Reasonable Emotions

By John Lussier

“Any enquiry must have a motive or it could not be carried on at all, and all motives belong to our emotional life … if the enquiry is to be satisfactorily carried through, the emotion that provides for it motive must be an adequate one.”

Thus the philosopher John Macmurray began his book Reason and Emotion, his own enquiry into the relationship of the mind and affections.

Macmurray’s thoughts might sound familiar to some of us. It is attuned to the ideas of David Hume (for whom intentional actions are caused by the “direct passions”) and the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, who said in his work Religious Affections that, “the affection of the soul differs nothing at all from the will and inclination” and “in everything we do, wherein we act voluntarily, there is an exercise of the will and inclination; it is our inclination that governs us in our actions”.

There is something about our emotions, passions, and affections that leads us to action. We feel and thus we do. Joy leads us to celebration. Compassion to listening. Grief to tears. Anger to reaction.

We know it in our guts, but Antonio Damasio, a well known neuroscientist and researcher, has also confirmed the relationship of the emotions and action through some of his work with those suffering from brain damage. One particular case from Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error illustrates this connection: Elliot was a successful family man, business owner, and caring person. Over several months family and friends began to notice changes in Elliot that made them suspect something was up.

Elliot had developed a large brain tumor, pressing into the frontal lobes of his brain, an area that Damasio argues is involved with the emotions (and connected to areas of the brain thought to handle higher reasoning). After removing the tumor Elliot went on from recovery to his normal life. Slowly this began to fall apart. He seemed incapable of work, family life, and taking care of himself. Elliot’s personality did not change much. He was still intelligent, able to talk about politics, make jokes, etc. But his ability to make choices and deliberate seemed to have deteriorated dramatically.

Researchers looked into Elliot’s behavior. Given a task he was incredibly capable of coming up with a plan for action, researching needs, and do what was asked of him. But when set to himself, Elliot was at a loss. He would work incredibly hard at small choices, never coming to a conclusion. What seemed like easy chores like washing the dishes because endless back-and-forths, shifting, trying to figure out the best way to do something but never doing it. Under further testing it was realized that Elliot’s problems stemmed from his lack of emotional motivation. He could not do because he did not have stronger feelings for one option over another. His life, lacking complex and deep feelings of emotion, never lead to action.

At the center of our ability to reason about life, and express this in actions, are our emotions.

Yet as we all know these actions can often be wrong. Empathy might help us to hear the personal story of someone, but it also keeps us from seeing the wider picture of pain and suffering in the world. Anger is often misguided and reactionary, lashing out at extreme levels and upon the wrong person or problem.

John Macmurray argues that it’s not just our actions that can be wrong, but our emotions as well. They can, as he puts it, be “irrational”. You might not ever have thought of emotions as rational or irrational. Often we separate our emotions and reason: the emotions are unconscious or conscious reactions we just have,  while the reason is our higher order thought about life, rationality, that when followed leads to right action. It’s thought that if we want to be more rational we have to be less emotional.

Instead, Macmurray says, we need to realize that the emotions are central to how we reason. Reason is not thought sans emotions, but how we think about reality. This thinking about the world has to include our emotions, or it isn't realistic. Sans emotions, we lose something about the world: a sense of value. This is why Elliot could not follow through on tasks. With little emotional knowledge to shape his decision, he could make no choice.

Thus emotions can be right or wrong. They can be appropriate, embodied, sensing of the world, or they can be disembodied, disconnected, and a little off. They can be objective, appreciating reality as it is and for itself, or, when focused selfishly, subjective. Emotions can be rational or irrational, depending on their appropriate sense of reality, says Macmurray. It’s irrational to treat someone as something less than they are. When our emotions do so we are not sensing them wholly, but denying part of their personhood.

“Great” you say, “… so how do I know if my emotions are objective or not?” Macmurray submits--and I agree--that this is one of the important questions in life. It’s that very struggle, to make sure we are appreciating someone for who they are and not what they can do for us, that makes us human. And it’s that very struggle as embodied humans, feeling, thinking, loving people, that we need to sit in.

Perhaps there isn’t an answer to that question. But we have to ask it.