Many people believe that rationality or logic is the supreme mental faculty and that it ought to be viewed as superordinate to emotion. This notion dates back to antiquity and was made most explicit in Plato’s famed dialogue, Timaeus. In this piece, Plato describes how humankind was first created by a supreme deity who crafted humans into spherical heads devoid of sub-cranial bodies. He argued that humans were fashioned in such a way because the head was considered the seat of rationality and logic, and that a head devoid of the rest of the body was the perfect human form. However, as these heads traveled along the earth’s jagged surface, their physical integrity became compromised, and they suffered ongoing disfigurement. As a remedy to such a problem, the subordinate gods, also known as demiurges, created sub-cranial bodies to attach to these heads, but these bodies were believed to have been imbued with instinctual appetites and emotions. Plato and his acolytes believed that such bodies were impediments to the rule of the idealized faculty of reason. This isn’t a surprise given that he was a philosopher, and traditionally, philosophers tend to elevate logic above all else. Given that emotion (i.e., anger, sadness, anxiety, grief, disappointment, etc.) and bodily appetites (i.e., hunger, sexual desire, etc.) were associated with the lower parts of the body, as opposed to the elevated head which was associated with idealized rationality, emotions and bodily states came to be viewed as lower human attributes and problematic annoyances. It was believed that humans would be better off if they could simply dispense with their emotions and bodily urges and operate as pure rationalists. Consequently, ancient people who subscribed to the platonic view believed that death was considered the preferred state. This belief was held because death, or the complete disintegration of the body, would enable individuals to divorce themselves from their lower nature, which was believed to be mediated by their sub-cranial physical forms. Ultimately, the idea was that after death, people would return to their original perfect form as disembodied rational souls.
Although most modern people don’t literally subscribe to Plato’s origin myth about the perfect human form, it would appear that they act as if they do when they say things like, “logic over emotions,” “mind over matter,” or they enjoin people to “think and not be so emotional.” Clearly, rationality can be helpful, as we all benefit from what is arguably the most laudable manifestation of rationality — modern science. Through science, we can divorce the objective world from subjective or emotional projections, and it’s why many modern people no longer view epilepsy as demonic possession, but rather the haywire misfiring of neurons. Thus, rather than attempting to exorcise people, medical professionals prescribe anticonvulsant medications or perform neurosurgery. I mention this because I am by no means a foe of rationality, but I contend that the notion that emotion is inferior to rationality is erroneous. I believe that emotion, bodily appetites, and logic are all necessary faculties that ought to be held on the same plane. Within this article, what’s to follow is a disquisition on how rationality and emotion are both of equal value, and I argue that people ought to aim at integrating these faculties into a united whole, as opposed to elevating one faculty at the expense of the other.
The Problems Associated with Pure Rationality
For people that view rationality as superior to emotion, they ought to consider the fact that establishing a moral ethic devoid of emotions would be incomplete and result in nothing more than a shallow and cold utilitarianism. A paragon of this position is Sheldon from the show, Big Bang Theory. He is a cognitively astute hyper-intellectual but woefully devoid of social grace due to his underdeveloped emotional capacity. His social foibles and people’s disapproving responses to him suggest that the part and parcel hallmark of a sound moral ethic is the generation of correct feeling as opposed to correct thought. For example, one can act in an incredibly moral way without being able to articulate the “correct” reasons for doing so.
Interestingly, neuroscientists and psychologists have actually found that when people enter the world, emotions are necessarily primary, and thoughts later become secondary mechanisms used to justify them (Heidt, 2012). I say that emotions are necessarily primary, because in the most rudimentary stages of development, children are not particularly rational thinkers or verbally fluent. This is why when a child enters the world, the right hemisphere of their brain is more developed than the left (McGilchrist, 2009). The left hemisphere is where the biological substrates for language develop (i.e., Broca’s and Wernicke’s area), whereas the right hemisphere plays more of a role in unarticulated emotional understanding. According to the neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist, compared to the left hemisphere, “the right hemisphere has by far the preponderance of emotional understanding. It is the mediator of social behavior. In the absence of the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere is unconcerned about others and their feelings” (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 58). For example, when rearing a child, the aim is to raise a well-socialized, compassionate, and socially interested person. In order to do this, parents attempt to foster the child’s understanding of the emotions of others at a tacit or felt level because they know that children have difficulty understanding these matters by way of rational speech. Allowing a child to witness a sibling cry when they have hurt them so that they have a felt experience of causing another pain, is an effective deterrent against future unchecked aggression. Additionally, putting such a child in time out so that they can associate social disapproval and isolation with unacceptable behavior is another means by which parents can create the right feelings within their rationally underdeveloped children.
