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Angry Intellectuals

Thursday, November 03, 2005
I was talking about abortion politics last night with Dr. Brazen Hussy, and she suggested I say here what I said to her.

Abortion is one of those issues that tends to generate very high emotions. Generally speaking political disputes that are "hot" also tend be be pretty irrational. But emotion-laden argument doesn't necessarily have to be the result of poor reasoning. While most often people tend to use their intellect to justify their pre-existing emotional states, it is possible for things to work the other way around: for sober intellectual analysis to generate powerful emotional commitment.

I will use myself as an example. A few years ago I didn't have very strong feelings about the abortion issue. I was emotionally indifferent and thought people on both sides of the issue were a little wacky. I thought I saw the real intellectual complexity of the issue - that there were strong arguments to be made on both sides.

I now have very strong emotions. I am ardently pro-choice. Basically I thought through the issue of abortion and decided that 1) the idea that life begins at conception is based on a silly moral teleology masquerading as science, and 2) the Kantian position that people should be treated as ends and not means applies with great force in the case of abortion. If you tell a woman that she must bear a child to term, then you are treating her as a vehicle for child-creation, as a baby-making machine. This turns her into a thing, an object of others' will, rather than an autonomous agent. In five years I have never heard a persuasive contrary argument, and until I do I will consider the intellectual debate over.

Note here that my position is grounded solely on reasoning, not emotion. As far as abortion goes, I have no stake in the game. I'm a man and will never have to make a decision. But I am as committed as any pro-choice feminist (hi, honey!). My intellectual position has led to a firm moral conviction, which generates some pretty strong emotions - as you might have read yesterday when I started ranting about Alito and basically channeling Amanda Marcotte.

The possibility that emotions can be the product of sound reasoning has implications for feminism too. A lot of snotty males think women have 2nd-rate brains because women are "emotional." But as Martha Nussbaum and other theorists have argued, emotions can come out of the process of reflection as well as base instinct. The fact that women (or men!) get choked up about something need not be an indication that they are engaging in sloppy reasoning or are just "reacting emotionally." It could also mean that a woman actually has very good reasons for her position - she's just too outraged to express them to you because you are being calm when calm isn't called for.

So the next time you are coolly discussing something with someone who is very upset, don't be so quick to accuse them of being "too emotional." It might be that you are not being emotional enough. It is no virtue to calmly examine injustice. If you aren't inspired to act and feel by actions of great nobility or ignobility, then there is something very wrong with you.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:29 AM
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