration against another. It?s interesting though that the experimenters did not conclude that the subjects were indifferent to certain elements of the over-all task: they did not, apparently, report that they didn?t care whether it was raining or not, e.g., even though from the information we?re given that would be an equally justified hypothesis.

The upshot of this is supposed to be that such ?good feelings? and ?bad feelings? (in the 1950s moral philosophers made much of ?pro attitudes,? and ?con attitudes) ?[serve as shortcuts] for rationality.? (If you don?t know whether denying the antecedent is a fallacy, just go with your gut.) The rationality here, of course, is the rationality that supposedly marks ?rational choice.? Such pro and con ?feelings? allow athletes to make instant decisions (which are apparently always the right ones); furthermore, so it is said, they allow people to choose from menus. I will pass by the obvious disanalogy here and point out that the pitcher who shakes off the catcher?s signal (I?m only familiar with American sports; in this case, the catcher has signaled for a certain pitch; the pitcher disagrees with this choice, and shakes his head to make his disagreement known) may have perfectly rational grounds for doing so. That he may be mistaken (the pitch he wanted to throw is hit to right field for a stand up double), makes it no less rational.

One might say that there?s too much thinking in baseball, but in other games ?decisions? are made (as was suggested), ?instantly,? where the assumption seems to be that if something is done ?instantly,? there is no time for reflection prior to it. And this seems right: I don?t deliberate before I duck to avoid an object thrown at my head. ?No prior deliberation,? however, doesn?t entail ?it?s feelings all the way down.? I can explain why I ducked: ?I thought that paperweight was going to hit me in the head; I didn?t want to be hit in the head; I thought that ducking would prevent that.? Countless other trivial ?actions,? such as swatting flies or swerving one?s car to avoid something in the road, may be done without deliberation beforehand, but they are not done without thought.

Two things. To say that something is done ?instantly? does not entail that it is done from some ?feeling,' let alone from an emotion; and it certainly does not entail that there is no thought behind it.

Concluding historical footnote: Aristotle (who gives a far better account of the way ?emotions? and ?reason? are both essential to decision making than ?science? has recently ?discovered?), did not believe that ?decisions were made purely on rational grounds,? and Hume (almost) denied that they were made on rational grounds at all. What is ?refuted? here is a straw man of the researcher?s own devising.

Robert Paul
nr. Reed College

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