The Ethical Use of Irrationality

Friday morning at Skepticon, James Croft and I ran a workshop on the ethical use of irrationality. When I first proposed the session to James, I had in mind a discussion of story and persuasion. We tend to focus so strongly on rationality that we sometimes neglect to look at the rest of our lives in any kind of structured way. I thought we should fix that.

Demonstrating both that this is a much larger subject than can be discussed in an hour and that audience-focused sessions end up going unexpected but useful places, we spent most of the hour talking about the ethics of the emotional appeal.

We started by asking people to give examples of things they thought were both entirely irrational and entirely unethical. We ended up with an interesting list. It included war, capitalism, consumerism, and political advertising, to name just a few.

If that list makes you want to raise objections, that was exactly the point. While the person who added war to that list was quite adamant, most of the room appeared to believe self-defense is both rational and ethical.

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