I’ve recently been accused of lacking empathy and not valuing emotions enough when considering issues great or small. In due course, this question was posed to me which had already been on my mind: Is it better to live a life where one reacts to life’s issues or events with emotion or with reason? To rephrase it ever so slightly, should emotions be valued ahead of reason when it comes to dealing with life’s issues or events? Most basically put, should we more often go on gut instinct or would it be better to philosophically shred every issue to bits? I will not deny that emotions certainly are valuable regarding our experiences as individual human beings but when another person or persons enters the equation, I believe reason ought to trump emotion.
This is certainly not how the world has answered the question put to me, not now and not historically. Even many people I regard as otherwise intelligent place a premium on emotion and not enough value on reason. To them and the rest of the world, I would like to take a moment to consider the toll reacting to the world on a visceral level has taken…
Racism and ethnic pride (code for advanced tribalism) surely dates back further than written records. What is racism usually based upon? A feeling that people who looks different and/or act differently are somehow inferior to the racist without any examination as to whether the opposed group is actually inferior. Consider the Nazis: If black people were as inferior as Nazis claimed, how could black people have defeat Nazi athletes at the Olympics? And, did the Nazis conduct any studies to conclude Jews were the cause of Germany’s problems in the 1930’s? (They may have, but were those studies conducted without biases clouding the facts?) Racism continues today in its many instances, even subtly, such as with parents who demand their children marry within their race or culture, and not for any other reason than their emotion.
Homophobia is similar in nature and history to racism; it is based in emotion. Homophobes have long invoked the ‘ick factor’ in their argument against homosexuals. The problem is that when you reason about the ‘ick factor’ the argument falls apart. The ‘ick factor’ can be used against any group of people whom one dislikes, even the ones claiming homosexuality is ‘icky.’ Or, at least here in The United States, many homophobes employ The Bible to condemn homosexuality as they feel The Bible is the word of God. Of course, The Bible as the word of God cannot be proven any more than The Koran is the word of Allah which may lead us to think we shouldn’t condemn groups of people for reasons not based in reason. Several states in The United States now allow homosexuals to marry just like interracial couples before them because as time marches on, it becomes ever more clear that the arguments against homosexuals are emotionally derived and not rationally driven.
Then there are the Charles Ponzi- and Bernie Madoff-type scoundrels who prey upon everyone’s desire to get rich quick in order to steal from them. That over-riding desire to become rich has made people vulnerable to even the most ludicrous scams, such as Nigerian “princes” who fleeced many people when that scam first appeared. The second Bush administration used fear to sell the American public the invasion of Iraq; fear and tragedy is likewise used by American news outlets to keep viewers tuned in. “If it bleeds, it leads,” has long been the U.S. media’s unofficial protocol. There are also crimes-of-passion whose most notorious figures include John Hinckley, Amy Fisher, and Amy Nowack, to say nothing of other domestic abuses that are committed out of anger or the pursuit of power. Even now, in 2013, emotionally driven insanity has expelled a child from school because the sign-language he uses to say his name apparently looks too much like a gun.
To be fair, we might ask what has reasoning done for humanity? For one thing, it has advanced science over religion as a way of knowing how the world works and this has resulted in a much more comfortable lifestyle for much of humanity. Medicine is a scientific invention and science is the noble child of philosophy. (Even many so-called holistic medicines work, having been shown to work by reasoning medicine men of ages past.) Reasoning has also allowed for social justice, as previously mentioned. As you’ll notice of our day and age, where there is little social justice, there is also little reasoning. If we, as a species, took time more time to reason, it seems likely many of the greatest tragedies in history could have been avoided.
If we think about the Nazis again – it always comes back to the Nazis; they’re just so useful in thought experiments – if they or the nation of Germany had stopped to think about whether the Jews and gypsies were actually the cause of the country’s problems, if they had taken the time to really come to the right conclusion or if they did come to the right conclusion think about a solution that didn’t involve genocide, incredible suffering could have been avoided. I feel similarly about the invention of the atomic bomb; there was little doubt that it could be built but how much debate took place over whether it should be built? Even if it should have been built, how much reasoning went into dropping not one, but two nuclear bombs on Japanese civilians at the end of WWII? Today, a similar lack of conscience has gone into the invention of genetically modified foods, as short-term profits are driven by the emotion greed with no consideration for what the long-term effects of such food might have on humanity or the environment that supports human life. I’m not sure the world would improve greatly by stopping to think once in a while, but not stopping to think has already proved to be disastrous. Why not go down that other road and see where it goes?
I’m not going to say there are never times when we shouldn’t revel in emotion. If I’m sitting on the beach alone watching the waves, feeling a breeze, the sun warming my skin, listening to the birds…no reasoning is necessary since I’m not dealing with other people and taking no action. I am able to be and enjoy the esthetics of my surroundings. Likewise, I can listen to music and let whatever effect it is going to have me take its course because it’s just between me and the music. Unless the stereo is loud enough to disturb my neighbors, there is no reason to restrain what the music I prefer does to me. Sex, of course, is also most fun when it is uninhibited, but such is a situation where there is someone else to consider and reasoning must come into play should an otherwise consensual partner no longer consent (or not consent at all). Emotions do have value, just not at the expense of other people.