Monday, November 10, 2014

How I Feel About Emotional Appeals

Cross posted from Facebook by request.

Edit: Clarifications, new thoughts, and updates in response to the Facebook discussion and my own further reflections are below the main post as footnotes. I certainly welcome critical comments, but do please read the notes first, because it's likely I've already addressed your point.

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I went to a Catholic high school that took an annual field trip to DC to march in a pro-life rally. I was pro-choice from the moment I started actually thinking about it. I chose not to join everyone else on the trip. So I was frequently prompted to think about it, to talk about it, and to listen to others doing the same.

I realized around sophomore or maybe junior year that there was a really scary thing going on. The two sides acted like they had completely different values, but they actually had almost exactly the same values and simply disagreed about a single question of fact: Are unborn babies moral patients?

The pro-lifers thought the answer was yes, because God gives everyone a soul at the moment of conception. The pro-choicers thought no, for various reasons, but usually because they didn't believe in souls and had reasonable beliefs about cognitive development. Everybody valued bodily autonomy for women, and everyone valued sentient human life above that.

The debates or accusations almost never went in the direction of the central question of fact, though. Nobody was saying, "The pro-choicers think unborn babies are soulless and they're wrong!" or "The pro-lifers think unborn babies can think and feel and they're wrong!" Everybody acted like the other side believed the same thing they did about this question, and was therefore being purposefully evil, either by murdering soul-bearing babies or by denying adult women bodily autonomy for the sake of a worthless lump of flesh in their stomachs.

It was frightening, because the problem really mattered a great deal, and ignoring the empirical question in favor of vilifying the enemy could never lead to resolving it. If I was wrong and babies were moral patients, there was no way a pro-lifer was going to convince me of it by showing me gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses, and I might end up committing murder one day. I would at least vote to allow others to do so. (1)

I am seeing exactly this happen to my current community with veganism and meat-eating. It's a little more complicated, but at heart it's the same thing, and I'm equally frightened by it. (2)

Vegans post videos and descriptions of factory farms that seem to assume the viewer believes animals are moral patients in virtue of their subjective experiences, and that the viewer simply doesn't care enough about the animals yet because they don't look like humans--which is exactly like the aborted fetus photos. Meat-eaters act like the vegans (knowingly) care more about non-sentient meat sacks than about humanity and its future, and (sort of paradoxically, actually) like vegans must be stupid for believing animals can feel.

Vegans: If the meat eaters believed what you did about animal sentience, most of them would be vegans, and they would be horrified by their many previous murders. Your heart-wrenching videos aren't convincing to them because they aren't already convinced that animals can feel. (3)

Meat-eaters: Vegans think there are billions of times more people on this planet than you do, they believe you're eating a lot of those people, and they care about every one of them the way you care about every human. Furthermore, if you can't pass the ideological turing test for every major philosophy of mind, you should really stop calling vegans stupid. If you *can* pass those ideological turing tests, then I hope you already appreciate that you can be as brilliant as either David Chalmers or Eliezer Yudkowsky and still get this kind of question massively wrong (because at least one of those two is wrong). (4)

This problem matters. It matters a lot. Which is why I am all for valid, relevant, honest arguments about which things are sentient, how we might know that, how sure we can be, what actions would lead to the largest number of quality adjusted life years given either hypothesis, and everything along those lines. I am *not* in favor of arguments over whether it is wrong to eat meat, let alone whether you have to be evil to do it, before the central empirical question has been so much as mentioned. (5)

Finally, let me tell you about what happens when you post a heart-wrenching video of apparent animal suffering: It works, if the thing you're trying to do is make me feel terrible. My brain anthropomorphizes everything at the slightest provocation. Pigs, cows, chickens, mollusks, worms, bacteria, frozen vegetables, and even rocks. And since I know that it's quite easy to get me to deeply empathize with a pet rock, I know better than to take those feelings as evidence that the apparently suffering thing is in fact suffering. If you posted videos of carrots in factory farms and used the same phrases to describe their miserable lives and how it's all my fault for making the world this terrible place where oodles of carrots are murdered constantly, I'd feel the same way. So these arguments do not tend to be revelatory of truth.

Thus, be it known: You are never going to convince me to stop eating meat merely by appealing to my emotions. You will, however, torture me every time you try, and I will not abide pointless suffering any more than you. If you try to use truth-orthogonal emotional manipulation to persuade me of things--anything, not just veganism--I will block you and never trust you to have a fair, truth-seeking conversation with me ever again. (6)

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1) Everything above here is an account of my memories of a very tiny community--my high school had something like 130 students in it, my hometown 12,000--and I was between 11 and 13 years old at the time. They're also probably taken primarily from religion class, where debates about Anselm, Aquinas, and New Atheism were common. As such, my cached thoughts about the pro-life/pro-choice clash are certainly not representative of the larger debate.

