Asked at the start of the final 1988 presidential debate whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, Michael Dukakis, a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, quickly and coolly said no. It was a surprising, deeply personal, and arguably inappropriate question, but in demonstrating an unwavering commitment to his principles, Dukakis had handled it well. Or so he thought. “The reporters sensed it instantly,” wrote Roger Simon about the scene at the debate immediately after Dukakis gave his response. “Even though the 90-minute debate was only seconds old, they felt it was already over for Dukakis.” Dukakis’ poll numbers plummeted, his campaign never recovered, and George H. W. Bush became the 41st President of the United States.
Why were voters so put off by his response to the question? His stance on capital punishment was well publicized at the time, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. And it may well have been worse had he advocated a friends-and-family exception to his death penalty opposition. Dukakis appeared capable of consciously suppressing vindictive gut instincts and adhering to higher principles—and that was precisely his problem. When we judge someone by their response to a moral dilemma, be they a stranger on the street or a presidential candidate, instinct may trump reason.
According to a recent study, people who make instinct-based moral judgments are perceived by their peers to be more moral and more trustworthy than those who rely on reasoning alone. In other words, we want friends who go with their gut when faced with a moral dilemma. The reverse is true as well: We tend to be wary of people who react to moral dilemmas by calculating costs and benefits—it’s a large part of why we’re so reluctant to trust robots.
In politics, it’s well documented that seeming like a friend is at least as important as seeming competent. Most modern politicians have learned from Dukakis’ mistake and try their best to project warm, personable images. Yet no matter how much politicians cater to it, our tendency to judge people based on whether they act according to their instinct is flawed. The unfortunate fact is that instinct-based morality, also known as moral intuition, is often wrong. Consider, for example, how psychopaths can feign emotional expression to manipulate their peers, or how empathy—an instinctive, emotion-laden process—can distort our morals.
Moral psychologists and philosophers generally agree that our capacity for moral intuition didn’t evolve to properly handle complex contemporary issues like, say, geopolitical conflict or, in Dukakis’ case, the criminal justice system. Rather, it probably evolved to help us cooperate with each other on a smaller, local scale—to steer us toward or away from certain people in our vicinity, for example. That’s why emotional expression matters so much to us, even at the expense of virtuousness; it’s a quick and easy way to decide whether to trust somebody.
Our moral intuition arguably makes many of society’s problems harder to solve. Its power over reason can affect politics, as Dukakis’ case illustrates, as well as seemingly straightforward endeavors like philanthropy. Effective altruism, for example, is a philosophical movement that seeks to coordinate charitable giving “based on reason and evidence.” It operates according to the utilitarian premise of weighing the costs and benefits of choices in order to maximize overall well-being. Despite its noble intentions, however, the movement has some trouble with its image. Peter Singer, one of the figureheads of effective altruism, has aroused controversy for his calculating views on topics like infanticide and disability. Despite his contributions to philanthropy, Singer’s views are, for many people, an example of reason prevailing over emotion to an unsettling extent. Although he and his colleagues may have outlined a good strategy for minimizing suffering worldwide, their lack of emotional appeal seems to be dissuading people from supporting their cause.
How, then, can effective altruists—and other well-meaning people who may appear to lack empathy—get their message across? One solution is for them to pretend to be wrestling with their emotions more than they actually are. “Fake it,” said David Pizarro, a professor of psychology at Cornell University and an author of the aforementioned study on moral intuition and trustworthiness. “People want to see that you’ve thought a lot about a tough moral decision. They want to see that you’ve experienced some conflict between reason and emotion and deliberated through it.”
Pizarro and his colleagues argue that emotional expression functions as a signal to others that you’ve incorporated feelings into your moral decision. Without that signal, an audience might get the impression that you haven’t experienced any feeling at all—a possibility most people find pretty disturbing. In Dukakis’ case, the right response may have been to mull over the debate question for longer than he did. Even if he’d formed an unconditional opposition to the death penalty long before that debate, appearing to be conflicted before giving his answer probably would have helped his image.
But will we ever get to a point at which it’s okay to be morally impartial and calculating, like Spock often is? There is emerging evidence that the average person is becoming more and more likely to calculate costs and benefits during moral dilemmas. So there’s a chance that we’ll eventually be able to leave unnecessary emotional appeals—the “faking,” the gratuitous dabs—in the rearview mirror, and focus on the facts.
Still, Pizarro is skeptical. “I think there will always be a tension there (between reason and emotion),” he said. “It’s part of human nature.” So, until further notice, it may be a good idea to practice looking anguished or moved in the mirror to complement your argument.
Scott Koenig is a doctoral student in neuroscience at CUNY, where he studies psychopathy, emotion, and morality. This piece was adapted with permission from Koenig’s blog post “Why don’t we like virtuous people?” published on his website.
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