Are reason and emotion equally necessary in justifying moral decisions?
Reason and emotion are big words, and even become bigger when used in conjunction with making moral decisions. The responsibility when these dynamics come into play is understanding how these concepts interact and create situations where we are confronted with the dilemma of making the right or appropriate moral decision.
In this context, the greater question is not whether reason and emotion are equally important, because the answer is that yes, they are- but of how they come into play and how the degrees of influence, becomes pivotal in the outcome of the moral decision being made.
Moral decisions to a certain level are assumed to be something that is made for the right reasons or correct reasons, but assumptions or expectations as the case maybe are different from real-life situations.
The terms “right”, “correct”, or “moral” are not one-dimensional; it is simplistic and misleading to assume that there is almost always a universal correctness or rightness which cannot be questioned.
There isn’t and in this regard, reason and emotions need to be examined as to the degree on how they influence moral decisions and of the outcomes they create.
But first, we have to examine and understand an even bigger word, morality? How do we define morality? We can define morality as a set or system of rules which determines how we behave and make decisions in social situations with the primary objective of doing something good or positive. A second important question is where does morality come from, or who determines it?
The common perception is that morality seems to be drawn from something inherently internal, that there is a natural blueprint as to how people should behave, interact and respond to situations and problems, and that all of these are oriented towards goodness. While there is recognition of the fact that personal intuition comes into play, morality doesn’t come from an internal source. Rather it comes from having interactions with the specific environment or social group that one belongs to. These interactions create values and norms which are then shared by everyone in the group. While there may be some who may be against these shared values which is inevitable and natural, the majorities adheres to them and compel everyone else to do the same. This enforcement is necessary if the social group or environment wants to preserve itself because obviously, shared values and morals create consensus and collective agreement as compared to a society where disagreement with the values or morals creates anarchy and dissent. This is the beginning of social order where collective morals become the foundation on which institutions are built on.
But moral values are not always consistent among individuals; some may choose t to interpret them differently or believe only in them to a degree. But there are moral values which are certainly without question, agreed upon to an almost universal degree. If we see the Christian tenets based on the 10 Commandments as given to the biblical character Moses, we can see that the moral rules set forth in them are shared across cultures and even religions.
There are certainly no cultures who, in a right frame or state of mind, who would advocate willful death on others, support theft and deception, uphold anarchy and the destruction of property or willful suppression of other people’s rights and freedoms. Other more philosophical or internal values can include believing and ascribing to the concepts of monogamy, loyalty, pacifism, justice, etc.
But the space for disagreement to these values may be equally large as well. Disagreement does not necessarily mean believing in the opposite of these shared values and morals but is more about voicing out varying degrees of interpretation and practice with regards to the importance of some of these values which may be relative.
This is where emotion and reason enter the picture; this is where they influence and change the outcome of the moral decisions that we struggle to make. Are emotions and reasoning similar to moral values in that they are also shared? Partly yes because like moral values, they come from social commonalities- of things that are taught or learned from home environments, educational institutions, religious institutions and generally how society expects people to act and behave according to its rules.
But biological and psychological rules play very significant roles. Not everyone is equal in terms of emotional stability and intellect. Some will be superior than others as there will be plenty more of others who are not, or are simply “average”. Education can affect this certainly, but evolution has determined that not everyone will have perfect intellect and the most stable of emotional constitutions to make the perfect moral decisions.
But this is not necessary because there are no perfect moral decisions- moral decisions after all are not scientific questions with definitive answers- just as there are no individuals with perfect intellect and the most stable of emotional constitution. In fact, even the most superior person (the closest to perfection) has the same chance as someone who is simply average, in making the correct “moral decision”. From a personal perspective and dealing with moral decisions with personal issues at stake, questions of intellectual superiority and emotional ability are secondary to what is at stake.
In a more personal context, reason and emotion have equal importance with personal outcomes which necessarily do not reflect larger social questions of morals. Let us take for example the question of lies and truths. While it is true that lying is almost universally shared to be something negative, in a personal situation, the rules change.
What would one do in a situation where lying would clearly protect someone that one dearly loves? Which would then be more important, the greater social moral of lying as always something to be avoided because it is wrong (honesty as the best policy) or the personal concern of breaking the rule because it’s within a small and personal situation anyway and that it would hurt someone that one loves?
