Reason versus Emotion

From The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years.  There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg.  I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion.  I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.  Morality binds and blinds.  The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal.  That was Hume’s project, with his philosophically sacrilegious claim that reason was nothing but the servant of the passions

Fascinating paradox that a “cult of reason” can’t “think clearly” about reason, but it’s something I’ve begun to realize as true.  As a freshman in college, I was enchanted by Plato and completely bought into the separation of reason from the “animal passions.”  Then I worked as a dog trainer and read the books of Dr. Patricia McConnell, who has written about emotions in dogs.  I can’t find the exact source, but it’s similar to what Haidt describes:

I also read Descartes’ Error, by the Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.  Damasio had noticed an unusual pattern of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain… Their emotionality dropped nearly to zero.  They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing.  They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ… Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all… Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally.

When I learned that people who suffered damage to the emotion center of their brain were no longer able to decide whether to put shoes or pants on first, it was like a light bulb went off in my brain.  When I make decisions, like how to make a monthly budget, I’m no longer tortured by the goal of creating the most rational budget, but I allow my gut feelings to color my decisions.  Then I can get on with my life and generally be a less anxious person.  It means that I don’t have to find the “right” answer… I can go with the answer that feels right.  I think it has made me a happier person.

Inherent moral compass

“If you force kids to explain complex notions, such as how to balance competing concerns about rights and justice, you’re guaranteed to find age trends because kids get so much more articulate with each passing year. But if you are searching for the first appearance of a moral concept, then you’d better find a technique that doesn’t require much verbal skill… Elliot Turiel developed such a technique. His innovation was to tell children short stories about other kids who break rules and then give them a series of simple yes-or-no probe questions. For example, you tell a story about a child who goes to school wearing regular clothes, even though his school requires students to wear a uniform. You start by getting an overall judgment: ‘Is that OK, what the boy did?’ Most kids say no… Then you probe to find out what kind of rule it is: ‘What if the teacher said it was OK for the boy to wear his regular clothes, then would it be OK?’…

Turiel discovered that children as young as five usually say that the boy was wrong to break the rule, but that it would be OK if the teacher gave permission… Children recognize that rules about clothing, food, and many other aspects of life are social conventions, which are arbitrary and changeable to some extent.

But if you ask kids about actions that hurt other people, such as a girl who pushes a boy off a swing because she wants to use it, you get a very different set of responses. Nearly all kids say that the girl was wrong and that she’d be wrong even if the teacher said it was OK… Children recognize that rules that prevent harm are moral rules, which Turiel defined as rules related to ‘justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other.'”

-Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind