One trap that freethinkers and other proponents of rational thinking should avoid as they would a hungry bear out for a stroll, is the tendency to think of reason as the opposite of emotion and thus of emotion as the frenzied sweaty trembling enemy of cool calm Reason.
That’s not how things are.
For one thing, at the most basic level, it’s now understood that damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion doesn’t result in a hyper-rational person but a dithering useless mess. Cognitive science is demonstrating that emotion is not the antithesis of rationality but a necessary part of it.
But more than that, for the purposes of thinking about human-related subjects – moral, political, social – it’s not rational to exclude emotion from the discussion, because humans are emotional. If you try to talk about human affairs in the terms suitable for talking about machines or blueprints or chemistry, you will get a train wreck.
I don’t mean that people arguing or writing articles about moral or social issues should be in a heightened emotional state themselves; I mean they should not pretend the subject is a matter of pure logic or number-crunching or engineering.
Above all, what we should not do is claim that our argument is Pure Reason while that of our opponent is nothing but emotion. It won’t work, for a start, and it’s not likely to be true, and it’s toe-curlingly arrogant. It helps to remember that we all have enormous built-in cognitive flaws, and that it’s never safe to assume we’ve managed to correct or avoid all of them at any given time.
In any case it’s pointless to pretend we can think and talk about moral or political issues with emotion neatly extracted, because the reason we want to argue about them in the first place is because we care about them. They matter to us. We don’t bother to argue about things that don’t matter to us. Morality is rooted in feelings – we want some things and want to avoid other things. Morality comes in when we extend that to other people – that is, when we understand that other people have the same basic needs we do and …
The next step is the tricky part. It’s easy to want good things for me; what’s that got to do with wanting them for you, let alone all seven billion of us? There are various answers – oxytocin, parental care, co-operation and sociality, reciprocation, trust, expanding circles, and more, but the basic combination of wants and aversions, plus understanding that others share the same wants and aversions, is the foundation.
The goal can’t be to strip emotion out of our thinking on these subjects, but only to channel it in the right ways. That requires both reason and feeling – and as Hume pointed out, feeling has priority.
We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them – The Treatise of Human Nature 220.127.116.11
Kenan Malik, below, in a talk at the Global Humanist Conference in early August, noted the confusion many people have between religion and finding the right moral values.
Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students – would-be Anglican priests, as it happens – on “Why I am an atheist”. Part of the talk is about values. And every year I get the same response: that without God, one can simply pick and choose about which values one accepts and which one doesn’t.
Yes, one can, and furthermore one has to, with God or without God. What else should one do? Simply do what one is told? Simply do what one is told by clerics, without asking whether what one is told is good or bad? That would be a terrible idea. Religions have condoned and even mandated slavery, human sacrifice, subordination of women, mass murder, persecution of unbelievers and heretics and followers of all religions but the one doing the persecuting.
In any case what is it you’re obeying if you’re doing it with God? Something from a holy book, or something said by a cleric, via a holy book or a new revelation or interpretation. You’re not obeying the actual God, so the reality is that everyone has values “without God”. Many of the people who do it with God have the comforting (to them) belief that they’re obeying God, but really there’s no chain of transmission that demonstrates that to be the case. There are only books written by human beings, mostly a long time ago. There has been a good deal of cumulative improvement in moral values since then, so trusting priests to steer us right is a terrible idea.
One of my favorite illustrations of this thought is in chapter 31 of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck is having an agonizing attack of conscience over “stealing” the slave Jim from his owner. He imagines that God is watching him and planning to punish him, so he composes a note to the owner telling her where Jim is.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking –thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing.
But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell’ – and tore it up.
Huck Finn picked and chose, as we all have to. We do it with reason and feeling working together.