Clearly in this case, emotion takes precedence and that reason, while aware of the “violation” against moral values, takes the side of emotion. This illustrates the context of how emotion and reason are used varyingly depending on the degree of the moral decision being made. But let us clarify that this is not to say that all personal and “small” moral decisions always take this route.
While it is safe to assume that most people fall into this scenario, there are others who will choose the opposite, and therefore “right” moral decision. That regardless of the “smallness” or insignificance of the decision, they will always use the right emotion and the correct logic or reasoning. These moral justifications are determined in part of what ethical systems come into play when making moral decisions (Poylock, 2005).
Consciously or otherwise, ethical systems (of which emotion and reason are part of), allow us to make the necessary moral justifications to our actions, determining the degree of emotion and reason that we employ. Do we ascribe to common values, to a value based ethical system? If we do, then our emotions and reason are aways on the lookout for what is good in ourselves and others and of the outcomes in our moral decisions. Do we ascribe to what is good for everyone? If we are, then our emotions and reasoning take a Totalitarian direction, when we weigh our moral decisions and allow it to fall into the direction of being able to serve the good of the majority.
Ethical systems enable people to confront the difficulty of what has been illustrated earlier about lying, of trying to find the most definitive outcome for moral decisions and questions. Everyone wants to make the “right” decision and in this regard, it is crucial to have the right mix of emotion and intellect. But ethical systems are not always summoned at will, but are often already within the person itself, instilled by education, upbringing and the general environment. There are also situations where making moral decisions often take not so much as a snap, an instant and automatic judgment as to what needs to be done. Others take more time and thought and even consultation. But in each case, what is important is self-analysis and introspection- one should always examine the degree of how one handles a moral decision and the extent to which emotions and reasoning have been used (Markkula, 2007).This is an opportunity where one can assess the quality of one’s moral decision based on the kind of emotion and reasoning employed to come up with it. Why is this important? This is important beyond a personal level especially when moral decisions are made in situations where whole nations or societies are affected. As illustrated earlier, lying may seem insignificant in a personal situation with just two or three people are involved, but it is an entirely different situation when the president of a country or a scientist commits the lie. A president of a country cannot simply dismiss the importance of telling the truth or disregard the significance of utilizing the most stable of emotions and the most superior form of reasoning to make moral decisions which affect the lives of millions of people. It is on this level that the average simply would not do- a government official, a doctor, a lawyer, etc, is expected to employ more superior emotional states and reasoning abilities to make moral decisions that are correspondingly correct and beneficial to the majority.
Some of the more relevant and urgent issues of the day which require moral decisions which should be made with superior reasoning and intellect and emotional and moral sensitivity include;
The state of the criminal justice system today; while the system is torn by liberal and conservative views which sometimes oppose each other, what is urgent is to address the way the system metes out justice to certain sectors of the society who have been on the receiving end of misleading perceptions, biases and myths. The distortion of both emotions and reasoning has led to skewed moral decisions and outcomes. Specially vulnerable are women and juveniles in the criminal justice system and of cases involving racial issues and minorities. Definitive moral decisions must also be made with regards to the death penalty and to the current confusion about appropriate punishment or correctional measures and policies. It would seem that as emotions and reasoning are not put into the proper frame and context, the debate on punishment and crime will not end and in this conflict, there are no winners, only losers (Williams, Robinson, 2004).
Medical issues such as abortion and euthanasia; this is clearly a situation where the full weight of moral decisions is felt. Similar to questions about the continued practice of the death penalty, issues of life and death are intrinsically fraught with endless debates and justifications by those who are for or against. The problem is that the fundamental issues are at best, subjective which makes it difficult for the formulation of clear-cut legal policies.
At the end of the day, we know that emotion and reason are indeed equally important, because we are after all, are a feeling and thinking species. But what is ultimately important is to how well these are used to come up with a moral decision that we can ultimately live with.
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (2007) A Framework for Thinking Ethically. 4 January 2008. http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html
Poylock, J.(2005) Ethics in Crime & Justice. Thomson / Wadsworth. Belmont, CA.
Williams, E.J. & Robinson, M. (2004). Ideology and criminal justice: Suggestions for a pedagogical model. Journal of Criminal Justice Education.
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