Justice, Emotions, and Reason

It is not uncommon for conservatives to claim that they have some sort of special relationship for "reasonable" behaviour, whereas progressives are people driven by emotional responses. Consider this recent assertion by Charlie Kirk:

Or, in a more dated manner, the immature screed by Quinton Figueroa, which argues that socialists, progressives, liberals etc are "morally weak". This one hilariously claims, as part of its argument, that Albert Einstein said "Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance", as an argument against socialism. This was triply-ironic; not only because the author condemned socialism without investigation by using a bunch of straw-man arguments about socialism that are based on a de-ontological perspective which ignore even utilitarian outcomes. But in addition to this, because the quote was used without investigating the fact it was never used by Einstein, although it has been attributed to him and numerous other people. But thirdly, because they reference Einstein who was an outright socialist.

Perhaps this is being unfair. Both Charlie Kirk and Quinton Figueroa are both ranters rather than thinkers (after all, Quinton also argues that The Illuminati are responsible for 20th century communism). So let's try take the argument from Ludwig von Mises, the most famous theoretical economist of the Austrian school, a "classic liberal", in the modern parlance (ignoring that those who use such an identity often do not concur with classic liberalism). Apart from his notorious suggestion in 1927 that fascism had saved European civilisation and that "The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history", he was a determined anti-empiricist.

"Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science. Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts." (Human Action: A Treatise on Economics)

In other words, his method was magical thinking. To paraphrase: "Never mind the facts, I have my deductive reasons from my self-evident axioms. Trust me."

Here's what von Mises said about socialism and emotions.

"Liberalism and capitalism address themselves to the cool, well-balanced mind. They proceed by strict logic, eliminating any appeal to the emotions. Socialism, on the contrary, works on the emotions, tries to violate logical considerations by rousing a sense of personal interest and to stifle the voice of reason by awakening primitive instincts." (Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis)

So rather than appeal to political thinkers who are merely asserting their own biases, why not turn to medical science instead? Let us consider a study from the the University of Chicago department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience in Journal of Neuroscience of 19 March 2014 entitled "The Good, the Bad, and the Just: Justice Sensitivity Predicts Neural Response during Moral Evaluation of Actions Performed by Others". As can be expected the autors did not engage in partisan identifiers, let alone poltical parties. From the abstract:

Using fMRI, the current study examined the extent to which dispositions in justice sensitivity (i.e., how individuals react to experiences of injustice and unfairness) predict behavioral ratings of praise and blame and how they modulate the online neural response and functional connectivity when participants evaluate morally laden (good and bad) everyday actions. Justice sensitivity did not impact the neuro-hemodynamic response in the action-observation network but instead influenced higher-order computational nodes in the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ), right dorsolateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (rdlPFC, dmPFC) that process mental states understanding and maintain goal representations.

The unexpected result was the people in the study who were responding to injustice, unfairness, discrimination and so forth didn't responding with the parts of their brains that control emotions, but rather the parts of their brains used for cognition. "Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven". Appeals to matters of injustice are rational, rather than emotional. According to Decety, one implication is that the search for justice and the moral missions of human rights organizations and others do not come primarily from sentimental motivations, as they are often portrayed. Instead, that drive may have more to do with sophisticated analysis and mental calculation.

Whilst we tend to see people expressing in a manner that appears emotional to injustice and a lack of fairness that is because removing injustices has is a practical action that requires changing existing circumstances, and institutions of power don't like such changes. But given that justice and fairness are egalitarian principles which one applies to complete strangers, it makes sense that it would be primarily based on cognitive rather than emotional motivations. It is, after all, an appeal to an abstract universality, a "Generalised Other", rather than an individual which one already has an emotional connection to. A particularly insightful perspective was made in the popular book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by the social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in 2007. One of the issues that they pointed out was the tendency of people to engage in justifications and excuses where vested interests exist, and apply reason where it doesn't.

All of which makes an interesting matter for political strategy; appeals to justice, fairness, non-discrimination are made on the basis of universal and rational principles, based on the species' capability to generalise the state of Others (see for example Preston, S. D.; de Waal, F.B.M. (2002). "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases", Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 25: 1–72. doi:10.1017/s0140525x02000018, Gallese V (2001). "The "Shared Manifold" hypothesis: from mirror neurons to empathy". Journal of Consciousness Studies. 8: 33–50.). When calls for justice, fairness, and non-discrimination are being resisted, identify the vested interests, the partisanship, and emotional attachments the opponents have. This has a two-fold benefit; not only when used against oneself can insight be derived on how one can have their own biases based on emotional reactions, but also it can be used to elucidate the irrational arguments of positional power. Ultimately the objective is to understand the difference between deeply-ingrained prejudice and deeply-considered convictions. Both generate the same emotional feeling, but it is only that latter that have reached that point through rational deliberation.

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