But regardless, the lesson I learned from that experience was a good one: It's easy to misunderstand people. The person you're talking to has reasons for their beliefs and actions just like you do. If you don't understand them, the correct move is to try to understand them, not to dominate them by any means necessary. It's likely you share larger goals, and disagree about a point of fact that can be discussed productively.

2) This is not quite true. It is what I have been perceiving, but not what I have been seeing. My emotional reactions and automatic responses are consistent with believing I've been seeing this. It's the easiest interpretation of the facts when your mind is configured like mine. But I know they are largely mistaken. What I've actually been seeing is a debate over veganism and meat-eating that shares some red-flag characteristics with the pro-life/pro-choice debate as I remember it. But not the ones I claim here.

3) I meant to refer to my current community, a group of a couple hundred rationalists, when I said this, and not to the general population. I don't know what people in the general population would say if asked why they do or don't eat meat. When I was a vegan myself, I lived at a Zen temple where almost everyone was vegan and people chanted "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them" every morning and believed "sentient" meant "literally everything". I don't think that's normal either.

Update: Even restricted to that, though, I was wrong. I really did believe this before, even reflectively and not just automatically. I no longer do. I think the people who changed my mind about this are underestimating how many people believe non-humans aren't sentient, but I was drastically underestimating how many believe animals have internal experience but eat them anyway.

This is also misleading because I am mostly not in the group of meat-eaters I was describing, despite eating meat. Granted, I didn't claim to be, but it's a perfectly predictable inference that I shouldn't have allowed. Before now, I thought that other people reflectively aware of being like me were incredibly rare, but apparently I was wrong. I've seen several people today claim that they believe animals are conscious and that they don't care.

However, and don't you dare quote that last paragraph without this one, 
I'm in a state of transition about this. The longer I avoid winter depression, the more I care about ordinary experiences of ordinary people. So it will probably be the case in a few months or maybe a year that if you can convince me animals are conscious, I will stop eating them. Or probably just if you raise my probability estimate enough, regardless of whether it goes over 50%, because there are a lot of farm animals. I am extremely doubtful that you will do that, though, and remember that you'd have to say something I've never heard or thought of myself before. The position on animal consciousness I'm thoroughly convinced of is laid out here.

4) I came to believe that meat-eaters were acting this way toward vegans from a small and biased sample. I'm noticing now that the thing about not calling the other side stupid or irrational before you can pass the ideological turing tests applies much more strongly to vegans I've heard from than meat-eaters. Cut it out, everybody. The Hard Problem is a really really really hard problem.

5) I stand by everything in that paragraph. On the other hand, it does allow another predictable false inference, which is that I think the problem matters because eating meat is bad if animals are sentient. The real reason I think it matters a lot is that if we can't solve it, building an AI with coherent extrapolated volition is going to be a lot harder. How are we going to get it to optimize for the wellbeing of humans but not palm trees? How are we going to agree on the right conclusions in metaethics--which is necessary for the survival of humans and everything else--if we can't have truly productive discussions about the preferences of chickens?

The remainder of the post remains apparently accurate upon reflection. The only thing left to note is that there is a difference between trying to change my beliefs via emotional appeals, and trying to inspire me to act on beliefs I already hold. I recognize that the videos I refer to are largely meant to do the latter, but they are sometimes used for the former, they have the same effect on me anyway, and multiple people have admitted today to using terror tactics when reason doesn't work.

6) Fair, truth-seeking conversations are, and have always been, essential to scientific progress of all forms. I am extremely disappointed in many people who have responded to my post in ways that cut off any possibility of honest discussion. 

Honesty requires vulnerability. Speaking the truth is dangerous. Today, in a moment of despair, I declared that I would stop doing it. But the only way I know of to cultivate a culture of collaborative truth-seeking is by example. By going out in the open and being uncertain, changing my mind, correcting deception despite the social risk, revealing facts about my mind that could be used against me, and never, ever bullying people epistemically. If you take up someone's emotional vulnerabilities as weapons, the first thing you destroy is progress toward knowledge.

