Decisions have always been tough issues to tackle. Deciding what one wants to order from a menu, what kind of candy to choose, whose heart to break and whether or not war is wrong are all complex decisions in their own right. However, this essay focuses upon the latter decisions – moral decisions. How does one know whether reason or emotion is the compass from which to follow to make the right decisions? To examine this, an analysis of the role of reason and emotion is necessary.
However, the issue often arises as to what, even with reason and emotion, is a right decision composed of. Kant and Hume have independent views on the role of emotion and reason in making moral decisions and their opinions can, and are, extrapolated into science, politics and eventually into our own human perceptions. Instead of intertwining the two, the study of ethics has isolated reason from emotion which is ironic as both are necessary in making a solid moral decision. Reason has typically been interchangeable with logic in moral decisions.
Reason is characterized by being the systematic comparisons of differing views and weighing out their consequences in relation to the moral dilemma at hand. When, for example, I was deciding which high school to attend in grade 9, a clear logical approach was necessary. I evaluated the pros and cons of the situation and the effects of my decision. This situation is far from being a moral one- it is simply a question of attaining my right to education, not putting my right to education in question. If however, one examines the case of child labour, the right to education becomes a moral dilemma.
A family in a developing nation has too many mouths to feed and not enough financial support so; they pull their oldest children out of school and send them off to work in horrendous conditions with negligible pay. Reason dictates that the right to education is a self-evident truth; education is an inalienable human right, however logically the parents’ decision is justifiable. Sacrificing one or two children’s education means more hope and benefit for them and the entire family. Reason thus, in this sense, appeals to pleasing the greatest amount of people in the outcome of a moral decision, which rings true to the ideals of Utilitarianism.
In making moral decisions, emotions are valid determinates of human empathy. Emotions can be defined as the interpretation of the knower’s perception and their reactions. In moral dilemmas emotions provide justification as well as incentive for the result of moral decisions. However, it is widely disputed as whether or not emotion can properly be used as a basis to form moral decisions. With emotion comes passion and bias which leads to making a, usually, selfish decision which strong sentiment. Many argue that emotional decisions are rash and easily swayed. However, this view is based on western culture and its values.
As a Western society, consistent with Ancient Greek philosophy, we believe that logical justification is necessary to make wise decisions- thus reason leads to knowledge. This view is echoed by Emmanuel Kant who believed that reason can be the only factor in determining moral decisions1. In the previous example of child labour, it is clearly noticeable that reason lacks what emotion provides- the focus on the individual in making moral decisions. In the case of child labour, reason and logic cannot account for simply how the children feel about leaving school and entering hostile and gruesome conditions.
Nor, does it account for the parents’ vulnerability and guilt at having taken away their children’s future. These observations are valid for making the decision itself and cannot be simply brushed away as “fluffy feelings”. Hume, another philosopher draws upon emotion’s role “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 them2. ” Meaning that regardless of western ideals of pure logic, emotion is necessary and unavoidable in dealing with human situations such as moral decisions. oweverH
What constitutes a moral decision itself is ambiguous, let alone the role of anything in making them. Moral decisions themselves seem synonymous with conflicts of ethics. In ethics of science moral dilemmas arise when discussing psychological research and testing involving human beings. The main issues arise as to what is “right” and what is “wrong” for the person being tested. When I conducted a mini-experiment to test factors affecting human’s fear of the dark I ran into issues such as this. Being able to scare my subjects without subjecting them to intense emotional discomfort is a fine line to trod upon.
It seemed wrong to conduct an experiment which would significantly hinder my subjects, however this experiment seemed “right” for the acquisition of knowledge and getting a good grade in psychology. Many of the greatest psychological experiments such as Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s, would be shot down immediately by the ethics counsel. However, these experiments themselves have significantly changed and improved the field of sociology and psychology. What then constitutes as making a proper moral decision? It would be nai??
ve to believe, as I do, that a good moral decision results in the ultimate benefit of every party involved. In various ways, reason and emotion are necessary for moral decisions. In war, the ultimate way of pitting humanity against humanity, moral decisions are either extremely dominant or completely ignored thus this provides an excellent subject of investigation. The politics behind war, such as strategic offenses and defenses as well as motives for the war itself, can either be extremely selfish or completely selfless. Selfish acts can easily be turned into selfless acts and vice versa.
This approach is similar, if not exactly, the view of the ethical egoist who would argue that a General’s decision to run into a battlefield and save a comrade would simply be the gain fame and popularity amongst his troops and the media. Politicians can skew a completely selfish action into one which would benefit the masses. This can be the case in recent examples where war has been declared in the name of democracy, yet the leader wanting the removal of the “anti-democratic” dictator simply did not like his policies. Most of these scenarios involve a calculated determinedness (reason) and the passion to execute it (emotion).
In the most obvious question of whether the killing in war is necessary or not, certain things need to be examined in context to emotion and reason. If the leaders of one’s country dictate that it is right to kill another person for the gains of one’s country, it is logical to kill another person. However, emotionally one must completely condition oneself to only focus on reason. To clarify – if I wanted to kill someone, I would have to convince myself through reason and logic that this was somehow the right thing to do and ignore my guilt, self-anger and horror.
The other view is that to kill someone one must be so nationalistic, passionate, and honourable that to do the act would seem glorifying. These differing opinions, however, are not separate and must be conjoined for the act to be committed. The nationalism is derived from the propaganda of the country, the passion from the complete reluctance to acknowledge the act itself; therefore both emotion and reason are responsible for bringing the knowledge that killing is right. It is, notably, widely unacceptable to kill. The main religions of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism all maintain that killing is unacceptable.
International Law decrees killing to be unacceptable, society believes it is unacceptable, in fact most human cultures believe killing is wrong. This unyielding conclusion thus makes “Thou shalt not kill” a self-evident truth- an axiom of logic and reasoning. Human perception of the effects of death and our own fear of death make for a strong emotional response to death. To come to either conclusion (killing is right vs. killing is wrong in war) requires vast amounts of emotional responses and reasoning. Both are necessary to come to the “right” conclusion for oneself.
Reason and emotion are both equally important in making moral decisions. The determination of what is “right” and what is “wrong”, though ever-changing, are a result of a complex and sophisticated balance of logic and innate reactions. Although the nature of the decision itself is vague and ambiguous , reason and emotion provide the basis of the argument as to the decision itself and its effects. The balance between both is what makes humans – human. Every individual carries their own personal baggage into their decision making process but ultimately it is reason and emotion which link us all together in the decision making process.