As human beings, we possess a conscience that distinguishes us from all other animal species. It is because of this conscience that humans are able to make ‘moral decisions’. How do we know right from wrong? And, equipped with this knowledge, how do we justify the moral decisions we make? The ethical principles that we carry allow us to make the distinction and justify our moral decisions. Many such sets of principles have been developed by philosophers and theologians over time.
There are four major theories of conduct: religious, self-interest, universal-law, and utilitarian. 1 This paper will analyze the roles that reason and emotion play in justifying moral decisions in the context of each of the aforementioned ethical theories in an attempt to respond to the prescribed title. The question, of course, is whether emotion and reason are equally necessary. The focus of this essay will be on whether reason or emotion is sufficient unto itself or mutually dependent on each other when justifying moral decisions.
Justification in this case involves providing explanations or proof for why a decision is ethically right. This wording suggests that reason is an essential part of the process as reason determines how we apply moral principles to the justification process by providing a rationale. Logic is used to justify a decision when conclusions are deduced from moral values or induced from past experiences. Then again, our conscience, the intuitive sense of right and wrong, provides the basis for our moral beliefs and ultimately guides us by our emotions.
Emotion involves the combined feelings that are generated by memories of past experiences and contact with external stimuli2; and reason cannot be applied without this emotional ‘feel’ for what is right or wrong, what seems to correspond most to the ideal moral decision. Thus, it is both our reason-based ethical systems and emotion-based values that constitute our justification processes. Religious theories involve ethical codes revealed to prophets by God through divine revelation. The world’s major religions all have some form of moral law that establishes codes of conduct. The underlying assumption of these theories is that God does exist.
One would justify moral decisions simply through faith, either by the fact that God has recognized a morality that exists intrinsically in the universe or that what is considered to be ethically right is considered as such because God commands it. 3 In any case, the religious ethical codes act as the general premises from which justifications for moral decisions can be deduced. A combination of intuition and emotional beliefs, through faith in God, drives this reasoning process as conscience tells believers it is ethically right to follow their religious teachings, and they experience some sense of guilt or shame if they do not.
Thus, reason and emotion are mutually necessary. However, it can be argued that many people who do not believe in God demonstrably distinguish between right and wrong, and act accordingly. 4 Immanuel Kant, an eighteenth-century philosopher, asserted that ethical conduct is separate from religious beliefs and can be explained in rational terms. Reason compels us to observe moral laws and be aware of our ethical duties to others and ourselves. According to Kant, an action is ethically right if it is done with a rational purpose in a good way.
A “categorical imperative”5 guides us rationally and is based on the principles that we should act in ways that our actions could become universal laws of human behavior and that people should be valued as rational beings with personal aspirations. 6 However, while the ability to reason may allow us to be aware of our ethical duties, it is how we feel about them that will determine whether and to what extent we fulfill those duties. Furthermore, the way those duties are carried out will depend on what an individual has internalized as good or bad, and on how he or she feels about the way something is done.
A deed that evokes immense guilt in one person may be merely trifling for another. An assumption of the universal-law theory is that everyone thinks in the logical manner that Kant has described. However, the extent of rationality differs among individuals, and those who lack reason are more emotional, and vice versa. Nevertheless, both reason and emotion are necessary to justify moral decisions in this case. Thirdly, the self-interest theory claims that the ethical goal of each individual is to promote personal interests and achieve maximum contentment.
Aristotle believed that conscience is inherent in human rationality; what is considered to be ethically right is striving to further one’s own interests and success in a virtuous manner. However, the self-interest theory is only plausible when assuming that everyone is capable of preserving their self-interests and that all people strive for common fulfillment. 7 It claims that one can only value others if one values oneself. Justification, in this case, is based on self-interest as directed by conscience. Humans may have an intrinsic rationality; but their desires to seek fulfillment depends on the way they value, or feel about, themselves.
Additionally, due to the limits of language as a social construct, what is interpreted as “virtuous” will differ among individuals. The varying perspectives ultimately depend on personal conscience, as based on emotionally-tied values. Any attempt to justify a moral decision using reason will be based on emotional feelings related to the personal desire for happiness and fulfillment, and on a personal (contextualized) understanding of virtue. Finally, utilitarianism is based on the idea of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”8.
A moral decision can only be justified as ethically right if it is for the greater good. The problem with utilitarianism is that we do not always know the consequences of our actions. Hence, it is not easy to evaluate the greatest happiness. 9 It is not possible to know everything ethically but the ideal is that we are able to check and balance our decisions and take into account the considerations before arriving at the best solution. Reason can thus be used to justify a moral decision by pointing out how it was logical in maximizing the benefit or minimizing any possible suffering.
It may seem that reason alone is sufficient here but in order for one to value the greater good one has to believe in its importance and have the emotional feeling that the utilitarian way is ethically right, linking reason and emotion yet again. I will now consider a personal example of a moral decision I had to make. About a year ago, I discovered that my thirteen-year-old brother was involved in taking substances that, at his age, he shouldn’t have been. Soon afterwards, he began discussing it with me himself. He had my confidence, but I made it clear that I wanted him to end it.
A few months later, however, I felt that his situation had grown out of hand. The time had come for me to decide whether I would inform my parents or not about his behavior. Today, I will justify the decision I made; reason and emotion were both involved. I cared deeply for my brother and didn’t want to see him get hurt. I also hated the fact that he had done this to himself. I felt that it was my responsibility as an older brother to help him stop. However, emotions also dictated otherwise; to inform my parents would be to break his trust and risk losing the confidence we shared.
Reason argued that he was only thirteen! He was undoubtedly damaging his body and putting himself at enormous risk, as one can never be too sure about the consequences of intoxication. Ultimately, my decision was to inform my parents. In justifying this decision, I can refer to the rational and emotional concerns discussed above and argue, in the context of the various theories of conduct, that it was the ethically right decision. I may have deduced from my faith-based conscience that it would have been wrong to lie. Having knowledge of my brother’s behavior and keeping it from my parents would have been lying.
The universal-law theory argues that the feeling of responsibility I had was actually the awareness of an ethical duty. Indeed, what would be the meaning of relationships if people do not help take responsibility for each other? However, it was also my conscience that directed my emotive response towards fulfilling such an ‘ethical duty’. Perhaps I view myself as a moral being and it was in my self-interest to seek a feeling of contentment in my morality – a satisfaction of having done something ‘right’ – and an appearance of being responsible. In this case, my decision cannot only be justified by an intrinsic rationality but also my pride.
Finally, my decision may be utilitarian in the sense that not only did I gain peace of mind but I was looking out for my brother’s health and well-being while also raising my parents’ awareness. We justify moral decisions with both reason and emotion. Emotion is integral to our beliefs because our beliefs are learned, internalized and reinforced with emotionally-charged memories. Our capability to reason allows us to deduce from our emotion-based values or beliefs, as well as to induce from our emotion-coded memories in order to justify something as right or wrong.
Thus, a clearly delineated line, which is to say a meaningful distinction between the two ways of knowing, is impossible to achieve. Perhaps the fact that our values are very much contextualized makes emotion the weaker component in the justification process. Nevertheless, emotion remains very much present as it provides the foundation of our values which determine the way we rationalize and justify our moral decisions. Although everyone has and uses reason and emotion to different degrees, it seems that they are both necessary in justifying moral decisions.