Emotions and Reason
Tibor R. Machan
One of the oldest topics in human thought is whether emotions drive us or
are we guided by reason. The ancient Greeks thought reason will rule if
we only engage it, while David Hume, one of the most influential modern
philosophers, believed that reason is the slave of the passions.
In today’s neuroscientific climate the Humean doctrine is more prominent,
mainly because the idea that emotions cause actions is easy to adjust to
the notion that everything must have a cause outside or within itself to
behave as it does. Emotions seem to fit the bill—they are deemed to be
such powerful aspects of our psychological make-up. Whereas reason is less
clear-cut as a candidate for something potent, powerful. When we reason,
for example, nothing much happens that can be seen or felt. Cognition in
general seems less potent than feeling.
Yet there are experiences people have that suggest very strongly that
reason is indeed potent and comes before passion, as it were. Take fear.
Only once something is recognized as dangerous, hazardous, threatening and
such does the emotion of fear arise. Well, one can also imagine danger,
hazards and threats but then, too, a kind of warped cognition is at work
to which fear is a response. Or take anxiety. It seems clear that
something must be recognized as upsetting before anxiety arises in most of
us. Indeed, the recognition of such upsetting or worrisome factors seem to
underlie anxieties in most cases.
I have recently been faced with the situation of fires raging through the
region where I live and my particular place of residence has been subject
to the threat of fire as well as its abatement, day after day, even hour
after hour. No sooner did I learn of the fires subsiding, my emotions
calmed down; as soon, however, as reports reached me that the fire is
coming closer to my area, I became anxious, fearful, upset.
This emotional roller coaster experience could very clearly be accounted for by
reference to the facts I became aware of, facts my reasoning capacity
could discern and understand. If the discernment and understanding
pointed to the bad prospect of our area being consumed by the raging fires
that had destroyed numerous residential areas of Southern California, my
emotional state responded accordingly. And I have noticed the same in my
neighbors, many of whom, evacuated as we all were, gathered at a huge parking lot about 10 miles from
our community. The emotional yo-yo experience clearly illustrated that it
was their reason that first put on record something important, such as a threat or its
reduction. When things looked bad, they turned anxious, upset, fearful,
angry, and such, whereas when things started to look good, they responded
accordingly, started to smile more, laughed (a bit nervously, of course),
made jokes, extended themselves toward others with friendly gestures, etc.
Of course, none of this manages to amount to a controlled experiment, so
maybe those who want strict scientific support for a theory will find it
unsatisfactory. However, science didn’t come before ordinary experiences
human beings had and used to make judgments about the world. Indeed, if
technical science fails to square with such experiences it is probably
wrong. We start with those and when we reach more specialized notions
down the line, it would be unwise to discard our starting point entirely.
Reason is what we use to recognize the world, to figure out what’s what.
Then, based on how we assess the impact of what we recognize on our well
being, we respond with our emotions. Of course the situation can get very
complicated so that it is difficult to figure out which is first, which
next in every case, but generally it is more likely the case that our passions follow
reason, not the other way around. When people do something out of a
strong emotion, what they do has to be informed by what their reasoning
shows them. Passions, desires, feelings, and such do not work as ways of
identifying the world since identification presupposes judgment and
judgments are made by the mind, by our reason.