Is Reason Losing Out to Instinct and Emotion?

A journalist and an artist reflect on our relationship with Enlightenment ideals.

Michaela Rehle / Reuters

Asked what subjects would be profitably debated, two speakers at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, focused on reason. Evan Thomas, the journalist and author of Being Nixon, wrote:

Is reason 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. We had "reasonable man" standards in economics and the law. 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. Of course the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare knew this.

Amar Bakshi, the artist and creator of Shared Studios, has related thoughts:

Is emotion the enemy of reason? Can emotion be reason's handmaiden? Are some emotions more conducive to reason than others?

At a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiment and nationalist retrenchment, these questions are vital. With the Brexit vote, for example, we find communities with the fewest immigrants were the most intensely opposed to immigration, voting to leave the EU to curb the flow of migrants. And in American politics––in our debates over gun control, for example––we see emotions over-riding fact-based argument.

The elite are trained in the scientific method and rational inquiry. It is the bedrock of higher education. And expert knowledge in any field depends on it. But with widening income inequality and stagnant wages for the majority, a popular distrust of the elites is growing. That distrust of the elite is carrying with it a distrust of its tools of knowledge creation and execution.

"Harvard-educated" is a disparagement.

This makes a debate on the relationship between reason and emotion critical. Does rationality carry with it a particular emotional valence? Perhaps calm and detachment? Is it the case that disgust is opposed to rationality in a way that, say, melancholy is not? Must anger be opposed to reason?

There is social science and neuroscience evidence to marshall. There is a strong persuasive case to be made on all sides. Because this is a "debate," the deck is already tilted in favor of reason––but reason may still lose.

In the interest of debate, I wonder if any readers believe that we’re too focused on reason––that society would be better off if more credence was given to emotion or intuition, or if, say, emotional intelligence is undervalued when evaluating prospective students, or employees, or Supreme Court justices, or political leaders.

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