The discussions of animal rights I've seen in the EA and rationalist communities in the past year have worried me almost as much as the social justice conversations, because the way those discussions go, it's like people are at war. And they seem to know it, and think it's a good thing, that they must dominate the evil enemy at all cost. And when one person declares war, it's kinda hard not to raise some shields. But we have to stop this. This is not how the truth is revealed and applied. This problem is too important to be overwhelmed by blue/green politics.

6 comments:

Rand said...

I like this version a lot better than the original one. (Or, rather, I tend to agree with this version. I may have *liked* the original version more.)

One thing isn't clear though:

This is also misleading because I am mostly not in the group of meat-eaters I was describing, despite eating meat. Granted, I didn't claim to be, but it's a perfectly predictable inference that I shouldn't have allowed. Before now, I thought that other people reflectively aware of being like me were incredibly rare, but apparently I was wrong. I've seen several people today claim that they believe animals are conscious and that they don't care.

However, and don't you dare quote that last paragraph without this one, I'm in a state of transition about this. The longer I avoid winter depression, the more I care about ordinary experiences of ordinary people. So it will probably be the case in a few months or maybe a year that if you can convince me animals are conscious, I will stop eating them. Or probably just if you raise my probability estimate enough, regardless of whether it goes over 50%, because there are a lot of farm animals. I am extremely doubtful that you will do that, though, and remember that you'd have to say something I've never heard or thought of myself before. The position on animal consciousness I'm thoroughly convinced of is laid out here.


From the first paragraph I got the sense that you weren't including yourself among the people who are convinced that animals do not experience qualia. In the second, you reject that contention. Are you making a counterfactual claim that if you believed in animal sentience you wouldn't change your behavior? Care to elaborate or correct me if I'm wrong?

Brienne said...

Yes, I'm making the counterfactual claim. I don't think that animals have qualia, but convincing me that they do wouldn't be sufficient to make me stop eating meat. My intent in the second paragraph is to state that my feelings about whether I would stop eating meat if animals are sentient is changing.

Tarn Somervell said...

//single question of fact: Are unborn babies moral patients?//

it seems a little... misleading to say that what a moral patient is a question of fact, particularly wrt the life/choice debate, where there are plenty of people who agree on all the empirical facts about what properties unborn babies have, but disagree one which properties they need to have moral patienthood (or rather, a 'right to life', which is the concept often used.

Sam said...

I don't think your analysis of the abortion debate as disagreement over a matter of fact is accurate.

If pro-lifers were indeed consistently motivated by fetuses being moral patients, their behavior would be incredibly different: well over half of pregnancies are estimated to naturally end in miscarriage, often before the mother is aware that she is pregnant. To someone for whom fetuses truly are worthy of equal moral consideration, this would be an incredible ongoing calamity and by far the worst medical emergency in the world.

If the disagreement were purely a matter of fact, over the moral status of fetuses, pro-lifers would be in a frenzy to throw medical research dollars at the problem of natural miscarriages, saving many more lives than fighting abortion does.

They are completely uninterested in this, so I conclude that this cannot be the root cause of the disagreement.

Brienne said...

Sam and Tarn: Read the first note.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I assume everyone here is familiar with the mountain of research that bears on this issue: the In-group/Out-group bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error, The Ego-centric bias, etc. There is a potential flaw in human nature in that we use shared beliefs about reality as one basis of group cohesion and solidarity. Therefore you cant allow someone to attack the shared beliefs, because that threatens the survival of your group.

An emotional appeal, therefore, isn't just an attempt to change someone's attitude toward an issue, it's a deliberate attempt to seduce someone to change allegiances, to switch groups. That's why people treat it as an act of inter-group war, because on one level, that's exactly what it is. Both sides, I imagine, including the ones who are making such appeals, understand this to some extent. That explains, to a degree, I think, the behavior you have seen.

Rationalists (if I may use that term) often make the case (more often they assume it) that an accurate understanding of objective reality is critical to survival and success in life. Our evolutionary legacy seems to have bestowed upon a very large number of people a contrary assumption: objective knowledge is less important than strong relationships with a group of people who have your back. I would expect this effect to be more powerful the smaller and more cohesive the group: hence vegans more than meat-eaters, fundamentalists more than mainstream believers. That also seems to accord with your experience.

Obviously this attitude is extreme, but I'm not ready to say that it's always wrong. Probably the maximization of success and survival requires some balance between an objective knowledge of the world, and the authentic acceptance of your group's foundational belief system. An insistence on the autonomy of the individual intellect seems vulnerable to social isolation; while an insistence on unquestioning conformity to the group risks sinking with the Titanic while the band plays on.