Saturday, August 16, 2008

The supposed war between reason and the emotions

So much of our thinking seems to be defined by simplistic and misleading slogans or caricatures. Consider the way we talk about "Reason versus Emotions." The thinking seems to be that

These "things" are distinct (two entities)
One excludes or corrodes the other (they are enemies; they are opposites)
Reason is superior to emotion (In the healthy mind/soul, the reason rules the emotions—Plato, Kant)

Sometimes, we encounter a kind of rebel position:

• "The heart has its reasons, of which the mind knows nothing." —Pascal

We run with some of these ideas, but should we?


The term “emotionalism” is sometimes used to refer to a state in which emotions—anger, fear, joy, etc.—are so strong that reason is impaired. Obviously, this sort of thing does happen. But just what may we conclude from this phenomenon? Certainly none of the ideas above.

Observe that, in recognizing the phenomenon thus understood, we seem to be thinking that emotions are not intrinsically corrosive of reason, for otherwise we would not specify cases in which emotions are “so strong.”

This matches the common sense observation that people often feel emotions while reasoning perfectly well. If I feel joy when I reunite with my long-absent cat, there is no reason to suppose that my reason is impaired. Heck, it could be optimal.

I sometimes watch those military aircraft shows on TV. Actually, I love 'em. There, I encounter depictions of fighter pilots in highly stressful circumstances—dogfights and “furballs.” These pilots’ survival depends on their employing rational faculties well. Do we think that these pilots are necessarily rationally impaired because of their stress and fear?

Or is it that, somehow, they block out or thwart their emotions in order to function well and thus survive? But they give every indication of not doing that, and, typically, they acknowledge their fear.

In what sense then can emotions be thought of as “opposed to” reason?


Sometimes, our reason—or, more broadly, our understanding—requires, or essentially includes, emotions. If college kid Ivy works on a research paper about the Holocaust, learning for the first time that millions of people, including women and children, were rounded up, horribly abused, and then killed, we expect her to be horrified.

Being horrified, even if it is the sort of “horror” that we might experience as we hover quietly above a book in a library, is an emotional state.

Imagine that Ivy is in no sense horrified. She is reading about and thinking about these events, but she feels no differently than she might feel while thinking about, say, lint. Here, we would, I think, be inclined to say that, since she has no feelings about these events, she obviously does not understand them.

Among the states of incapacitation that we talk about are states of numbness and the absence of emotions. Here, as in so many cases, “being rational” involves, among other things, the presence of feelings and emotions, not their absence. Emotions aren’t opposed to reason; emotions are a part of being rational.


Imagine an episode of Star Trek in which Captain James T. Kirk has been captured by the Romulans and it is now up to Mr. Spock, the supposedly “unemotional” half-Vulcan second-in-command, to save Jim from a fate worse than death. Suppose that Spock does his very best to command the ship and its crew and, in the end, he saves Kirk. Later, Spock explains to Dr. McCoy that his efforts on behalf of Kirk were “logical.”

But it is difficult, I think, to picture Spock’s diligence in saving Kirk without attributing to Spock some element of feeling or emotion, at least in a dispositional sense. I mean, if Spock doesn't give a damn about Kirk—and doesn't give a damn about the “Prime Directive” and the Federation either—then in what sense is it “logical” for him to strive and strain to save Captain Kirk? In that case, it appears to be illogical.


Often, foes of abortion or animal exploitation are accused of being “emotional” rather than logical. Most of the time, I think, the charge is confused. Surely the accusers cannot be thinking that the anti-abortionists fail to be logical because they feel emotions, for emotions—e.g., concern for the welfare of poor pregnant women and unwanted children—are as essential to the pro-choice position as they are to the pro-life position. In general, having strong concerns is intrinsically a matter of emotions and feelings, and we certainly do not want to say that having concerns is incompatible with being rational or using reason.

It is easy to anthropomorphize—that is, to erroneously project the capacities and aspects of our own mental life onto beings who are not thus capable. We do that with animals when we suppose that they are indignant or treacherous. We sometimes do it with infants and with fetuses. Now, if Auntie A supposes that an 8-week old fetus is mentally very much like an infant, and, on that assumption, she is utterly horrified by film of an abortion of an 8-week old fetus, then she is making a mistake. But her mistake has nothing to do with her emotions. For if she felt the same emotions while observing similar violence done to an infant, we would regard her feelings as appropriate and healthy. The problem here is not that her emotions impair reason; rather, the problem is that she misconstrues the facts, for an 8-week old fetus does not have a mental life and thus is not at all like an infant. Misconstruing the facts is not about emotions.


