Reason and Emotion

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about the rationalist community is that we consider reason and emotion to be incontrovertibly opposed to one another, as if an action is irrational in direct proportion to how much feelings are taken into account. This is so common that it’s been dubbed ‘the straw vulcan of rationality’.

While it’s true that people reliably allow anger, jealousy, sadness, etc. to cloud their judgment, it does not follow that aspiring rationalists should always and forever disregard their emotions in favor of clear, cold logic. I’m not even sure it’s possible to deliberately cultivate such an extreme paucity of affect, and if it is, I’m even less sure that it’s desirable.

The heart is not the enemy of the head, and as I see it, the two resonate in a number of different ways which any mature rationality must learn to understand and respect.

1) Experts often have gut-level reactions which are informative and much quicker than conscious reasoning. The art critic who finds something vaguely unsettling about a statue long before anyone notices it’s a knockoff and the graybeard hacker who declares code to be ‘ugly’ two weeks before he manages to spot any vulnerabilities or shoddy workmanship are both drawing upon vast reservoirs of experience to make snap judgments which may be hard to justify explicitly.

Here, the job of the rationalist is to know when their expertise qualifies them to rely on emotional heuristics and when it does not [1].

2) Human introspection is shallow. There isn’t a list of likes and dislikes hidden in your brain somewhere, nor any inspectable algorithm which takes a stimulus as an input and returns a verdict of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Emotions therefore convey personal information which otherwise would be impossible to gather. There are only so many ways to discover what you prefer without encountering various stimuli and observing the emotional valence you attach to them.

3) It’s relatively straightforward to extend point 3) to other people; in most cases, your own emotional response is your best clue as to how others would respond in similar circumstances [2].

4) Emotional responses like disgust often point to evolutionarily advantageous strategies. No one has to be taught to feel revolted at the sight of rotting meat, and few people feel any real attraction to near-relatives. Of course these responses are often spectacularly miscalibrated. People are unreasonably afraid of snakes and unreasonably unafraid of vehicles because snakes were a danger to our ancestors whereas vehicles were not. But this means that we should be amending our rational calculations and our emotional responses to be better in line with the facts, not trying to lobotomize ourselves.

5) Emotions form an essential component of meaningful aesthetic appreciation [3]. It’s possible to appreciate a piece of art, an artist, an artistic movement, or even an entire artistic medium in a purely cerebral fashion on the basis of technical accomplishments or historical importance. But I would argue that this process is not complete until you feel an appropriate emotion in answer to the merits of whatever it is you’re contemplating.

Take the masonry work on old-world buildings like the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. You’d have to be a troglodyte to not feel some respect for how much skill must have gone into its construction. But you may have to spend a few hours watching the light filter through the stained-glass windows and feeling the way the architecture ineluctably pulls your gaze towards the sky before you can viscerally appreciate its grandeur.

This does not mean that the relationship between artistic perception and emotional response is automatic or unidirectional. Good art won’t always reduce you to tears, and art you initially enjoyed may seem to be vapid and shallow after a time. Moreover, the object of your aesthetic focus may not even be art in a traditional sense; I have written poetically about combustion engines, metal washers, and the constructed world in general. But being in the presence of genuine or superlative achievement should engender reverence, admiration, and their kin [4].

6) Some situations demand certain emotional responses. One might reasonably be afraid or angry when confronting a burglar in their home, but giddy joy would be the mark of a lunatic. This truth becomes even more stark if you are the head of household and responsible for the wellbeing of its occupants. What, besides contempt, could we feel for a man or woman who left their children in danger out of fear for their own safety?


If you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice that the foregoing actually splits into two broad categories: one in which emotions provide the rationalist with actionable data of one sort or another (1-4) and one in which the only rational response involves emotions (5 and 6). This latter category probably warrants further elaboration.

As hard as it may be to believe there are people in the world who are too accommodating and deferential, and need to learn to get angry when circumstances call for it. Conversely, most of us know at least one person to whom anger comes too easily and out of all reasonable proportion. Aristotle noted:

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

This is true of sadness, melancholy, exhuberance, awe, and the full palette of human emotions, which can be rational or irrational depending on the situation. To quote C.S. Lewis:

“And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.”

-The Abolition of Man

I don’t endorse his view that no emotion is a judgment; arguments 1-4 were examples in which they are. But the overall spirit is correct. Amidst all the thorny issues a rationalist faces, perhaps the thorniest is examining their portfolio of typical emotional responses, deciding how they should be responding, gauging the distance between these two views, and devising ways of closing that distance.

Extirpating our emotions is neither feasible nor laudable. We must instead learn to interpret them when they are correct and sculpt them when they are not.


[1] Of course no matter how experienced you are and how good your first impressions have gotten there’s always a chance you’re wrong. By all means lean on emotions when you need to and can, but be prepared to admit your errors and switch into a more deliberative frame of mind when warranted.

[2] Your emotions needn’t be the only clue as to how others might act in a given situation. You can have declarative knowledge about the people you’re trying to model which overrides whatever data is provided by your own feelings. If you know your friend loves cheese then the fact that you hate it doesn’t mean your friend won’t want a cheese platter at their birthday party.

[3] I suppose it would be more honest to say that can’t imagine a ‘meaningful aesthetic appreciation’ which doesn’t reference emotions like curiosity, reverence, or awe.

[4] In “Shopclass as soulcraft” Matthew Crawford takes this further, and claims that part of being a good mechanic is having a normative investment in the machines on which you work:

“…finding [the] truth requires a certain disposition in the individual: attentiveness, enlivened by a sense of responsibility to the motorcycle. He has to internalize the well working of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators”.

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