• Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

Are reason and emotion equally necessary in justifying moral decisions?

Free essay example:

Are reason and emotion equally necessary in justifying moral decisions?

Making moral decisions is central in our everyday lives. We may look to reason, a logical basis for an action, and emotion, a state of feeling that arises spontaneously, as justifications for making these moral decisions. Moral decisions can be defined as the choices that individuals make according to right and wrong[1]. However, each individual handles moral decisions differently– some people depend more on logic and reason to help them decide, while others prefer to rely on their emotions to guide them towards a moral solution to their problem. Let’s consider the scenario where a man has lost control of his car and in his path is his mother. If he swerved to avoid his mother, the car he will hit three children instead and whoever he hits will die. Based his actions on reason, he may hit his mother because it will be one life lost compared to three, however, he may be branded as callous, killing his own relative. In contrast, if he followed his emotions, he may decide to hit the children instead as he may be overwhelmed by the thought of killing his mother, which could result in him being seen as selfish. This example demonstrates how reason and emotion are important in moral decision making, though evidently, other factors will also influence the decision to some extent. This essay will explore whether it is equally important to consider reason and emotion when discussing moral decisions.

Reason and knowledge may appear to be contradicting emotions, but there is actually a link between them. They are often conjoined with logic and rationality. To be rational, we need to use evidence, analysis and reason to ‘work it out’. Conversely, being irrational ties in with tenuous or no evidence, a lack of critical thinking and emotion.

A person must have knowledge in order to make a decision. Our knowledge derives principally from our senses, though some things are assumed. When making moral decisions, we use our knowledge and understanding to come to a conclusion. However, our knowledge may be wrong, which affects our decision making. It is important to determine the ways of knowing because we respond to situations by what we know. Our knowledge and understanding needs to be justified, for example, George can say that he wants to see a particular film; he would need to have a good reason in order for him to know. On the other hand, emotion adds feelings to knowledge. It affects what you believe in and how you react to it.

Knowledge has to be objectively right and you must believe that it is true. For example, if a person who believed the world is flat later finds out that he was wrong as the world was actually round, he would have to admit that he did not know, he only thought he knew. Therefore, good evidence is needed to to support the statement for it to be knowledge.

A problem of knowledge is that when we act by what we know; we tend to let our biases interfere with our decisions. Emotion is needed in making moral decisions but reason is needed to justify moral decisions. Reason and emotion are often seen as opposing aspects. Emotions are subjective to each individual and situation whereas it can be argued that reason is absolute. A teleological theory is the view that believes moral decisions should be made according to the ends. Therefore, the theories deal with reason rather than emotion. An example of a teleological theory is utilitarianism, which believes that everyone’s aim is to be happy and to avoid pain[2]. It sees ‘good’ as the act which brings the maximum amount of happiness for the maximum amount of people[3]. Let’s take the example of torturing a prisoner for information on the whereabouts of a bomb which would ultimately kill many people. If the prisoner is tortured, the result would be many people avoiding pain compared to one suffering, therefore it is logical. However, there are implications in this as it assumes that emotion does not play a role in the decision making. Emotion may play a role in this situation as a want not to inflict pain on the prisoner. Without, emotion, people may be ruthless. Therefore, it is important to have an equal balance of reason and emotion when making moral decisions.

Plato also acknowledges that reason and emotion are opposing aspects. He uses the metaphor of a chariot and two horses. The two horses represent reason and emotion, and they are pulling at different directions. The idea is that only one aspect can prevail, usually the belief is that emotion should be suppressed and reason should be focused on. Problems are solved by reason and emotions are seen as the barrier that obstructs the path.[4]

Emotion tends to be seen as a problem for knowledge rather than a source of it.[5] Therefore it is hard for a person that has strong feelings of emotion to think reasonably. Let’s take the example of a man that is angry that his wife had an affair, he may act irrationally and choose to threaten her with a knife. This act would surely be classified as morally wrong as he is inflicting suffering upon another person. Additionally, his reasoning is clearly clouded by his emotions. Therefore emotion should not be in excess when making moral decisions and we should be reasonable rather than emotional. It is possible that the man may calm down later and regret his actions.

