We readily assume that rationality is necessarily contingent upon our ability to suppress or suspend our emotions. In other words, we view emotion as an enemy of reason, and believe that both are mutually exclusive. To be more reasonable means to be more calculating, emotionless, and detached; to be emotional is to be erratic, reckless, and unstable.
This formula is pervasive across popular culture, entertainment, and media. The individual that exercises logic, critical analysis, or some other form of higher intelligence is usually portrayed as having suspended all feelings, to the point of being cold and aloof. By contrast, the more passionate and expressive character is often hot-headed, unreasonable, feckless. They’re two sides of the same coin, complementary in some cases but otherwise intrinsically in conflict.
This Manichean perception is widely held among most people and is arguably intuitive. In fact, I once prescribed to it as well, and only as I delved into topics like politics, science, philosophy, and other disciplines (mostly in the humanities) did I come to realize the beneficial synergy of my emotional proclivities and my intellectual ones. I now find myself battling this stigma that holds that any demonstration of logical or rational thinking is indicative of callousness or arrogance.
Many people even regard the use of inquiry, skepticism, and analysis as symptoms of an unethical and immoral worldview; those who take such approaches are stereotyped as mechanical utilitarians looking strictly at the efficiency or cost-benefit nexus of a given issue, dismissing the “human” element (though such methods of analysis aren’t necessarily heartless in and of themselves, but rather only when applied without ethical considerations). Maybe it’s just a confirmation bias on my part, but I’ve encountered it frequently enough in both media and personal experience to find it to be a relatively widespread notion.
For one, there is an issue of semantics. Emotions need not be personified strictly in their most explicit forms: being emotional isn’t only about being sensitive, quick to anger, or manic, as the average person would think. Emotions pervade every thought, action, and belief. When we’re saddened or perturbed by poverty, for example, we’re in a technical sense being emotional. If we feel a strong sense of justice and fairness, then we’re demonstrating an emotional investment: contentment at seeing justice prevail, compassion at making sure it does so, and anger if it’s violated. In both these examples, we’re also displaying the crucial emotion of empathy, which I’ll get back later.
Moreover, there is psychologically no such thing as distinct, inseparable components of either emotion or reason. No normal human being could ever completely shut down or suppress one or the other, nor would doing so strengthen one at the expense of the other. Displaying one’s emotions and exercising one’s higher thinking faculties is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Certainly, we all have varying degrees with which we utilize either one, depending on the subject, mood, or individual (as well as numerous other externalities that shape our minds, such as chemical imbalances, how we were raised, neurological pathologies, and so on).
In reality, the two areas are inseparable, and often even dependent upon one another. We need an emotional capacity for our rational minds to operate. Without emotions, we have no deep-seated sense of right and wrong. We’re naturally capable of being passionate about truth, justice, the well-being of others, and other moral and ethical considerations. Therefore, we need these emotional considerations to feed our desire to think critically and determine what is right from wrong, or to figure out what course of action is best for benefiting ourselves, our loved ones, and our sense for virtue.
Too often, we assume being logical and rational means you must be cold, mechanical, and even inhumane. On the contrary, a more intellectually and philosophically developed mind is far more suited to developing a reliable basis for justice and morality, provided that our heart is also in the right place. Generally speaking, however, a well-developed and critically-thinking mind is more adept at weighing the many options of a given choice, or of knowing the deeper details of topics pertaining to law, politics, psychology, and other crucial areas dealing with human well-being in some form or another.
Thus, exercising our higher faculties requires a level of emotional commitment. There is no reason to think critically or rationally about the nature of injustice or the solutions for poverty without some emotional investment – compassion, altruism, disgust with unfairness – to promote it in the first place. If I don’t care about living a virtuous life, or helping others to flourish, why think about it in the first place?
This is not to suggest that one must be a sage to be capable of just or good behavior. Plenty of smart people can be well-versed in absorbing the raw data of knowledge, but be less keen in their ability to perform the requisite critical thinking needed for understanding and developing a moral/ethical worldview; similarly, they may also have less empathy, or have failed to apply their higher faculties for good causes.
Thus, the key to being a good person – defined here as being knowledgeable, virtuous, and compassionate* – is to dispel this false choice between being emotional and being rational. Sure, lacking self-control of one’s emotions can be detrimental, just as thinking too much can lead to indecision or detachment from a subject. But that doesn’t mean that being emotional or reasonable is, in principle, a matter of choosing one and rejecting the other. Humans are meant to display emotions. It’s healthy and necessary, and it makes life better for us. But we’re also meant to be problem solvers, to use our unique capacity to think, analyze, and reason to address any number of obstacles – practical, ethical, existential – that inevitably come our way.
As a great philosopher once said, an education of the mind without an education of the heart is no education at all. Indeed, the same works the other way around. We must utilize the best aspects of our minds, and take a holistic and balanced approach to how we better ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us.