Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TOK: Reason and Emotion

The following is a post I put together for my TOK class this year:

 We're often told to listen to reason and not our emotions.  Emotions might help us in the moment, but they won't help us in the long run.  Emotions are about immediate gratification (getting what you want right away, living for the moment), not long-term planning.  Emotions are wild and unpredictable.  Reason is domesticated, calm and respectable.

But is that really so?

Or is the truth more like this:  People who try to change your mind about something by telling you not to follow your emotions are actually being hypocrites.  When they tell you not to follow your emotions, they are actually appealing to your emotions.  They are appealing to your sense of responsibility, and where does responsibility come from, if not emotions?

Emotions give us love, empathy, compassion, joy and excitement.  Emotions may just be the glue that holds society together.

Consider this scenario:  You don't want to do your homework--you'd rather go out with some friends.  A voice in your head says, "Aw, the homework isn't so important.  You can get it done during a break tomorrow.  It won't be great, but it'll be fine.  Just go out and have some fun!"

Then another voice says, "Wait a minute, now.  Let's be responsible.  You know that if you don't do the homework tonight, it's not going to get done properly.  You might get a bad grade, and you won't learn the material."

The first voice returns:  "Aw, you're no fun.  Come on, let's have some fun for once!"

The second voice answers:  "Fun?  Is that all you care about?  What about your education?  What about your future?"

I'm sure you've had similar arguments in your head about all sorts of things.  Is this a fight between reason and emotion?

We might say that reason is the voice that is concerned about the future, about education and responsibility.  We might say that emotion is the voice that wants to have fun with friends, and which is trying to justify not doing the homework.  Emotion is the voice of rationalization.  So reason seems smarter, perhaps, but also totally boring and a real downer.

But we don't have to look at it that way.  Actually, I don't think we should look at it that way at all.

First of all, there are reasons to go out and have fun.  Not every homework assignment is going to make that much of a difference.   That argument about your education and your future all hinging on this one homework assignment?  That's a very bad argument.  Why should you think that your entire future is going to be destroyed because of one homework assignment?  It's not like the first voice was saying that all homework is a waste of time, and that you shouldn't do your school work at all.  The first voice was just talking about one homework assignment and one night.  So the so-called "voice of reason" here wasn't being very reasonable.

We can easily be misled into thinking that we are listening to the voice of reason, when all we are actually hearing is a very bad argument.

This is not a fight between reason and emotions.  It is a fight between two different points of view:  One view is that you need a break and going out with friends is more important than doing your homework.  The other view is that doing your homework is more important than going out with friends.  Both views rely on reason and emotion.

QUESTION 1:  Can you think of any real situations where you had a conflict between reason and emotion?  How do you know it was not just a conflict between two different points of view, each with their own emotions and reason?

Emotion keeps us interested in the world and our role in it.  If we had no desires or feelings, we would have no motivation to act.  Without emotion, our reason would be a cold, heartless tool.  In fact, we might not be able to reason at all if we didn't have emotions.  What motivates us to formulate arguments in the first place?  What motivates us to accept premises?  Remember: no matter how well-reasoned your argument is, your conclusion is only as good as your premises, and those can't all be based on reason.  If we had no emotions, we would have no reason to use reason.

Yet, there is a common belief that reason and emotion are against each other.  It's a very, very old idea, going back many centuries.  In fact, the idea that reason and emotion are enemies is such a well-established part of Western culture that it was used in the 20th century for propaganda. And so we have the 1943 Disney cartoon, "Reason And Emotion."

(The actual cartoon starts about 30 seconds into the video.)




This unfortunately very sexist cartoon was one of numerous wartime propaganda films that Disney made for the US Government in the early 1940s.  On the surface, the cartoon appears to be about the dangers of being led by our emotions.  That is not what the film is really about, though.  The purpose of the film is not to educate Americans about human psychology or theory of knowledge.  It is to increase support for the American war effort.

The propaganda really begins in the middle of the cartoon, when we see John Doe, an everyman, sitting at home trying to "keep up with current events."  He does not know who to believe or what to think:  On the radio, in the newspapers, in the streets, everywhere he looks he hears people talking about the war, about how America is doomed, about how it is a waste of money.  His emotions are driving him crazy.  Then the friendly narrator's voice comes in to guide him away from his emotions and towards reason.  And, of course, reason tells him that America should be in the war and everything is going to be okay, so stop worrying and just be happy.

The irony is that the narrator does not really lead us away from emotions at all.  Instead, we are given exaggerated representations of Hitler which appeal heavily to our emotions.  Apparently reason and emotion have a common enemy:  Nazi Germany.  At the end, we are told that reason and emotion should be patriotic--notice that patriotism is an emotion--and they should fly together.  If our emotions are good and healthy (in other words, if they are patriotic), then they will let reason drive.

The conclusion of the movie is very clear:  It tells us that any Americans who oppose the war are unpatriotic and led by emotions.  Of course, the cartoon does not appeal to reason--we are not given factual reasons to support the war--but only to emotion.  But it creates the illusion that we are following reason, and that is the key.

Again, it seems that when we are told that we must choose between reason and emotion, we are being misled.

QUESTION 2:  Why do we distrust emotions?  Perhaps because we think that emotion and reason are at war.  Where does this idea come from?

QUESTION 3:  What if reason and emotion don't compete for the driver's seat?  What if we need a totally different metaphor to understand the relationship between reason and emotion?  Can you think of any other possibilities?

Perhaps reason is the navigational tools on a sailboat, and emotion is the water and wind that keeps it afloat and moves it forward.

Or maybe reason is a flashlight, and emotion is the bulb that glows.  Or is emotion the flashlight and reason the bulb?

QUESTION 4:  The ultimate question is, in our quest for knowledge, how do we know when we can trust our emotions and the emotions of others?