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.

The Socratic Method

Last week I was able to sit in on a high school class discussion on Plato’s Gorgias.

Back-story: I went to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM.  Every Johnnie I know gets a soft smile on his or her face at any mention of Socrates.  To the subspecies self-identified as Johnnie, sitting in on a discussion-style class on Plato is like eating watermelon on a hot summer afternoon.  It’s pure nostalgia.

The class took place at the Khabele + Strong Incubator, a “school” founded by another Johnnie.  This blog is about books and not education, so I won’t go into the brilliant framework of the Incubator, but please visit their website if you are curious.

First, the group agreed that belief and knowledge were on a spectrum, that a person can move between belief and knowledge depending on the circumstances.  The example we used was whether believing in angels is the same as believing in the Big Bang.  One of the students determined that even scientific knowledge is taken on faith, until you can understand the science that “proves” it to be knowledge.

Gorgias and Socrates discuss the difference between the skills of a physician and a rhetorician.  Gorgias was a very successful rhetorician and says he has made the rounds with his physician brother who cannot convince his patients to take medicine or submit to surgery. Gorgias applies his skills as a rhetorician and is able to persuade the patient to do what the doctor wants. This led to a discussion on the power of persuasion.  There’s a difference between being knowledgeable like the physician and persuasive like the rhetorician.  The discussion leader (a.k.a. teacher) asked how to fix this problem where ignorant people could be persuaded to some belief, despite what the knowledgeable people knew about the facts.  Three solutions were proposed:

1. Teach the ignorant to not be ignorant.

2. Teach the persuasive to have integrity so that they will only persuade people of the Truth.


3. Teach the knowledgeable to be persuasive.

This lovely group of high school students explored the pros and cons of each of those solutions.

For me, it was wonderful to take a step back from the substance of my everyday discussions on public policy and look at the purer, philosophical paradigm.  That’s the point of philosophy, to exercise our minds with abstract problems, because our daily decisions are colored with historical context and emotional attachment.  Young people, especially, need space to wrestle with these problems so that they can calibrate their moral compasses before being thrown into the confusing world.