in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: June 6, 2021

The Rationality of Emotions

The Rationality of Emotions.

Emotions have gotten a bad rap these days. We’re frequently told we should mistrust them, ignore them, even f**k them. It may seem that humanity, especially the male segment of it, has always evinced this level of skepticism towards our feelings, viewing them as unreliable guides — womanly disrupters of our happiness and tranquility.

But the role of emotions in the lives of men and women alike has not always been viewed so dubiously by everyone, in every time; instead, distrust in feelings waxes and wanes according to the level of uncertainty in society. When life is unpredictable, chaotic, and troubling, people retreat inwardly, batten down the hatches, seek to turn themselves into stone. It seems too risky to expose one’s true feelings, to let anything but cold hard logic dictate one’s decisions. Because, the thinking goes, emotions are essentially irrational.

Yet there have been periods and philosophies that have seen emotions and reason not as contradictory but complementary. Thinkers as different in outlook and era as Aristotle, Nietzsche, and C.S. Lewis all argued that feelings have their own intelligence and wisdom, are necessary in order to participate in the human experience at its most dynamic and incandescent, and must be intertwined with our rational faculties in order to achieve the good life.

Today we’ll unpack the premises of this perspective, and how emotions can be rational, in that they have rationality in themselves, can align with rationality, and can be harnessed towards rational purposes. 

Emotions Are Meaningful Judgements

We think of our thoughts as being under autonomous control. We use our cognition to weigh options and make decisions.

In contrast, we perceive emotions as just happening to us. They are visceral, automatic, and, if not outright dumb, then lacking in what we think of as “intelligence.”

We therefore conceive of our feelings as clouding and muddying our thoughts — our “real” minds.

If this model were correct, then if we could take emotions out of the equation altogether, our decision-making capabilities would be nearly perfect. However, research shows that what actually happens when you remove emotions from judgement, is that people struggle to make choices at all. As professor of philosophy Robert Solomon reports in True to Our Feelings:

people with severe emotional deficits (because of stroke, tumor, or other lesions) suffer enormously from not being able to make rational decisions, despite the fact that their other ‘cognitive’ faculties (in other words, what is usually called ‘intelligence’) seem to be functioning fine. They can calculate consequences and compare options but because they do not really care about either consequences or options they have no basis for making a decision.

Emotions serve as essential guides for our choices — evaluative judgements that function not consciously but in a visceral, intuitive, and kinesthetic way. In The Second Mountain, David Brooks describes their role:

Our emotions assign value to things and tell us what is worth wanting. The passions are not the opposite of reason; they are the foundation of reason and often contain a wisdom the analytic brain can’t reach.

Emotions make our judgments less logical yet more meaningful. Is your wife just another average, ordinary member of the female sex, or the most amazing, beautiful woman in the world? Is that newborn baby just a sack of neurons and nerves, or a bundle of joy, the best thing you’ve ever created? Is the night sky a vacuum of empty space punctuated with flickering balls of gas, or a testament to man’s smallness and the mysteries of infinity? Which judgement is “truer” — that which we make with mind alone, or with thought interlaid with emotion?

Nietzsche, who argued that all passions include their “quantum of reason,” came down on the question this way:

All seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing. The more emotions we can allow to speak in a given matter, the more different eyes we can put on in order to view a given spectacle, the more complete will be our conception of it, the greater our ‘objectivity.’

Emotions Discern Value

Emotions can not only assign significance, but can also discern it. They gauge not only subjective worth, but objective value.

Nearly all religions and philosophical schools posit that there is an underlying natural order to the world, and that Truth with a capital T is that which most clearly reflects and explains this reality. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, to uphold this “doctrine of objective value” is to believe that “certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”

If one concedes the existence of objective value, then “objects [do] not merely receive, but [can] merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.” This is to say that certain things should elicit certain emotions: The soaring mountain should elicit a feeling of awe; the story of a courageous warrior should elicit a feeling of veneration; a friend’s father’s death should elicit a feeling of empathy; being unfaithful should elicit a feeling of shame; a kind act should elicit a feeling of gratitude.

