Is Reason Losing Out to Instinct and Emotion? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A couple weeks ago at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Evan Thomas, the journalist and author of Being Nixon, wondered if reason is dead. “So much of the structure and animating ideals of Western democracy are based on the idea of reason and rationality––the enlightenment ideal that man is rational and thus capable of self-governance,” he observed. “But increasingly, scientists and psychologists question the premise that reason rules. Indeed, it sometimes seems that reason is a thin veneer over our baser instincts.”

Artist Amar Bakshi had related thoughts: “Is emotion the enemy of reason? Can emotion be reason’s handmaiden? Are some emotions more conducive to reason than others?”

A number of readers were provoked to respond.

Thomas Metcalf, a professor at Spring Hill College, observes that philosophers have been pondering these issues for a long time. He offers three ways to focus the inquiry:

(1) Philosophers draw our attention to the distinction between the question of whether human beings are actually rational and the question of whether we can decide what an ideally rational agent would choose. Therefore, we may learn to our chagrin that most people are irrational much of the time, but that might not make us worry too much about whether it’s useful to employ reasonable-person standards, nor whether we should still see reason and rationality as ideals. It’s useful to aspire toward some ideal even when we know that few will reach it.

(2) You ask whether society would be better off if more credence were given to emotion. One such way might be as follows. We sometimes find people claiming that reason is superior to emotion in some specified way, for example in science or philosophy. In turn, as philosopher Alison Jaggar has argued, if we live in a society that generally associates reason with men and emotion with women, then women and women’s interests may be marginalized, especially in fields that are aimed at discovering knowledge. One solution is to afford more respect to emotion (including by resisting the temptation to view reason and emotion as opposites); another is to cease viewing women as particularly emotional as compared to men.

Jaggar has also argued that emotion has its place in inquiry (for example, in helping us to discover which goals are worth pursuing). Why do we recognize that science’s pursuit of a cure for cancer is valuable? Perhaps partly because we know, through emotion or intuition, that human life and well-being are extremely valuable.

(3) In response to Bakshi’s commentary: Perhaps part of the reason that voters seem to make irrational political decisions, and distrust experts, is that irrationality doesn’t cost them anything personally. That is, it may be rational to be irrational: It may benefit voters to ignore facts and evidence. As philosopher Michael Huemer and economist Bryan Caplan (among others) have argued, when voters recognize that they have almost no chance of casting a deciding vote in an election, they may choose to spend their time in ways that simply make them feel good.

Voters could spend hours doing philosophical, historical, political, and economic research, in order to discover who the better candidate is. Or they could spend that time taking surveys online for $1/hour, and simply form political beliefs based on what makes them feel good—for example, blaming immigrants for their hardships and supporting an entertaining candidate instead of a competent candidate. Which option is most likely to benefit them personally? Simply learning who the better candidate is won’t benefit you much if your vote doesn’t swing the election. In contrast, $1/hour is, well, $1/hour. Plus, you get to believe what makes you feel good about yourself, even if it’s not supported by the evidence.

The only solutions to this problem I can think of are (a) convincing voters to value rationality for its own sake; (b) convincing voters to vote responsibly for moral reasons (because the outcome still affects hundreds of millions of people); and (c) reducing the sizes of electorates to a small enough level that voters actually have a realistic chance of making a difference.

Gemma Mason posits that we’re still learning what it means to be rational and avoid fallacies:

I don't think reason is dead, exactly. I think it’s in flux.

Here’s the thing. The “enlightenment ideal that man is rational and thus capable of self-governance” has always had flaws built into it. Women pointed out pretty early that their exclusion didn’t make a lot of sense, and the less explicit exclusion of non-white men and women has also been roundly and powerfully condemned in the years since. So if we include everyone—not just (white) men—in this pre-existing idea, then are we done?

I don’t think we are.

Rationality isn’t a single, obvious thing. It’s a social construct. I don’t say that to demean the notion; it’s a very useful social construct. The notion of a “rational debate” provides a lovely framework for people to disagree without ceasing to listen to each other, and that’s really valuable. But it’s still a social construct, and it was built by (largely wealthy) white men, and so the structure of rationally debating has been shaped by their concerns for centuries.

Think about all the logical fallacies with fancy Latin names. Ad hominem, to take perhaps the most commonly cited example. It’s widely understood that “rational debate” is inconsistent with attacking your opponent personally instead of addressing what they say. More, it’s been widely understood for centuries that this is a fallacy.

But there’s no Latin name, passed down over the centuries, for the extremely common fallacy of “This has never happened to (anyone like) me, so why should I believe it happened to you?” “Argument From Insufficiently General Personal Experience,” we could call it. Or we could just say “Argument From Privilege.” Happens all the time. No fancy name—or, only a very recent one. Calling it out as privilege is a pretty new thing, and we're still figuring out the rules.

Because we’re still figuring out the rules, sometimes we get it wrong. One of the most common arguments against calling out Argument From Privilege as such is that such call-outs are just an ad hominem against the person being criticized—attacking their race, their gender, their relative wealth, and so on—instead of addressing what is being said.

There are two big reasons why these return accusations of ad hominem happen. Sometimes it’s because the person accused of arguing from privilege doesn’t understand the idea that arguing from privilege is a fallacy. Other times, it’s because someone is being overzealous in applying the notion of privilege—accusing people of the (perfectly genuine) fallacy of Argument From Privilege in a case where it doesn’t actually apply, thereby creating the impression that “privilege” is just what you say to white men to make them shut up, rather than being a coherent argument.

