Decision by emotion?

Just how much of our moral stance is influenced by emotional reaction? A study has recently been published in which elderly but mentally fit people were asked to consider what sort of care they would choose if they were to be severely reduced by dementia.

All subjects were informed about the disabilities to be expected in severe dementia, but half were also shown a brief film which actually recorded a person with severe dementia, and so showing the limitations it caused. This group was significantly more likely to choose only “comfort care”. I take “comfort care” to mean allowing the patient to die by withdrawing his or her means of survival.

I am not addressing here the morality of “comfort care” but the engagement of the emotions by showing the film.  I compare this with the films of scans showing babies in the womb – who are recognisably babies, and behaving in a recognisably human way. You will recall that the pro-abortion lobby (I dislike the term pro-choice because only the mother has a choice) complaining about the use of such films since they might unduly influence or distress the mother. Or, as others would put it, make them face up to the reality of their options.

It seems to me that dementia films and unborn baby films are on a par – either both right or both wrong. I wonder whether you agree. And I wonder how much emotional involvement plays its part in our decisions. For example, leaving aside the justice of the cause, is a suicide bomber killing civilians more blameworthy than a Flying Fortress crew blanket bombing Hamburg?

(If you would like to read a somewhat fuller account of the dementia experiment you can do so here. You may also be moved, as I was, by a short video interview with a mother who decided to carry her grossly disabled baby to term. Find it here.)

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8 Responses to Decision by emotion?

  1. chauffer says:

    Perhaps an ’emotional reaction’ (like any reaction) would be better substituted with a ‘response’ but there’s nothing wrong with having emotions!

  2. Frank says:

    Not to have appropriate emotional responses is to be sociopathic, don’t you think?

    We should not be dominated by emotions, any more than we should be dominated by reason; there should be a balance between them – though few of us achieve this successfully. I think that if our fundamental principles are intact – e.g. belief in the sanctity of life etc – we might be’emotional’ at seeing searing films but we will not let ourselves be swayed by them against our better judgement.

    When Jesus heard that his beloved friend had died, we are told ‘Jesus wept’. So He was not ashamed to show His emotions…

  3. Vincent says:

    Quentin asks how much our moral stance is affected by emotion. In practice, I think a great deal. We cannot go through everyday life without emotions being active in all our decisions. We would be rather odd people, and probably not nice to know if we managed to stifle them.
    But experience does suggest that they are volatile and often unreliable. For example, a couple of generations ago we accepted reasonable corporal punishment in schools as wholesome and necessary. Do we feel the same today, or instinctively condemn it? Even in a trivial, if significant, instance they alter. If we read a sad book, or have some bad news, we take a different attitude to life for a while. That’s not folklore. It has been tested in many different studies. Do we see the Flying Fortress crew (heroes) differently from the suicide bomber (terrorist) – to take up Quentin.
    Perhaps we have a duty to check whether our emotions are guiding us aright. Should we be training our emotions so that they lead us more certainly down the right path?
    And is there a difference between feeling that something is right or wrong, and perceiving that it is?

  4. Juliana says:

    Thank you Quentin for the link to the short video of the mother of a severely handicapped child who refused a late term abortion. Her reasoning was (in my opinion) flawless and to quote her verbatim, she said, “I wanted my baby to have a natural death….I did not want my baby to die at my hands.”

    Then she described the 12 hours of her daughter’s life as happy and peaceful although both she and her husband mourned and grieved her death as is only natural. But the most telling remark came towards the end of the interview when she said, “We felt very clean when it was over…there was a resolution, a good resolution. She never suffered.”

    I’m not sure how many mothers of late-term aborted babies could say that. They generally need counselling and help for years.

    And to change tack back to emotional response. Frank says we should not be dominated by emotions. True. But the one glaring emotion of today’s “youth” who wield knives and such-like is uncontrolled and uncontrollable anger. They’ve been brought up with it, both in the home and on the T.V. They have no way to learn how to be reasonable, nor perhaps do they want to be. It is a huge and scary problem in today’s society and does anyone know how to turn the clock back here?

  5. Frank says:

    I also saw the Youtube video. If only it could be shown to mothers, especially those seeking late-term abortions. I am sure their normal instincts would be similar to the mother in the video – but they are railroaded by doctors, family, counsellors into thinking such a birth is a ‘disaster’. It is sad, inevitably, but healing will take place. As Juliana says, this is so much harder after an abortion.

    The only answer to Juliana’s final paragraph is good parenting. There is no substitute for this in the form of school ‘civics’ classes, adult anger-management courses (which clever, still angry young men learn to manipulate to their advantage), or any other panacea thrown up by the Government. Parents know that teaching children self-control takes years of patience on their part. Could the Government save on all the money wasted on spurious ‘courses’ and use the money to pay mothers to stay at home while their children are young?

