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The Mellow Heuristic

If our hearts were pure, we wouldn’t need our heads. To me, this is the most beautiful, most insightful statement on moral reasoning. We would never understand how much we really care about morality without fully understanding what this quote of Paul Bloom means.

For instance, I am an Aspie. Aspies are far less cruel than normal human beings because Aspies are more guilt-driven. Normal people feel shame when they lose in the status game. Aspies feel guilt when they do wrong. So, it is not surprising that Aspies often do things which lower their status, but does not leave them guilty. Similarly, normal people are more likely to do things which raise their status, but leaves them guilty. Or, perhaps they do not feel much guilt. It also seems to me that normal people value covert conniving skills more than moral rectitude, though they hide this even from themselves.

What possibly explains this? Rational deliberation plays more of a role in the moral attitudes of Aspies. But, I do not think that this fully explains this. This is probably not detached concern either. I believe Aspies are less cruel than normal human beings because they feel genuine compassion toward victims of injustice. In other words, the belief that thinking people are more rational, and feeling people are mush headed is not true. This is a false dichotomy. The truth is that it is impossible to think deeply without feeling deeply, without being emotionally sensitive.

I will explain. One of the most interesting observations of James Watson is that genetics would lead to a world where honest compassion for the underdog might become possible. This means that we do not live in such a world. It is obvious to me that we do not live in a world where true civility between human beings—let alone compassion—is possible. Honest, wholehearted compassion wouldn’t be possible without a high degree of safety, trust, comfort and reciprocity in human relationships. This wouldn’t be possible without more direct, verbal communication between people. If you think that there is enough of this in the world in which we live in, you are not a particularly introspective or sensitive person. But, it is not surprising to me that James Watson made this observation. From his worldview, he seems to be such a person.

This is why I believe the story of emotional sensitivity/control is a lot more complex than Bryan Caplan assumes:

“The Mellow Heuristic is a rule of thumb for adjudicating intellectual disputes when directly relevant information is scarce.  The rule has two steps.

Step 1: Look at how emotional each side is.

Step 2: Assume the less emotional side is right and the more emotional side is wrong.

Why should we believe the Mellow Heuristic tracks truth?  Most obviously, because emotionality drowns out clear thinking, and clear thinking tends to lead to truth.  The more emotional people are, the less clear thinking they do, so the less likely they are to be right.

Like all heuristics, the Mellow Heuristic is imperfect.  If Hannibal Lecter debated one of his traumatized victims, the Mellow Heuristic would probably conclude that Lecter was in the right.  But it’s a good heuristic nonetheless.  On average, the calm are really are more reliable than the agitated.”

It is true that people who do not have much confidence in their views are more likely to lose their temper when they are threatened. But

1)Emotionally sensitive people are more meta-rational. For instance, take Huemer’s story on Marvin.

“Marvin is in danger of starvation. Fortunately, he can walk to a market and buy bread there, which will preserve his life… My daughter, however, also plans to go to the market, slightly later in the day, to buy some of this same bread. This bread is often in short supply, so that the vendor may run out after Marvin’s purchase. My daughter could buy more expensive bread, but she would prefer not to. Knowing all this, I fear that if Marvin is allowed to go to the market, my daughter will be forced to pay a slightly higher price for bread than she would like. To prevent this from happening, I accost Marvin on the road and physically restrain him from traveling to the market. Is my action permissible?

Suppose I claim that my harmful coercion of Marvin does not violate his rights, because it is necessary to protect my daughter from economic disadvantage. Certainly this defense falls flat. A person’s right to be free from harmful coercion is not so easily swept aside. Likewise for the suggestion that my action, though a rights violation, is justified because my daughter’s interest in saving money outweighs Marvin’s rights. No one would accept such feeble justifications.

Yet this seems analogous to the common economic argument for immigration restriction. The claim seems to be that we are justified in forcibly preventing individuals–many of whom are seeking escape from dire economic distress–from entering the American labor market, because American workers would suffer economic disadvantage through price competition. No one claims that American workers would be disadvantaged to anything like the degree that potential immigrants are disadvantaged by being forced to live in the Third World. Nevertheless, the prospect of a modest lowering of American wages and narrowing of employment opportunities is taken to either suspend or outweigh the rights of Third World inhabitants.”

Emotionally sensitive people, no matter what society tells them, cannot help but empathize with Marvin. Do not assume that the people who do not empathize with Marvin are “feeling people”. They’re people with poor personal standards who believe whatever their coalition expects them to believe.

2) Passive aggressive people are very good at not losing their temper because they are very good at their game. You’re more patient when you know that things will work in your favor. In the game of manipulation, I think the most manipulative would be calmer. Outwardly. They have more control over their behavior and speech, and less control over their emotions and actions.

3) People tend to lose themselves in a debate when they are wrong. But being consistently right does not get you very far in your career, life or relationships. This’d have a huge effect on how the sane behave and speak. Now, it is true that “calming down” helps you see the truth. But, it does not follow that seeing the truth helps you “calm down”. A major reason is introspection failure. To be able to handle the basic challenges of life, you need a firm grasp on how human beings think and behave. As this is context specific and culture specific even when we have reams of data, people rely on introspection which gives them a set of broad assumptions. But, introspection fails people who are very different from normal people. Their mental states are very different from that of others. People who easily see the truth are often inept at anticipating how others might respond to it. This would have a pretty big effect on how they behave.

4) Deception involves not seeing certain truths. People who see such truths are deceived too often by people who do not. In certain contexts, deceivers feign calmness to get what they want. It is also easier for them to stay calm. They get what they want. But, is being “right” enough for the clearheaded to stay calm even when they lose?

Post Script:

  • The mellow strategy is very common, even among people who are by no means intellectually sophisticated. So, that doesn’t prove anything. People might be stupid. But, they know that people read all kind of virtues into such people. More than anything, it is a strategy. Intelligent people might be more strategic, but I doubt whether meta-rational people are more strategic, adjusting for IQ. It is quite possible that convinced of the legitimacy of their beliefs and actions, they do not think in such terms. Most outwardly calm people are very emotionally touchy and angry people. I remember a female journalist saying on Facebook “Never underestimate the anger of a patient man.” I’ve *always* found that to be true. Always. 
  • People who think straight are very, very rare. Almost non-existent. There is much truth in the stereotype of socially unskilled rational person. This is by no means a coincidence. Social ineptitude and rationality are not unconnected. Rational people find others incomprehensible on many levels purely because they are rational and broad-minded. But, of course, age does something to you. It makes you wise and mellow down, and tolerate other people’s antics like you tolerate bawling babies. But, it is also possible that age could make you bitter.

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