The ancient philosophical debate about whether ethics is primarily a matter of reason or emotion has spilled over into psychology, where there is much current discussion about the nature of ethical thinking. But sufficiently rich theories of inference and emotion can clarify how moral judgments at their best should be both rational and emotional.
How can you do the right thing? People are sometimes told: Be rational, not emotional. Such advice adopts the widespread assumption that reason and emotion are opposites. This opposition is particularly acute in ethics, where philosophers and psychologists have long debated the relative roles in ethical thinking of abstract inference and emotional intuitions. This debate concerns both the descriptive question about how people actually do think when they are making ethical judgments and the normative question of how they should think.
Adjudicating this debate requires an evidence-based theory of emotions that mediates between two traditional theories: the cognitive appraisal view that takes emotions to be judgments about the accomplishment of one’s goals, and the physiological perception view that takes emotions to be reactions to changes in one’s body. The cognitive appraisal view is compatible with the potential rationality of emotion, because the truth or falsity of judgments can be evaluated. On the other hand, the physiological perception view puts emotions on the non-rational side, since bodily reactions are not susceptible to reason.
In an earlier post and more fully in a book, I have argued for a synthesis of the two views of emotion. The brain is capable of simultaneously performing both cognitive appraisal and bodily perception, and emotional consciousness results from this combination. If the integrated view is correct, we can see how emotions can be both rational, in being based at least sometimes on good judgments about how well a situation accomplishes appropriate goals, and visceral, providing motivations to act. Some emotions are beautifully rational, such as love for people who add great value to our lives, whereas other emotions can be irrational, such as attachment to abusive partners.
Ethical judgments are often highly emotional, when people express their strong approval or disapproval of various acts. Whether they are also rational depends on whether the cognitive appraisal that is part of emotion is done well or badly. Emotional judgments can be flawed by many factors, such as ignorance about the actual consequences of actions and neglect of relevant goals, such as taking into account the needs and interests of all people affected. Adam Smith is sometimes taken as preaching a gospel of self-interest, but his work on moral sentiments emphasized the need for ethics to be based on sympathy for other people. Hence the emotions involved in ethical thinking can be rational when they are based on careful consideration of a full range of appropriate goals, including altruistic ones. Ideally, this consideration should mesh with a visceral reaction that provides a motivation to act well and correct injustices. Being good requires both thinking and feeling.