Ethical Thinking: Reason, Emotion, Intuition

In many ethical discussions reason is contrasted with emotion, and emotion is painted as the enemy of reason and consequently good judgment. This idea however, is problematic in that it fails to explain the way that practical reasoning tends to occur. The idea that emotion is the enemy of reason and consequently good ethical judgment usually suggests that emotion is the enemy of reason because emotions like sadness, contempt and joy will cloud a person’s judgment and not allow them to see which ethical issues are at stake in a situation. It is true that emotions can cloud judgment, but emotions also enable ethical judgment. Emotions are a necessary part of the very structure of ethical thinking. For example, if I am thinking about whether friendship is good I will ask myself whether a life with friendship would be less worthwhile than a life without friendship. To answer this question initially I will have to ask whether I admire a life with friendship more than a life without friendship. But to ask what I admire more is to ask about how I feel about something. Or put differently, to ask about my emotional reaction. Now once I have understood my emotional reaction to friendship I can reflect upon it, and revise that reaction in light of contradiction with other feelings I have, or in light of some higher good, but the engagement of our basic emotional reactions, or feelings, about things is required before we can reason about what is valuable. Furthermore, once we have rationally analyzed whether something is good, we must ask whether the solution that reason has provided is convincing; that is, we must ask how we feel about the solution provided by reason, and whether it really captures our basic feelings about ethics or convinces us that our basic feelings were misguided and need to be revised. So we move back and forth from feeling to rational analysis and back again to feeling. If we take emotion out of the question when we ask the question “whether x is good” we have nowhere to start answering the question and cannot complete answering the question. Emotional reactions must be reflected upon and can be revised by reason, but it seems that emotional reactions must play a part in our thinking.

Now it may be argued that admiration, and contrastingly contempt, are not emotions in the strict sense as when we usually think of emotions we think of sadness, anger, love etc, but not admiration or contempt. On this account my argument would have failed to show that emotions are a part of ethical reasoning. But like sadness and anger, admiration and contempt are something we feel, rather than something we think. I feel admiration for a person; reason may play a role in my analysis of what a person is like, but my admiration for them is a feeling. Consequently, it seems plausible to suggest that admiration and contempt are emotions. Thus, it seems credible to think that while emotions may not be the motor of ethical thinking, they are a necessary part of ethical thinking.

However, one plausible way of denying that emotion is a part of the structure of ethical thinking is to argue that while emotions are not involved in ethical thinking, intuitions are necessarily involved. Intuitions like emotions are something that we feel, but unlike emotions intuitions imply a certain judgment about a certain thing. One can conceivably be sad or angry for no reason thus these emotional reactions imply no judgment about any particular, but if one admires something, or some person, this suggests a judgment about a particular thing. On this picture it is true that feelings of admiration and contempt are necessarily a part of ethical reasoning, but these feelings are intuitions, rather than emotions, and consequently, emotions need not have a role in ethical reasoning. I would be willing to accept this argument, and in fact this is the sort of approach I lean towards, however in order to deflate the idea that feelings are not a part of ethical reasoning it was important to discuss the emotion/reason dichotomy. We have to realize that much of the thinking that we do concerning what is valuable is bound up with feeling, and consequently feeling is not the enemy of reason.