  6. dyoung says:

    I think Thoma Aquinas answered this queston. Our emotions (passions) are good and essential in helping us make choices but they must always be subordinate to our reason in order to make sound judgement of what course of action to take.

  7. RMBlaber says:

    One way of looking at this issue is to look at a rather appalling scenario – one that I wish was still in the realms of science fiction (‘The Terminator’ films) – but, alas, is science fact.
    You are a Pakistani civilian, attending a wedding in a village in North Waziristan. There are happy, smiling faces all around you – men, women and children, the young bride and groom.
    The imam from the local mosque is just about to get up and start the proceedings when a Predator MQ-9 Reaper UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), controlled by someone belonging to the 42nd Attack Squadron at faraway Creech US Air Force Base, Nevada, drops one of its GBU-49 GPS-guided 500 lb bombs right on top of you. (See: ; You are, quite literally, blown away.
    The Master Sergeant (or whatever) who directed the Predator to drop its load of death on top of you had nothing against you personally, and probably felt very little in the way of emotion about what he was doing. He was acting in the – unfortunately, mistaken – belief that he was prosecuting the War on Terror, having been given some wrong co-ordinates. It is very difficult to tell the difference between a tribal wedding ceremony and an assembly of Taliban or Al-Qa’eda, especially as there are likely to be people carrying guns at both, and especially from 50,000 ft (the Predator’s operating height).
    The Master Sergeant will be a positive emotional volcano besides the weapon currently being developed by DARPA, the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ( By mandate of the National Defense Authorization Act, 2000, by 2010 one-third of all US operational deep-strike aircraft must be unmanned, and by 2015, so too must one-third of all US ground combat vehicles. At present, the robots available are semi-autonomous at best, but the ambition is to build ones that are fully so.
    The ethical implications and risks entailed were examined in a report for the US Department of the Navy’s Office of Naval Research by Patrick Lin, George Bekey and Keith Abney of California Polytechnic State University (‘Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics and Design’, 20/12/2008,
    These are manifold. As Noel Sharkey, Professor of Computer Science at Sheffield University, points out, ‘one of the fundamental laws of war is being able to discriminate real combatants and noncombatants. I can see no way that autonomous robots can deliver this for us.’ Whereas it would be quite alright to have such vehicles navigating from place to place for the purpose, say, of delivering supplies, or simple surveillance, giving them a licence to kill would be another matter, as in spite of decades of research into so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI), computers remain unable to make simple visual discriminations, such as picking a cow out of a barnyard scene. (See ;
    Even the existing semi-autonomous machines have killed unintended victims, and not just in Pakistan or Afghanistan. In South Africa in October 2007, a training exercise being conducted by the S African Defence Force in the Northern Cape ended in tragedy when a computer controlled Oerlikon GDF-005 anti-aircraft cannon opened fire of its own accord, killing 9 soldiers and seriously injuring 14 others – all because of a software glitch. (Report:
    The US armed forces currently have over 4000 robots deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Pentagon plans to spend $4 billion on them by 2010 (see DoD Report, ‘Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2032). None of them may look much like the Governor of California, but they will be as deadly as his most famous movie character.

  8. RMBlaber says:

    I’m sorry no-one has taken me up on the issue I raised about militarised robots, because I felt that it was on-topic and of extreme concern, and (as I mentioned) not in some far-distant science fiction future, but actually going on _hic et nunc_.
    However, be that as it may. The basic issue is what part emotions play in moral decision-making, and what part _ought_ they to play.
    Emotivism is the idea that all moral propositions are mere expressions of emotion, and have no semantic content apart from that. As such, they can have no truth-value, because one person’s emotions are no more or less true or valid than any other’s. The statement ‘It is wrong to steal’ just means ‘I feel displeasure at stealing’ or ‘Stealing makes me unhappy’, on this account. Emotivism is thus subjectivist and relativist.
    It is also pure, unadulterated nonsense. It is self-evident that my outrage against theft and thieves _derives_ from the moral proposition, and from its objective, absolute truth. To base a system of morality on emotional reaction would be to build it on shifting sand.
    The fact that public opinion is near-universal with regard to most moral propositions, if not all of them, is testament to the universality (in both space and time) and objectivity of moral propositions, and to their applicability in all situations. This is certainly what the Church argues with regard to natural (moral) law, and what CS Lewis identified with the _Tao_ or the _dharma_ in his essay, ‘The Abolition of Man’ (one of the most important things he ever wrote).
    Emotions _are_ important, in that when conscience prompts us (and a properly informed conscience is the voice of God) it usually does so in an emotional form (the oft-felt ‘pang’ of conscience, for example); nevertheless they should never determine our moral decision-making. That must be shaped by the natural law, and by the content of revelation, to both of which it is our duty to submit.

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