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.

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