From this perspective, emotions can be rational or irrational, depending on whether the object of the emotion warrants the reaction. To feel something you should feel is rational; to feel something you shouldn’t feel, or to not feel something you should, is irrational.

So for a philosopher like Aristotle, to witness an injustice and not feel anger isn’t an admirable feat of self-control, but a pitiable demonstration of irrationality. Injustice should elicit anger. As Solomon writes, this is why the philosopher “insisted, in line with the Homeric heroes, that there are times when one would be a fool not to get angry, not only because the situation calls for it but because otherwise one degrades oneself as less than a fully functioning human being.” A rock may be impervious to what goes on around it, but a rock doesn’t constitute a rational mind.

Likewise, the death of a loved one should elicit mourning — even of the deep, agonizing, incapacitating variety. So while a Stoic philosopher would say that grief, even over the death of one’s own child, is irrational, since death is natural and not something you can control, Aristotle would say that not grieving a loved one is irrational, since the loss warrants that response.

We intuitively recognize this idea, of course. As Solomon observes:

grief is a moral emotion . . . It is for this reason that grief is not only expected as the appropriate reaction to the loss of a loved one, but it is in a strong sense obligatory. We are not just surprised when a person shows no signs of grief after a very personal loss. We are morally outraged and condemn such a person. . . 

If grief were simply a negative reaction to a loss, or even a physical condition that (it has often been pointed out) fits the definition of a mental disorder, a medical illness, this would be incomprehensible. Such a person would be considered fortunate, like an athlete who has a high threshold of pain, or a brave risk-taker who remains unafraid in circumstances that would scare the wits out of most normal people.

Even someone truly committed to the Stoic philosophy would almost assuredly find it unseemly rather than commendable to see that a friend who had tragically lost his wife accepted the loss with complete equanimity, and was thus ready to date again the day after the funeral. This is because we believe that if the husband really loved his wife, really valued her, the loss of that love should, quite rationally, provoke great grief.

Emotions Are Trainable

Aristotle would say that emotions are rational when they come at the right time, for the right reason, in the right amount — when they are on target and the object of emotion justifies the degree of reaction. Solomon explains the standard this way:

We get angry at someone, about something. The important question, accordingly, is whether the anger is rightly aimed, whether it has picked out the right object (the offender), and whether the anger is warranted by the situation. (The person targeted may in fact be the offender but the offense is so minor that it does not warrant the anger.) If both the object is right and the seriousness of the accusation is warranted, then the anger is rational and reasonable.

Naturally, emotions do not always meet these criteria, and the judgements they make are not always sound. We may feel worry, fear, or anger that is disproportionate to the cause, or we may feel apathetic indifference in cases where our passions should be aroused.

The fact that emotions can miss the mark is one of the big arguments against their rationality, but one that is premised on the idea that emotions are essentially involuntary — evolutionary instincts and automatic neurological and hormonal responses. If our feelings just happen to us, then whether they miss the mark is largely a matter of chance, and the control we exercise over them is limited to managing their expression.

While it’s true that emotions aren’t under volitional direction to the extent that thoughts are, and that they are hard to control in the heat of the moment, we can shape the type and degree of emotions we experience through what we do and think before and after they arise. Emotions can in fact be trained, developed, practiced, and refined.

One’s sentiments have to be intentionally educated in order to be more congruent with objective truth and reality. As Lewis notes, while this kind of training was considered central to a man’s development throughout antiquity, it is a concept we’ve lost sight of in the modern day.

How does the education of emotions take place? The “curriculum” breaks down into three main areas:

The first centers on getting in contact with the whole palette of human feelings in the first place, and being able to access, as well as allowing oneself to access, the full spectrum of their intensity.

