Emotion Over Reason, Reason Over Emotion?


Suddenly seeing a snake in your path, followed by a fixed wide-eyed stare, muscle tenseness, increased heart rate, perhaps a jump backwards, are emotionally reflexive responses, not deliberative or reasoned choices and actions. There is little if any deliberative, choice-making reasoning occurring in this instance.

During the snake encounter emotion played a dominant role. Reasoning, as a reflection on the events that just happened, came second: “Yes, that was a snake, a poisonous one. Good thing I saw it when I did. To have stepped on it may have made it bite me. I might have died if it had.” Reasoning can also be a slower more deliberative post hoc rationalization of the emotions we experience and the emotion-driven actions we take: “So-and-so repulses me physically, visually. I have a bad feeling being in his/her presence. I will avoid this person because of this.”

These examples do not justify a now widely accepted conclusion that reasoning, in general and for the most often, is an after-the-fact comment, reflection, justification or rationalization of emotional states. This emotion-above-all view is one that psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have recently convinced many pundits and much of the public to believe. I think Haidt’s view is yet another modern version of sociobiology or Skinnerian stimulus-response behaviorism. It minimizes the role and importance of reasoning in human affairs and points to genetic, sensory-emotive and hormonal processes as the predominant and overriding causes of behavior.

Deliberative, choice-making reasoning also plays an important role as a basis for action, a role in one’s life that may be influenced by but can remain functionally separate from one’s emotional state.

In a mature mind that is operating optimally in terms of personal and social wellbeing capacity, reasoning is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. It is a deliberative process, a post-emotion, option-considered, over-riding response to matters our senses and emotions alert us too. It is not a perfect, failsafe process. The best deliberative thinking and choice-making can lead to failure, harm or death due to circumstances beyond one’s knowledge or control. But, reasoning of this kind, versus behavior based on raw emotion (the snake response, etc.), increases one’s chances of making decisions and taking actions that provide greater benefit for individual survival and social flourishing.

There is also a virtue and moral aspect of reasoning – Hitler was capable of deliberation and considering options but his ideas and actions were immoral and lacking virtue. His ideas and actions did not provide benefit to individual wellbeing or contribute to social flourishing as these are understood by most sane people.

More generally, consider the matter of individual survival or wellbeing and group flourishing in the long-term, that is, evolutionarily. Take, for example, the emotion fear as it is prompted by conditions of extreme hunger, lack of shelter or safe haven, or knowledge of being in a high-threat predator environment.

Under such circumstances the deliberative, option-considered responses and strategies arrived at from deciding on how to seek food and protect oneself from weather and predator attack are not emotional ‘decisions’ where reasoning comes along later as a rationalization or justification. They are arrived at through a process of decision-making based on calculated assessments of the potential positive yield and risks associated with various behavioral response options.

This is a process all sentient animals use. If birds at my backyard feeder, for example, become habituated to my presence they do so based on their recognition and remembrance of me, and their acceptance of their conclusion that I pose a low and therefore tolerable risk of harm or death. This is not a post hoc rationalization of, say, a bird’s initial emotional response to my presence. It is a decision it makes each time it sees and identifies me, as opposed to its reaction to someone who is not me, someone they have not seen before.

The Greco-Roman Stoics wrote down this ancient wisdom and encouraged and taught methods for its practice. They taught the use of deliberative reasoning to devise and choose among various possible responses when specific emotions (impressions) arise. Here is an excellent essay by Massimo Pigliucci describing the Stoic view of emotions:

Reason and Emotion, Plato

Plato saw reason and emotion as two horses pulling a chariot, with the charioteer struggling to make them work as a team. But while reasoned thought and emotional response are distinct mental modules that even operate in different brain areas, yet they do work together. For a normal person, they are so intertwined that it’s really a single combined process of mental functioning. – Frank S. Robinson, “Reason vs. Emotion?,” The Rational Optimist, September 13, 2012

Stoicism and Emotion, IV: Feelings Without Assent

by Massimo Pigliucci