As a related side note, people who develop psychopathy are often devoid of empathy and what civilized society has deemed the right feelings (Haidt, 2012). Such individuals lack the normative neuronal activity in the medial ventral prefrontal cortex (mvPFC) of their brains, which is a structure that gives someone the sense of what they should value when confronted with a dilemma (Hu & Jiang, 2014). The mvPFC also mediates the experience of gut feeling when making a decision (Hu & Jiang, 2014, p. 1). Additionally, psychopaths have an underactive amygdala, which is a neuroanatomical structure that mediates the experience of fear and anxiety (Hu & Jiang, 2014). For example, here’s what happens when a psychopath is asked what’s the correct choice to make when presented with the following dilemma: “There’s a scenario in which people are going to die, but you can save five lives if you murder an innocent person (a utilitarian position), or forgo murdering someone and let the five people die (a deontological view). Which option would you choose?” In this situation, the psychopath is more likely to choose the former option (utilitarian position) as the correct choice without much emotional anxiety. Such an individual would fail to feel the pangs of their conscience when murdering an innocent person, as they believe that it is more morally sound to save as many people as possible, despite having to murder an innocent person to so (Hu & Jiang, 2014). It has been reliably found that people who have damaged or underactive medial ventral prefrontal cortexes and amygdalas typically choose the utilitarian option, whereas people who do not choose the deontological one (Hu & Jiang, 2014).
For most people, our emotions tell us what it is that we ought to value, and pure intellect fails to do this. When we are equipped with the correct feelings, our intellect or rationality can then be recruited to help us to satisfy our sense of what is most important. Moreover, what determines what is most important to us is facilitated by our emotions. For example, if one values not taking the lives of innocent people, one will utilize their intellect to ensure that this does not happen. However, if one is divorced from their emotions, taking the lives of innocent people might be considered a worthwhile means to an end if it results in the attainment of another seemingly valuable goal, such as securing additional money, for instance.
Emotions Motivate Thoughts and Actions
In most people, it is their ostensibly rational thoughts that act in the service of their emotions (Haidt, 2012). Some people believe that they are acting out of pure reason when they are making decisions, but it is their emotions that are motivating their presumably sound articulated beliefs and actions. To put it another way, emotions mobilize people’s actions. For example, if a husband asks his wife to wash the dishes, but she fails to do so because she indicates that she was bogged down by other tasks, he might grow resentful. Unbeknownst to his wife, he becomes upset with her, but given that she is unaware of this, she then asks him to take out the trash. Although the husband has the time to do so, he chooses not to take out the trash for two days. When his wife asks him why he took so long to take out the garbage, he may then create a logical and plausible story for why he failed to do so. He might respond to her question by saying something like, “I was too tired after looking after the kids,” or “I wanted to wait until the trash bag was completely full before taking it out because I want to conserve the plastic we use in light of the plastic pollution problem that plagues our natural environment.” The latter explanation may be even more persuasive if his wife is an environmentalist, and thus she would be less likely to say anything else to him about it. However, if one scratches beneath the surface, we would come to find that in all actuality, he failed to take out the trash because he was upset with his wife for not honoring his request days ago, and he wanted her to know how he felt by not doing something that she asked. This is an example of his seeming rationality acting in the service of his emotions. Given that it’s very difficult to rid oneself of emotions, it would be in the husband’s best interest to honor his emotions and tell his wife that he was feeling disappointed that she did not wash the dishes, and that it’s really important to him that the dishes are washed before the next morning so that he doesn’t end up acting out his resentment. The aforementioned point is crucial because we know that helping people to articulate their emotions and the reasons for them, also helps them to tame their emotions and forestalls their unchecked or unfettered expression. I believe that logic and emotion are to be considered interoperable. I by no means look to romanticize emotions and devalue the intellect, or vice versa. Both processes can operate as a check and balance to the other. There are times when emotions need to inform reason, and at other times, reason needs to inform emotions. Both parts complete the whole, and wholeness ought to be the aim when it comes to living a satisfying and functional life.