The problem with Argument From Privilege being such a new notion is that it makes both of these types of errors more likely. It’s a real fallacy, and acknowledging it as such is going to improve our ability to both communicate and to come to a better understanding of important truths about our society. But our understanding of it is still in the process of spreading and consolidating, and in the meantime, it's causing a lot of confusion. Conflicting notions of what is “rational” collide and create massive, not-especially-rational disputes in which both sides consider the other to be ignoring the rules of the game.

It’s messy. It’s necessary.

I want to stress that privilege is just one example, here. The mess—the necessary mess—that our understanding of rational debate is in right now is more than just that one issue. For example, the relationship between reason and emotion is yet another aspect, but I won’t get into it for fear of extending this letter beyond its limits. Still, with so many changes—and thus, so much variance—in what people consider a good argument to be, our current state of confusion is only to be expected.

I have faith that we’ll work it out.

Amanda Botfeld writes:

When I think of a society ruled by reason, I think of it as code for a society ruled by men. Women have long been the more sentient sex; and, in my view, society’s devaluation of emotional intelligence is another way of keeping women down. Emotional power is female power, and those who view this as a negative have bought into the male model of superiority.

The main beneficiaries of a decline in reason would undoubtedly be women. And that’s a good thing.

David DeSteno questions whether reason and emotion are actually at odds with one another, and highlights some of the advantages that emotional thinking can offer:

The reason why the debate between reason and emotion has continued to go back and forth is because it sets up a false dichotomy. Neither is always better nor worse.

Each reflects two systems of the mind that are both trying to find an adaptive response to the issue at hand. The problem comes when we try to map vice and virtue onto emotion and reason in a one-to-one manner. And the way it typically works is that reason is held to be noble and emotion problematic. The typical story goes that emotional desires have to be controlled with reason, logic, and willpower. Reason is what keeps anger and violence in check. Willpower is what prevents people from overspending and overeating. Adherence to ethical principles is what allows people to tamp down their selfish desires.

Sure, sometimes. But it can work the other way too.

There’s a very small distance between “rational” and “rationale.” Decades of work in psychology have shown that reasoning is often biased. For example, we have done work in my lab showing that most people will rationalize away concerns about their own moral transgressions. Fully 90 percent in our experiments will cheat on tasks (if they believe no one will know) in full knowledge that doing so will negatively impact others. But they end up believing their actions were fair.

However, if we prevent them from engaging in rationalization to wipe away feelings of guilt, they’ll recognize their own transgressions as such. Why? Because the moral mind didn’t evolve to be saintly, but to be adaptive. It will work to justify selfish acts when they offer more to gain than to lose.

Emotions, too, can cause problems, of course. Desires and cravings can make us act selfishly. But there are other emotions—ones linked to social living—that do the opposite. States like gratitude, compassion, and guilt all function to make the mind value the future more, and in so doing, make us willing to accept sacrifices in the moment to build and reinforce social bonds and, thereby, success. For example, we've shown that gratitude not only makes people more willing to help others, even strangers, but also makes them value the future more (meaning it leads people to make decisions, even financial ones, that tend to benefit everyone in the long run, as opposed to solely themselves in the short-run). Likewise, we’ve shown how feeling compassion toward one person will automatically blunt aggression toward others.

The trick, then, isn’t to value Emotional Intelligence as such, as EI is a bit agnostic about which specific emotions are important. It’s a skill that can be used for the greater good as easily as for selfish gain. There’s a good deal of work showing that EI can be used to manipulate others in order to gain advantage over them. Emotion will help to solve many societal problems if we work to cultivate moral ones (e.g., compassion, gratitude, and the like). These work below conscious awareness to push people toward valuing the future and cooperations, and that will foster not only individual success, but societal success as well.

Gregg VandeKieft recommends additional reading:

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio posits in Descartes’ Error that reason vs. emotion is a false dichotomy, that without the “topography” emotion provides, pure reason is an impoverished form of rationality. Cognitive scientist Mark Johnson makes a similar argument using research in artificial intelligence to bolster the case.

And lastly, B.R. Morten urges journalists to do a better job understanding and explaining the emotions behind political ideologies:

You know, many of the problems in our discourse stem from the fact that people don’t understand each other’s morals. Morality is often based on emotions, intuitions, or perceptions. Such perceptions are often of an unconscious nature, so as a result conservatives don’t understand liberal morality and liberals don’t understand conservative morality. And few other than libertarians understand libertarian morality.

Unfortunately this results in the kind of polarized debates that we often see today: When people don’t understand each other’s morals their emotions fire up and they start arguing. I could use myself as an example: As a former hardliner conservative, I used to do this all the time. Today I’m probably still somewhat a conservative—but at least one who no longer thinks of my opponents as idiots or utopians.

And then the question is: Where in society do we give more emphasis to understanding emotions? In our political discourse, I would say. In journalism especially. If the media starts understanding conservative, liberal, and libertarian morality better they can use this as a foundation from which to write better political analyses. This will gradually improve the general political discourse which may enable us to have better, deeper and more pleasant political conversations. This will benefit wider society and create a better space from which new political ideas can emerge.

And that’s really something, isn’t it? ;)