This has to do with what we think, who we surround ourselves with, and how we direct our attention — what we feed into our lives. As we dig into and really contemplate different areas of life, the vivid details we uncover evoke strong and varied emotions: when we know the extent of an injustice, we become angrier; when we keep a gratitude journal, we feel more grateful; when we take the time to talk with and look into the eyes of a grieving friend, we feel more empathy. The circumstances we place ourselves in also has a lot to do with the breadth of our emotional range. Putting ourselves in immersive contact with literature, music, and art that stirs and heightens our feelings makes us more sensitive and aware of our emotions. So does the culture of the groups we belong to. For example, it’s very common in the church I attend for men to cry about spiritual things; boys thus grow up with the expectation that feelings about faith run deep, and that it’s okay to express them as such.

Emotions should not be thought of as just momentary, knee-jerk reactions, but also as states that can last for days, months, and even years. Their cultivation involves a degree of proactivity that often goes unrecognized, as Solomon argues using the example of a romantic relationship:

Falling in love has a lot to do with entertaining thoughts of the beloved, rehearsing upcoming conversations and remembering, fondly or with distress, past meetings, reaffirming one’s love of the beloved, and thinking in terms of the word ‘love.’ . . . while there is something odd about explicitly planning how to feel, we do just that whenever we put ourselves in situations that we know or hope will inspire emotion.

Once we’re in touch with the full spectrum of feelings, the second part of their education involves learning to experience them about the right set of stimuli. Our emotional reactions to things depends on our ability to discern their worth and salience, which depends on how we define and ascribe meaning, which depends on our personal values. To what degree do our principles align with Nature and Truth? The more we care about the poor, the more moved we are by their plight; the more we prize loyalty, the more ashamed we feel about letting down a friend; the more we value integrity, the more indignant we are to discover someone has cheated. As Solomon puts it, “Even before we learn to analyze it, we experience our emotions as profoundly indicative of the kind of person we are.”

One wishes to not only feel emotions for the right things, but in the right amounts at the right time. Thus, the third prong of training one’s feelings is to gain the ability to manage them in a healthy way. Emotions do not always emerge as proportional to the objective reality which spurred them — we may under- or overreact. Afterwards, however, we can reflect on how and why our feelings missed the mark; we can cognitively think through how to refine them so that the next time a similar situation arises, our emotional reaction will be more in harmony with it.

Sometimes inappropriate and truly random thoughts pop into our heads, but most of the time our thoughts are the products of the things we focus on, the media we consume, and the people with whom we associate. In the same way, sometimes we generate inappropriate emotions, that hit us with unforeseen intensity, but most of the time they are the end result of all the deliberate choices that led up to that moment, and those choices determine whether our feelings are more or less rational. Our emotions can be trained as readily as our thoughts.

Though we are rational agents in the cultivation of our feelings, Solomon argues that there’s a not-so-flattering reason we tend to deny this fact, and instead insist that we are the passive victims of their inherent irrationality: the common desire to avoid responsibility and make excuses. By categorizing our emotions as outside of our control, we can excuse the times when they go awry as not being “us,” when in truth our feelings embody and express the deepest currents of how we spend our time, what we value, and who we are at the core.

Emotions Are the Engines of Action

Emotions are frequently thought of as passive, self-contained forces. But it’s overly strict emotional control, a retreat to an inner citadel, that really breeds passivity.

Emotions are in fact our primary way of engaging with the world. Emotions are indeed internal, but they are prompted by an object that is external; they thus get us outside of ourselves, prompting interaction and involving us in situations and relationships. They represent, Solomon says, the essential way we orient and attune ourselves “to the world and to one another.”

“The felt desire to do something,” he adds, “is a part of almost every emotion.” Emotions are thus the engines of action — pointing and nudging us to do something.

In the abstract, we like to believe that we should, and can, take action through cognition and discipline alone — that we will address injustice, or do the right thing, or simply go after our goals simply because we know it’s the moral thing to do, or the thing we consciously want to do. But this is an idea that works better in theory than reality. Human nature is such that we need emotion to move us to action.

