Unit 4: How One Should Live

Reason and Emotion in the Moral Life

Scott O'Leary

Scott O’Leary received his Ph.D and M.A. in philosophy from Fordham University and his undergraduate degree in philosophy and history from Boston College. He is currently Director of the Honors and Scholars Village at North Carolina State University. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Honors Director at the University of Saint Mary (Kansas). Dr. O’Leary’s work focuses on human lived experience and examines the way emotional experience frames consciousness and decision-making. This has led to interests in food ethics and human-technology relations. His work has been published in The American Philosophy Quarterly, Balkan Journal of Philosophy, and Elements, and he received a Templeton Foundation Cluster Grant to create an international working group studying emotion and religious experience. Beyond his academic interests, he spends his free time teaching yoga and mindfulness, herding his cats, and learning about music from his partner, who is a classical pianist.

It may seem puzzling that given the numerous debates in philosophy over the justification of different ethical theories, moral experience often seems to disappear.  In reality, this is less of an omission and more a question of focus. Many canonical moral philosophers like Aristotle, the Stoics, Hume, Kant, Bentham, and Mill have much to say about the motivations, reasoning, and development of moral agents.

Topics like these are the task of the area of philosophy called moral psychology. Many of the central questions in moral psychology require clarifying the roles reason and emotion play in moral experience.  These questions involve three interrelated topics: moral motivation, judgment, and development.

Moral Motivation

Philosophical ethics often places reason at the center of ethical life and views emotion at odds with reason or a source of error.  David Hume comments upon this picture of Western moral philosophy:

“Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates. Every rational creature, it is said, is obliged to regulate his actions by reason…” (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part III, Section III: Of the Influencing Motives of the Will.”)

Hume challenges this priority of reason over emotion.  While reason seems central to moral life, emotions are what actually “move us”.  Just as fear leads to fight or flight, indignation can lead us to rectify injustice, anger to correct an offense, or shame to avoid wrongdoing.  Hume argues further that not only can passions motivate action, but reason is impotent and cannot motivate action:

“Abstract or demonstrative reasoning, therefore, never influences any of our actions, but only as it directs our judgment concerning causes and effects….We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”  (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part III, Section III: Of the Influencing Motives of the Will.”)

Inspired by Hume, several scholars have argued for a Humean Theory of all motivation, including moral motivation (Smith, 1998).  On this account, human actions are caused by a belief-desire pair.  The belief component, such as “I believe stealing from the store is wrong” leads to the action of resisting the temptation to steal if I also have the desire “to not harm the business owner”Similarly, my sympathy to “help Kevin” combined with the belief “he needs money to pay his bills” is what prompts me to lend him money to make ends meet.

Others challenge this emotion-based theory of moral motivation, most famously Immanuel Kant.  In the Grounding for the Metaphysics for Morals, Kant argues that when we act “for the sake of duty”, we can be motivated by reason.  Kant makes the stronger claim that when we act based on practical reason and not from inclination – his term for desires and emotions – this shows the motive of duty most clearly.  Let’s modify the example above.  Suppose I cannot feel any sympathy to help Kevin, but loan him money anyway because it’s the right thing to do. Kant argues this shows that action can be motivated by practical reason alone.

“Suppose that, when no longer moved by any inclination, he tears himself out of this deadly insensibility and does the action without any inclination for the sake of duty alone; then for the first time his action has its genuine moral worth. [G398].”

What Kant calls genuine moral worth is doing an action because we believe it is the right thing, not because certain feelings motivate us to act.  If ethics is to be universal, then we have to have a source of motivation that is itself universal, and this Kant identifies with the will – that is, practical reason.  Since desires and emotions are subject to each of our own psychological histories, they are too variable and unstable to morally motivate.

This presents two perspectives on moral motivation based on different roles assigned to emotion compared to that of reason.  Hume’s view aligns with our basic intuitions about the motivating capacity of emotion. Kant’s view points to the contingency of emotional life and gains plausibility when we examine the role of emotion and reason in moral judgment.