Emotion and Rationality are Tools
According to the philosophy of pragmatism, the degree to which something is true is predicated on how well it works in the real world. Often, supposed rationalists attempt to persuade people of a particular view by using only their reason or logic. However, if this strategy fails to be successful, it may be an indication that the wrong tool is being used for the job at hand. Therefore, their position is not true enough to have any positive impact in the world according to pragmatists. In light of this, it may then be that the appropriate tool is an emotional one, as opposed to a logical one. Often, if you affirm someone’s emotions, it attenuates the potency of their feelings, and it makes the person more amenable to logical correction or instruction. For example, if a friend tells another friend that she recently discovered that her boyfriend cheated on her, and in an attempt to exact revenge, she’s going to flatten her boyfriend’s tires, it likely wouldn’t be helpful for her friend to say the following in an ornery tone: “I think it’s best that you calm down and not do that! I don’t think it’s going to solve anything, and you’ll probably have to pay hundreds of dollars for vandalism, which I think is just silly. It’s especially not a good idea given that you only work part-time, and you don’t really have the money to foot what will likely be a hefty bill.” Presumably, the confidant of the betrayed woman would be saying these things in an attempt to appeal to her friend’s capacity for reason or logic, but such a response would likely be met with resistance and may even make her friend angrier because the rational interventions that she was looking to employ was ill-timed. Given that this is the case, it would probably be more helpful for the friend to say the following in more of a calm and prosodic tone: “Hey, it makes perfect sense that you want to get revenge on your boyfriend. He hurt you deeply, and you have a right to be angry. Shoot, there’s a part of me that even feels like I want to help you slash his tires. With that being said, I’m worried about the legal ramifications of you vandalizing his property, so let’s think of something else. Tell me what’s been going on between you two, and maybe we can devise some other strategies for getting through this together, okay?” The likelihood is much higher that the betrayed friend will respond more favorably to this response because her emotions were understood, which had the effect of lessening their intensity. Due to this, she’s more likely to have a tempered and well-reasoned response to her boyfriend’s infidelity.
In conclusion, most people who purport to be purely rational are a lot more emotional than they lead others to believe. However, it’s important to note that this is not a character failing of some kind, as emotions necessarily inform and motivate our articulate beliefs and actions. In light of this, it then stands to reason that if we want to change another person’s mind, we must first appeal to their emotions before we are able to make any inroads with respect to their beliefs and behavior. As the scientific literature concerning psychopaths illustrates, it is the correct feeling that leads to a civilized and harmonious society, not logic divorced from emotions. With this in mind, it behooves our society to encourage people to clearly articulate their emotions, and their reasons for them, if possible, so that people can communicate effectively with others who are looking to understand their viewpoint. As the clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, once poetically articulated – it is the logos or divine speech that created habitable order out of chaos at the beginning of time (John 1; Genesis 1). Given that humans have the ability to use language, we can participate in that sacred creative process by learning to clearly articulate our emotions to others by using our capacity for logical speech. Psychologically speaking, we can manufacture the way in which our world functions with our words. If this is done properly, like God at the beginning of time, we can look upon it and say that it was “good” when the task at hand has been completed (Genesis 1).
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage Books.
Hu, C. & Jiang, X. (2014). An emotion regulation role of ventromedial prefrontal cortex in moral judgment. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, (8). doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00873.
McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. Yale University Press.
About the Author: Dr. Jermaine Thomas, Psy.D.