It can be argued that reason and emotion are equally important in the process of justifying moral decisions, for both bases of knowledge play an essential role when deciding between right and wrong. However, emotion may be considered more important in the sense that it often acts as the source of reason. For instance, an individual may reason that it is wrong to steal according to the law or the damaging consequences it may have on him as a criminal or on the person he or she plans to steal from as a victim.
However, the individual’s motives for stealing (for example enabling himself to provide for a starving family) are emotionally provoked and cause him to reason that stealing may be the right thing to do. In this case, emotion seems to be a destabilizing aspect in the process of reason. This being said neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that neurological research reveals that patients whose emotional capacities are impaired as a result of brain lesions are also impaired across a range of cognitive capacities (such as the ability to prioritise, to deliberate, evaluate and make decisions).
Emotion would therefore appear to be an essential of the human mental state needed in order to reason and rationalise effectively. However, emotion remains a personal influence on the human psyche and may therefore be of great importance to the individual making moral decisions however, of less importance globally. For instance, the mother of a child carrying a highly contagious harmful virus is very likely to insist that her child stay alive; her love for the child contradicting the reasoning that he should be isolated in order to prevent contaminating others.
In this case, emotion would appear to have a strong enough impact over a person to alter his notion of what is moral or immoral. However, without the intervention of emotion, a greater population would agree that the child should be isolated in order to preserve the health of other lives. This would seem more logical as it would be putting down an individual and protecting many others as opposed to sparing a life and harming many. It would appear that emotional thought restrains human logic in the processing of moral decisions.
It could be suggested that emotions are just as important as reason when justifying moral decisions if the outcome benefits a greater number of people than it harms (to a certain extent). However, it is suggested that emotion may triumph over reason as reason may triumph over emotion in justifying a moral decision in a Biblical passage from Kings iii,16-28, ‘The judgement of Solomon’. In this story, two women come to King Solomon with a baby boy. As both women fight over the custody of the child, Solomon declares that the child should be cut in two so that the women may have half each.
One woman agrees with the verdict, reasoning that – should the boy be split in half – none should fight over him any longer. However, the other woman (also the real mother of the child) reacts out of love for her child and pleads that he might be handed over to the other woman if it means saving his life. The mother’s moral decision is justified by reasoning that the child would live if he is given to the other woman. It can be argued that the mother’s inward-looking emotion of fear causes her to ‘draw into herself’ and reason this.
This argument would cohere with scientist Edward O. Wilson’s definition of emotion ‘the modification of neural activity that animates and focuses mental activity’. 2 On the other hand, it can also be argued that her emotional experience (feelings corresponding to physiological changes such as increased heartbeat, the release of adrenaline etc)3 is in fact provoked by this reasoning. Either way, the woman would have undoubtedly not made the decision to save the child’s life had she not been subjected to certain emotions.
The decision being justified by emotions, Solomon realises that she is mother of the child and grants her the baby. In retrospect, the other woman’s lack of impulsive emotions allows her to remain indifferent to the consequences for the child in the situation. Solomon’s decision is however purely based on his logical opinion of who appears to be the real mother. Therefore reason is valued over emotion in his moral judgement. Having interpreted this story, it would appear that emotion is part of the human psyche which initiates instinctive reaction.
Meanwhile, reason first composes of analytical thought to bring understanding to the situation. This idea proves similar to the account offered by Plato (in the Republic) in the form of his ‘tri-partite’ conception of the soul: what is emotional is irrational and that what is rational is not emotional. 4 The importance of reason and emotion in justifying moral decisions is clearly depicted in the play Le Cid by Pierre Corneille. The tragicomedy set in medieval Spain tells the story of Rodrigue Diaz de Vivar, a military figure who is torn between his love for Chimi??
ne and his duty to avenge his fathers honour. Although emotion plays a great role throughout the decision making, Don Rodrigue eventually succumbs to reason and kills Chimi?? ne’s father to preserve his family’s reputation. In this case, reason justifies a decision considered moral despite emotion. Rodrigue’s reason for assassinating Chimine’s father lies in the moral act of avenging his father (this act considered moral at the time – man being in position in which less better off dead than dishonoured).
Rodrigue’s emotions (his love for Chimine) however, render the assassination of her father an immoral decision in the play – shedding the blood of the person which his beloved holds dear. In this case, reason plays a greater part in justifying a moral decision. Meanwhile, Rodrigue’s emotions appear to make him susceptible by delaying his in retrieving the honour of his name and preventing him from feeling any pride once the act is committed. In other words, his instinctive emotions of love and anger are oppressed by social emotions of guilt and shame.
This concept once again coincides with Plato’s view of the emotions, regarding them as agents of tyranny which enslave the true and rational part of our nature. Rodrigue determines that reason is of greater importance than emotion when justifying a moral decision. However, he remains haunted by his emotions after having chosen to suppress them in giving into reason, implying that emotion is of greater importance than reason in making a moral decision.
When evaluating judgements made collectively in a social environment, it would appear that reason holds a greater significance over emotion when coming to a moral decision. For instance, A BBC News headline last updated in 2003 reports that ‘The jury in the trial of a mother accused of killing her three babies has been told not to let emotion rule reason when coming to a decision. ‘6 This suggests that when moral decisions lie in the hands of the court, it is preferred that the verdict be based upon reason rather than emotion.
In other words, the jury is expected to suppress their emotions towards the case in order to have a clearer analytical perspective of the facts or evidence presented before them. This acknowledges the idea that emotions are in power of undermining diagnostic thought and therefore influencing the making of erroneous decisions. It is therefore possible to conclude that emotions are more dominant than reason in justifying a moral decision. However, reason may be judged more relevant than emotion when making judgement.