Hardly anyone would commit to a marriage in which they didn’t experience strong feelings of love, so why do we think it wise to try to take on other commitments with a strictly cognitive approach?

Of course, the desire attendant to emotion can move us to actions that are both negative and irrational as well as positive and rational. Fortunately, they can be pointed towards the latter aims, because not only are they trainable . . .

Emotions Are Strategic

“Rationality is maximizing (or together, optimizing) our well-being,” Solomon writes. “Our emotions are rational insofar as they further our collective as well as personal well-being, irrational insofar as they diminish or degrade it.”

Another way to say this is that emotions are rational or irrational to the extent that they advance or impede both our short-term and long-term interests.

By this definition, emotions are popularly believed to be irrational, in that they supposedly disrupt your tranquility and get you off track with your personal progress.  

Feelings certainly can lead us astray, prompting us to eat the extra bowl of ice cream, or insult someone in anger, or worry so much we become paralyzed with anxiety. For this reason, much of psychology and personal development advice focuses on techniques designed to diminish the role of hot, “irrational” emotions and increase the influence of cool, calculating cognition. And indeed, gritting your teeth and utilizing willpower and logic can be effective sometimes. But, as anyone knows from experience, it also very frequently fails. Relying on willpower is tiring, and often leads to throwing in the towel.

Fortunately, discipline is not the only strategic tool we have at our disposal. If some emotions can sabotage our goals, others can help us achieve them; while emotions can in some circumstances diminish our self-control, in others, they can strengthen it.

In one example of this dynamic, professor of psychology David DeSteno replicated the famous marshmallow experiment, using adults instead of kids, and money instead of marshmallows. The longer the study participants were able to forgo taking the money, the more money they’d walk away with. DeSteno found that participants who were primed to feel gratitude before the experiment were able to hold out longer and were more willing to wait for a higher payout compared to those participants who hadn’t been emotionally primed. And they were able to delay their gratification without expending much effort.

Other research has shown that the emotion of compassion increases our ability to make decisions in line with our goals. For example, one study showed that students who responded to academic setbacks with compassion for themselves increased the time they studied by 30% compared to students who flogged themselves to be more disciplined.

Feeling the emotion of authentic pride also boosts self-control, perseverance, and goal attainment. In a study done by DeSteno, participants were asked to complete a test that measured visuospatial ability. Participants who were praised by the experimenters for their effort increased the amount of time devoted to the test by 40% compared to people who weren’t primed to feel proud. 

Pride is essentially the desire for status, and while this desire to achieve and succeed often gets a bad rap, it makes for an incredibly potent source of motivation. A Stoic would say that when it comes to life’s competitions, you should simply aim to do your very best, and then leave the outcome to fate, lest you become so emotionally invested in wanting to win that losing would disrupt your equilibrium. This is another idea that sounds wonderfully wise and mature in the abstract, but seems questionably helpful on the ground. One wonders what percentage of Olympic athletes are driven to train hours a day for years at a time simply by the desire to do their personal best. Is that really what gets them out of bed in the morning, and that puts thumotic energy in their blood when it’s time for them to compete? Surely most of them are instead driven by the overweening desire to be victorious. It is this desire that does leave them heartbroken if they fail, but also this desire, this all-consuming drive, which pushes them even harder and makes it possible for them to win.

Even anger, which arguably has the worst reputation amongst the emotions for leading to poor decision-making, can sometimes work in our favor. Research has found that compared to people who feel fearful, people who feel angry are more likely to take risks, are more optimistic about the outcome of doing so, and feel more in control of the situation. While that level of confidence can lead to getting in over one’s head, in some situations it can pay off. Another study found that people who are angry do better in confrontational tasks and in getting others to accede to their demands. “Anger doesn’t solve anything” just isn’t true; sometimes a little edge is exactly what is necessary to overcome fear and get the job done.

