The Importance of our Emotional Unreason

What share does emotion deserve in decision-making, especially in important decision-making? It is a question that must be asked especially in the aftermath of the election, which while not unique in the sense that emotion seemed to have mostly directed the race, yielded disastrous consequences given this trait. Voters seem to have felt, and not particularly thought, about what they were voting for or against; the popular consensus seems to be that Trump voters felt forgotten, or were hateful, or were some combination. Clinton voters, too, felt strongly without facts, giving her and Trump tremendous unfavourability ratings, and downplaying the election often to electing the lesser of two evils—this, while she was epitomic of democratic ideals which many liberals would have championed. Emotion was paramount in decision-making; answering the question of how it should be dealt with in making popular decisions, whether they should be ignored or emphasized or simply regulated, will play a large part in shaping future democratic institutions.

The 2016 election, from so many angles, was an insult to intellectualism. The pervasive use of fake news often in the form of conspiracy theories, energized hate rallies, of which the iconic “lock her up” chant cannot be forgotten, and overall low informational participation ignored so many standards of proper reasoning. In an episode of “The Messy Truth,” Van Jones interviewed a family who trusted Trump simply because he acknowledged the working class (he did not have to provide any plans to help them). George Saunders of The New Yorker, in an extensive trip interviewing Trump supporters, found distrust in Trump supporters of immigrants because they felt their jobs were being taken, with no actual figures. Other accounts are similar, and if it cannot be said that these people were overly emotional, it can at least be conceded that they were under-reasoned.

But, I wondered, even without reason, were their votes legitimate? Humans, after all, are not purely creatures of reason, and emotion is our language for interpersonal being: how we present ourselves to others, how we perceive them, and how we elect the president to represent us. These are legitimate things legitimately decided with emotion. And, without any emotion, they would be impossible to decide with only pure reason. With only numbers, there is no meaning; add the sensing of color and sparkles in some, and a decision can be preferred. The corollary that emotion is the only thing we truly prefer, whether it be happiness or something else, is argued by many philosophers. I think it is truly hard to argue that emotion has no place in our reasoning, so it should be represented at least somewhat. In fact, since hardly a decision can be made without emotion, it should be fully represented in decision-making. Yet still, the looming knowledge of the election results remains. How could we have made such a wrong decision, if we accurately presented our emotions, and emotions are all that are to be valued? The key is in “accurately.” A test presented by John Stuart Mill to find our true desires is to have full and accurate information of them, and choose those which we would not sacrifice. Kant suggests the empirical faculty of judgment to determine we are doing what we believe we are doing. Simply put, emotions were not truly the evils of the election. It was rather poor information and reasoning that put us so off base.

This is said, of course, with the assumption that people do not desire broken international relations, a worsened economy, and frankly, a moron in office. It may be said that even then, emotions were still mostly accurately represented, with emphasis on racial relations and the elevating of one over the other. I am optimistic enough, however, to believe this is not what was wanted either, for the most part. It is undeniable that the majority of Trump supporters hold prejudiced views, per polling results. It is not explained, however, why these views exist, and whether they are fundamentally contradictory to those of the left. Uncertainty reduction theory is due to be applied here, which says the key in forming relationships is in reducing uncertainty, and the reason for our dislike for one another is because of uncertainty about one another. This is reflected on in polls that show places more exposed to immigration are less weary of it. We are, then, left and right, not so divided on fundamental ethical principles. With the right exposure, we would react to similar things in similar ways. So then, in mind that we desire the same things, it was bad reason and deception that led a corpulent nutjob into office.

It is reasonable to follow from this how best to proceed. Our system of voting, while giving base to our deserving emotions, does not do anything to filter it with reason. Can it? If the founding fathers’ wishes are to be practiced, then yes. A central feature of the electoral college is—or at least was supposed to be—to protect against a tyranny, or in other words, provide an intellectual shield against the uneducated masses. (A good case for it doing this, and even for being an emotional shield, is said by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig.) This seems to not have been realized, and any idea for realizing it now is entirely separated in thought from the original intent of the Fathers. Theoretically, for a fair, representative government with the shield of the educated, voters must simply choose electors with the same emotional mindset, but also with the reason and knowledge to make sure that mindset is accurately recognized. I must admit, I don’t think this should be controversial, but to lay out the possible main criticisms, theorized by political philosopher David Estlund, 1) truth is not the goal in decision making, 2) no one knows more about government than others, and 3) being correct should not give one authority. With some practical premises, such as that electors are in fact neither virtuous nor educated, and rather chosen by voters strictly to vote one way, S.M. of The Economist also argues (directly against Lawrence Lessig) that we cannot expect electors to be a “safety valve.” Estlund does not even believe the reasons he lists, except for 3), and while S.M.’s logic is sound, it is irrelevant if we simply elect educated electors. And with Estlund’s argument for 3), it is mainly that we should not be inclined to choose electors merely because they are knowledgeable. With that, I agree. So as I proposed, why not choose electors who are knowledgeable and align with the emotional values of the voters? This avoids the premise of S.M., and qualifies reason 3) from Estlund.

Emotion in decision-making deserves full consideration. It must only be ensured, however, that the emotions are being correctly represented, and have not in fact been deceived to vote for something undesirable. Populations will be more content this way, because despite factions sometimes seeming warlike, the same fundamental principles are desired by all, and will likely further align with a shared, correct base of knowledge. Perhaps rule by the educated should be given a shot, but with the qualification that electors are not simply chosen for their knowledge, but also for their alignment in specific wants of the voting bloc. We must be sure to not again be deceived on such a massive scale, or for those not deceived, we should not have to experience deception on such a massive scale. Hopefully, with a restructuring of the electoral college, and most prominently we enact electors into power, we may better be suited to avoid a catastrophe on this scale.