Emotion is not opposed to reason but a crucial tool for assessing risk in a complex, uncertain world
When it comes to decision-making, many scholars and policymakers see emotions as a source of irrationality. Psychologists such as Paul Slovic and the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman believe that the opposition between reason and emotion explains all sorts of human misunderstandings about risks and statistics. Many people are afraid of nuclear energy, for example, even though the statistical chance of a meltdown is extremely small. In short, the idea is that people respond emotionally in their risk perceptions, and therefore close themselves off to scientific facts.
One standard response is simply to go with available scientific evidence and to just listen to the experts. That’s what I call the technocratic approach – quantitative information is the guiding light, and anxieties or concerns of the public are dismissed as irrelevant. At the other end of the spectrum is what I call the populist approach, where the will of the public is taken as the ultimate verdict on policy. Even though the public might be emotional – and hence supposedly irrational – public opinion should still be the guide, either for democratic objectives or for pragmatic, instrumental ones.
However, I believe both approaches are misguided for the same reason: they don’t take emotions and underlying values seriously. Obviously, it’s crucial to uncover the relevant scientific facts to make important decisions about, say, risky technologies and pandemics. But such decisions aren’t just a matter of gathering scientific information and listening to experts, as important as that is. Scientific information is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. We also have to take into account societal and ethical considerations, and that requires explicit ethical reflection, which in turn requires attention for emotions.
Many researchers from psychology and philosophy, such as Nico Frijda, Antonio Damasio and Martha Nussbaum, have shown that our emotions help us with so-called ‘practical rationality’ – that is, making decisions in complex real-life situations. In my own work, I argue that emotions are important for having moral insights. Emotions are not by definition at odds with rationality, but can be an important source of moral reflection. They point to what matters to us morally. Emotions can draw attention to important ethical considerations that frequently get overlooked in quantitative, science-based approaches to risk.
Take energy technologies, such as power plants – whether they’re generating energy by nuclear fission, burning coal, or via renewables such as wind and sunlight. To assess whether they’re ethically acceptable, we need to consider who reaps the benefits and who’s at risk from things such as workplace accidents and forms of environmental pollution. For example, technological innovations are often disproportionately harmful for groups that are already vulnerable. Their concerns and their anger come from the fact that important values – such as health, wellbeing and the right to be listened to – are being harmed or disregarded. In this way, emotions such as sympathy, empathy, compassion, enthusiasm and indignation can highlight ethical aspects of risk, such as autonomy, justice and fairness. Paying attention to these emotions can thus help policymakers and technology developers find more ethically and socially responsible solutions.
Mainstream approaches to risk typically involve only consequentialist methods, such as cost-benefit analysis. They tend to overlook many other ethical considerations, such as distributive and procedural justice, fairness and autonomy. Emotions can play a vital role in highlighting these additional ethical dimensions. Rather than seeing emotions as irrational states that disturb thinking, my approach takes people’s emotions as a gateway to values.
Emotionally charged capacities such as imagination can play an important role in thinking about future scenarios
Trying to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty poses its own distinct ethical challenges. It requires imagination, and attending to feelings of responsibility and care. It calls on us to evaluate different scenarios, without full knowledge of future outcomes. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan in 2011, for example, could have been prevented with higher safety barriers to protect the power plants from the ocean. Experts had proposed these before, but a tsunami with such high waves was deemed unlikely. We can ascribe this to a lack of imagination. Thousands of people died as a result of the tsunami – and after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, thousands more had to leave their homes. Many will never be able to return. While narrow and quantitative approaches might overlook or downplay these harms, a care-based approach is more likely to capture a range of effects on human wellbeing. Of course, quantitative methods can be broadened, but doing so requires emotional and ethical reflection to the texture of human experience.
The Swedish risk ethicist Sven Ove Hansson has argued that there’s an important ethical difference between so-called ‘type I’ and ‘type II’ errors – false positives versus false negatives. In scientific research, we primarily aim to prevent false positives, that is, false claims that something is the case. But in the context of public policy, touching on the likes of health risks and technological risks, we want to avoid false negatives – false claims that someone is healthy while they are sick, or that a technology is safe when it’s not. These ideas can be grounded in care – namely, that we’d rather be safe than sorry – and in turn support the precautionary principle.
On the other hand, we also have to evaluate the ethical implications of such a cautious approach. For example, all energy technologies have possible benefits but also negative side-effects. These might include carbon dioxide emissions, environmental destruction or changes to the landscape. Achieving an ethically and socially desirable mix of energy sources requires us to balance these benefits and harms. This is much more complex than a simple cost-benefit analysis as is typically done by risk experts. Other-regarding emotions such as compassion can help to provide insight into ethically responsible scenarios.
Of course, emotions can also be misguided, but the same holds for all sources of insight. Emotions need to be critically assessed based on scientific information and rational analysis, as well as by emotional reflection and deliberation. In a public deliberation about energy, people could be asked to put themselves in the shoes of other stakeholders, and also in the role of a policymaker who has to come up with a solution. This requires imaginative capacities and compassion, which involve going beyond one’s own initial emotional response. In other words, emotions can be an object as well as a tool of critical reflection.
Emotionally charged human capacities such as imagination can play an important role in developing and thinking about future scenarios. The prospect of catastrophic climate change requires us to envisage different ways of life, and different scenarios for how to run a more sustainable economy, with more durable energy sources and lower consumption. Artists, filmmakers and writers can play an important role in making these scenarios vivid. Art appeals to the imagination; it can make abstract problems more concrete, and so facilitate ethical deliberation on the implications of such future scenarios.
Current developments in biotechnology, robotics and AI have long been anticipated in works of science fiction, and these works go beyond what humanity is currently capable of. Art and literature help us to make abstract problems more concrete, and reflect on what we would find desirable technological developments. This in turn can motivate behaviour change: emotions don’t only facilitate ethical insight – they can also be an important source of motivation, to design more responsible technologies, or to limit our ecological footprint. For example, David Attenborough’s nature documentaries have, over many decades, contributed to a greater global awareness of the value and wonder of the natural world.
Emotions are not just inconvenient facts that need to be bracketed or controlled. They are not obstacles so much as sources of generative insight when it comes to thinking about risk. Rather than dismissing emotions, we should embrace them as a vital resource, even as a starting point for moral discussion and reflection. Compassion, and feelings of responsibility and care, can help us to reflect on the ethical implications of the many hard choices we face. They also help us to foster solidarity and elicit the courage that the present moment demands. In order to take on the ethical challenges of risky technologies and uncertain futures, we need to draw on our rich human capacities: scientific knowledge, insights from social sciences, arts and humanities, and our capacity to feel deeply.