Have you read Antonio R. Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error? Damasio is not a philosopher, but rather a neurologist at the U of Iowa. He researches brain functions. In Descartes’ Error, working largely from his research, he argues that emotions play a central role in human reasoning. According to Damasio, people who, congenitally or owing to injury or disease, cannot feel emotions also cannot make good decisions.


People are sometimes accused of using “emotional” language as though that were illogical or fallacious. Here's a concrete case.

Suppose that Auntie A insists on describing an 8-week fetus as a “baby.” Now she’d never get away with that among a group of pro-choicers, for pro-choicers would immediately ask her to justify her tacit assumption that 8-week old fetuses are similar to or equivalent to infants. It would quickly become clear that Auntie A is, as we say in logic, “begging the question,” i.e., she is assuming the truth of the very proposition that she needs to establish—namely, that a fetus is the sort of being who ought to be regarded in the same way that we regard a baby. She cannot simply assume the proposition. She must argue for it.

Just who would be led astray by the “tactic” (if that is what it is) of calling a fetus a “baby”? I find it hard to picture this process. But I guess that I can just barely imagine someone, Mr. B, listening to Auntie A and being persuaded of her pro-life position in part because he fails to notice the question-begging in Auntie A’s rhetoric. Mr. B's mistake doesn’t strike me as about his emotions. Someone who falls into Auntie A's trap strikes me as rationally untrained and unsophisticated, but they don't strike me as having defective emotions or as applying emotions "incorrectly."

Just what would it be to have a “wrong” or “illogical” emotion anyway? Laughing at a rock or a bean, I guess. Feeling joy at the sight of a wall crack.


And, again, simply having emotions is not in itself a fallacy. Far from it.

Sometimes, people use rhetoric that obscures the appropriateness of strong emotions. If Jack Ripper teaches his recruits about the My Lai “incident,” he might manage to leave the impression that it was not a violent event in which many women, children, old people, and animals were slaughtered. It is much more “logical,” it seems to me—it is more accurate and honest—to refer to the event as a massacre, something that by its very nature is violent and dreadful.

Sometimes, being logical is a matter of bringing emotions into play.


I often find students who are hostile to reason, or hostile to the advocates of reason, exactly because they suppose, as we are endlessly encouraged to do, that reason and emotions are like oil and water or are distinct and opposite. Because these students rightly sense that there is nothing wrong with emotions, that, indeed, there is something very important about emotions, and given that reason and emotions are "opposite," they naturally become the enemy of reason.

But their assumption that reason and emotions are separate things and that they are opposed to each other is unwarranted, and it is a mistake. And so, therefore, is the war they seem to feel they must wage against reason.


Anonymous said...

You don't seem to be an emotional guy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent post, Roy. How often have we heard arguments against animal exploitation or environmental devastation be dismissed by benighted souls as (merely) "emotional," as if those opponents also don't bring values and caring (and hence emotions) into their own arguments and thoughts, and as if (as you point out) emotion and reason cannot be found together?

This confusion is really pernicious, for the reason you give and for its terrible tendency to crimp moral debate. I like to remind students that someone who felt no emotions about the Holocaust or fur-production is not a pillar of reason; they are more likely a sociopath.

Professor Zero said...

Excellent post.

I had terrible arguments with my therapist about this. He thought only emotion was valid and that reason was necessarily a falsification of reality.

Professor Zero said...

Also: Americans think that how you feel is a first amendment right or something. Reason, on the other hand, is the suppression of other peoples' first amendment style rights to "feel." "Because I feel abortion is murder, I am justified in killing this abortionist and this mother."

Anonymous said...

Well, yes. It is not only leftist "postmodernists" who deny reason and truth. It seems to me that the "junk yard dog" and "we love Sarah" branches of contemporary "conservatism" (Hannity, O'Reilly, that stupid plumber, et al.) are equally enemies of (dispensers with) reason. During the last presidential race, I contually marveled at the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of people refusing to accept the flat refutations of the "Obama is a Muslim" and "Obama is a terrorist" stories. They seemed to have fallen off the cliff of reason altogether.

It's as though they were in church.