Emotions and Rationality

This is part 4 of 6 in my series on morality. Links to the rest of the series are below the entry!

Up until now I’ve been making a case for the distinct causal roles our emotional and more rational brain systems play in moral judgments. This is a false distinction. The fact remains that the individual making a moral judgment is an organism susceptible to emotions, and whether those emotions can be fully divorced from rational thought is an area worth exploring. Before we had the fields of neuroscience or psychology, back in the late 1700s David Hume argued that all our moral reasoning was not the result of rationality at all, but that rationality itself is a slave to our emotions. It is our emotions that drive our moral judgments, and thus, if we had different emotional reactions we would have different emotional convictions, and make different moral judgments. He further argued that reason alone was never enough to impel anyone to action, and that any impulse to act must come from our emotions. “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” Meaning, to make a decision about something, you have to care one way or the other first. This is one of those cases where the philosophers of the past preceded the neuroscientists of today.

Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker gives a salient example in his book How the Mind Works. Take the example of an animal that is both hungry and thirsty. It can’t stand half way between a berry bush and a lake, trying to rationalize which is the best decision to make. An animal can’t pursue all its goals at once, and so it has to commit its body to one goal at a time. Emotions are mechanisms that impel the animal to act. Similarly, a perfectly rational being presented with two equal choices, would die in the attempt to figure out which to pick without something impelling him or her to make a choice. Thus, it seems that emotions evolved to facilitate decision making, but after millions of years of evolution, this in itself doesn’t tell us anything significant about their current relation to our rationality. I’ve stressed before, evolution is a path we have followed, it constrains us in certain ways, but it does not define us.

A deeper insight into this question of the relationship between rationality and emotion comes from the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran. In his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, Ramachandran discusses a patient suffering from Capgras syndrome, a disorder in which a patient who is for the most part intelligent and rational has bizarre delusions that friends and family members are in fact imposters. What Ramachandran discovered, is that while his patient’s visual perception was unharmed, and proceeded normally to the visual cortex, there was a disconnect with the pathway leading to the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in emotions. The hypothesis is that, even though the patient perceives the visage of the friend or family member correctly, the lack of emotional response normally associated with seeing a loved one leads the patient to the false conclusion that they are an imposter. This leads us to a profound realization; that far from being distractions impeding our rationality, emotions are often times necessary to our rational reasoning. And what’s most ironic is that the lack of an emotional response actually leads to an irrational even absurd conclusion. Worse, it seems the individual is constitutionally unable to logic themselves to the rational fact.

You might want to argue that had the emotional reactions never existed in the first place, the lack of these emotional reactions would then not lead to irrational conclusions. It’s possible this is true, and theoretically it’s very interesting, but it ignores the reality of human evolution and consciousness, and is not a terribly useful argument in this situation. Tomorrow we take a look at different side of morality, namely, judging the actions of other people. What affects how we judge whether other people are behaving moral or not, and can it be altered?

  1. Science and Morality
  2. Moral Intuitions vs. Moral Standards
  3. Philosophical Hypotheticals
  4. Emotion and Rationality
  5. Theory of Mind and Moral Judgments
  6. Morality Wrap-up