Beyond working to solve one’s own personal problems, it’s likely that many of society’s collective injustices would never have been tackled without a sense of righteous anger. And you arguably can’t gin up enough action-producing anger for the big stuff, if you don’t keep a bit of limited, non-thought-muddling anger stoked about everyday stuff. Feeling a touch of underlying anger can not only be a strategic tool but something you simply like. As Solomon puts it, anger “is not just a way of manipulating the other person but an excellent way of manipulating oneself. Thus people might not only enjoy their anger because it energizes them but because it transforms the very nature of their way of seeing the world.”

The gravitational pull to the path of least resistance is so strong, it simply cannot be overcome with “mind” alone. The pursuit of the Good needs to be accompanied with real feeling rather than just cold cognition; instead of fighting fire with stone, sometimes you should fight fire with fire. Or as C.S. Lewis puts it: “No justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.”

Emotions Create Meaning

The desirability of emotional control is premised on the idea that emotions disturb our tranquility, and that it’s through tranquility that humans find ultimate fulfillment.

But what if tranquility isn’t really the route to happiness? What if our passions — even “negative” ones — lend our lives texture, interest, animation? What if we’d rather the landscape of our lives be undulating — with higher highs being a sufficient trade-off for lower lows — instead of uniformly flat? What if we just want to be awake, to feel, even if those feelings are sometimes painful?

“Good” emotions — pride, joy, gratitude, anticipation, love — set our days aglow and light our nights with psychological fireworks. And even though we have an unexamined belief that what we want most is peace and pleasure, there are strange, oft-unrecognized satisfactions even in our experience of the “darker” emotions too. It feels good to get lathered up in an energizing rage. There’s a strangely poignant pleasure in listening to a supremely melancholic break-up song as a relationship falls apart. We go to horror movies deliberately to experience the “fun” of fear. It’s cathartic to have a good cry — both over the real death of a loved one or simply the death of a beloved character in the book you’re reading.  

Emotions lend weight to existence, tune us into the world, make it feel like there’s a there there. Would you rather be like the weather, sometimes flashing lightning and pouring down rain, sometimes blowing gentle breezes and radiating warm rays of sunshine, or the rock that is alternately baked and drenched, and endures all these changes with stolid indifference?

Solomon explains the allure, the consolations, of living a life of intense passions:

It is a conception of the good life that many people admire but few philosophers preach. Many philosophers . . . have sermonized about happiness and the virtues, but all too often, the conception of happiness that emerges is rather tame and has mainly to do with being a good citizen, a congenial person, and enjoying peace of mind (ataraxia) and even a lack of passionate turbulence (apatheia). In contrast, the passionate life is defined by its sometimes vehement emotions, by its impassioned engagement, by its ardent quests, grand but futile ambitions, and embracing affections.

The passionate life is sometimes characterized (for example, by Goethe in Faust and by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) in terms of frenzy, vaulting ambition, essentially insatiable goals, and impossible affections. It is what Nietzsche in particular referred to as a ‘Dionysian’ temper, a life captured in dynamic rather than static metaphors, notions of ‘energy,’ ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘charisma,’ even mania. The passionate life embraces the values of Romanticism and the image of the suffering but sometimes manic artist. It may well be occasionally weighted down with despair and weltschmertz, but it will probably be buoyed by joy and exuberance as well. I want to make room for such ‘perverse’ conceptions of the good life in contrast to both ordinary morality and ‘being a good person’ and to the life of mere contentment and satisfaction. . . .

Happiness is not . . . necessarily a life of moderation and peace of mind. I think, like Nietzsche, that one can make a good case either that happiness is not incompatible with turmoil, suffering, and unhappiness but even depends upon it, or that happiness as we have been taught to think of it is not the most important thing in life.

If emotions are rational to the extent that they further our ultimate ends, and nearly everyone desires a life of great meaning, then choosing to embrace your emotions — even, ironically, those of an intensity that leans to the “irrational” — can be the most rational decision you could possibly make.

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