Moral Judgment

A widespread view in popular culture suggests emotions distort our judgment (see Disney’s “Emotion and Reason” linked below).  Characters like Data and Spock in Star Trek are shown judging situations more clearly and objectively than others because they are unclouded by emotion.  This position is put forward by Stoic philosophers who argued that emotions were “excessive impulses which are disobedient to reason” (Arius Didymus, 65A).  Kant’s ethics also often appear hostile to emotion and desire, separating these two sources of inclination from reason.  Given such critical views of emotion, it may seem surprising that Aristotle places emotion at the center of the virtuous life:

“For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way…[that] is characteristic of virtue.”(Book VI Nicomachean Ethics, emphasis added)

Rather than emotions distorting judgment, Aristotle argues that to be virtuous, one must feel emotions at the right times, toward the right object, for the right reason and in the right way.  The courageous person is not fearless, but rather feels the appropriate amount of fear.  In many situations, virtue requires us to feel fear and to feel unafraid is to be rash, falling short of the mark of virtue.

Both positions can be supported by the empirical literature on moral judgment.  For instance, the phenomenon of emotional priming suggests seemingly insignificant emotional cues may affect how harsh or lenient we judge moral failures in others.  In an experiment with subjects playing the role of a sentencing judge, people judged crimes more harshly when sitting at messy and cluttered desks (Schnall, Haidt, et al 2008).  A similar phenomenon has been observed in other settings such as parole hearings occurring before a judge has lunch.  Should crimes or parole hearings be judged differently just because the judge was hungry, frustrated, or sat at a messy desk?  If this is emotion’s role in moral judgment, then the Stoics position seems correct.

Other studies show emotions provide a crucial role in determining salience and solving what’s called “the frame problem” in philosophy and artificial intelligence research.  Humans constantly and intuitively filter many sources of information.  Setting up an AI algorithm or robot – such as a bomb defusing robot – to do the same is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  How do we filter and determine what is salient in a situation?

Recent studies have shown that our emotional experience provides just such a role (Faucher and Tappolet 2002).  As Dylan Evans summarizes in Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, “[e]motions are often blamed for distracting us….[but] emotions distract us from one thought only in order to make us pay attention to another,” (Evans 2002, p. 114).  Therefore, while the effects of emotion in moral experience may be contested, research suggests that emotions significantly impact our moral judgments and ought to be incorporated into theories of moral judgment.

Moral Development

In this final section, we will examine the relationship of emotion and reason in moral development. Each of us should be concerned about the development of our moral character from children to adults and from those who waiver in their ethical commitments to those who remain steadfast.  Rather than pose ways past thinkers or contemporary research might answer these questions, we can examine why these positions in moral psychology are so important for our understanding of the good life itself.

According to Aristotle, to feel the right emotions in the right way is “characteristic of virtue.”   The virtuous person is one whose moral development includes the cultivation of the right emotional sensitivity and feels the right emotions.  For Kant, what is essential is to do the right thing for the right reason, and whether emotions coincide with this or not is generally irrelevant.  In both Bentham and Mill’s accounts of Utilitarianism, the value of emotional experience depends solely on whether emotions promote utility or not.

Such diversity in positions reflects different views on what emotions are and different conceptions of morality itself. For Aristotle, emotions provide important information about ourselves and the world and so their cultivation is an important part of moral development.  One is not fully virtuous if one’s emotions and feelings do not align with one’s reasoning and beliefs.  Thus Kant’s unsympathetic benefactor does the right thing but falls short of virtue because there is a conflict between his action and his feelings.

Is it too demanding to think that our motivations, moral judgments, and feelings will always or typically align?  Does that require a degree of control over early stages of moral development that we in fact do not possess?  To what degree should the cultivation of our own moral character and how we raise our children be centered in our emotional life?  The answer to these questions remains contested; what is not contested is the need to study the relation between emotion and reason in moral experience.

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Reason and Emotion in the Moral Life Copyright © 2020 by Scott O'Leary is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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