There may be some cases where we are split between two choices, where reason tells us one thing, and emotion tells us another. For example, there is a young girl in hospital on a life support machine and her parents are given the decision whether to switch it off. Reason may tell them that the machine may be needed by someone else, but on the contrary, emotion may influence them not to because, effectively, they are letting their daughter die. It is evident that it is more practical to switch off the machine so it could be used by someone else, which again shows that emotion should not be in excess when moral decisions are made.

In conclusion, it has been shown that there must be a balance of reason and emotion, so they are both equally important when justifying moral decisions. Emotions are natural to us, but we tend to be biased to what we believe which makes it a problem in our decision making. Reason is needed to justify the moral decision; both aspects are in fact compatible with each other when they are in balance.

[1] Ethical Studies Second Edition, Robert Bowie, Published by Nelson Thomas (16 April 2004)

[2] Philosophy: The Basics, Nigel Warburton, published by Routledge; 4Rev Ed edition, 13th May 2004

[3] Ethical Studies Second Edition, Robert Bowie, Published by Nelson Thomas (16 April 2004)

[4] ALCHIN, Nicholas; Theory of Knowledge (John Murray 2003)

[5] Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, Richard van de Lagemaat, Cambridge University Press 2005

This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge section.

Not the one? Search for your essay title...
  • Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

Related International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge Skills and Knowledge Essays

See our best essays

Related International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge essays

  1. Reason And Emotion

    posing an objective stance and rationally scrutinizing the event from a variety of (primary and secondary) sources. Finally, the area of moral ethics is where reason and emotion go hand in hand. In the early stages of the development of modern philosophy, it was widely accepted that emotion played the major role in justifying the reasons behind our moral system.

  2. are reason and emotion equally necessary in the justifying a moral decision

    While making a decision reason is used so that the outcome can maximise the good it will bring to people and minimize the suffering people may have to endure. But sometimes reason alone doesn't help us in making a moral decision.

  1. Are Reason and Emotion Equally Necessary in Justifying Moral Decisions?

    commands it.3 In any case, the religious ethical codes act as the general premises from which justifications for moral decisions can be deduced. A combination of intuition and emotional beliefs, through faith in God, drives this reasoning process as conscience tells believers it is ethically right to follow their religious

  2. Reason and emotion

    However there are certain exceptions to the rules, for example chickens have wings but they don't fly. Thus one has to be careful when the rules are too generalized. This ability of categorizing information and making it connect with previous information to make sense allows us to learn new things and understand them better, without the need for emotional engagement.

  1. How does reason and emotion play a part in anything resembling a balanced person?

    are to be both smart and for the betterment of the world, not just yourself. A person who makes all their decisions through reasoning will be cold and distant. He won't be able to take any pleasure in the little moments that life throws at him, because he's too busy analyzing.

  2. Are Reason and Emotion Equally Neccessary in Justifying Moral Decisions?

    However, without the intervention of emotion, a greater population would agree that the child should be isolated in order to preserve the health of other lives. This would seem more logical as it would be putting down an individual and protecting many others as opposed to sparing a life and harming many.

  1. To what extent is language necessary for thought?

    Immediate sensory input that is recognized by the brain still constitutes thought, but is not interpreted linguistically until shortly after, however, babies are born with photographic memories until they learn language. They soak up input like a sponge; while all sensory information is useful to them, sight is the most

  2. Are reason and emotion equal in justifying moral decisions?

    if one was disturbed by his conscience for stealing, his reason would tell him not to steal so that he is not harmed by his conscience. So it is evident that emotion is the major factor that guides one?s moral decisions in this situation although reason is needed to do what your emotions influence you to do.

  • Over 160,000 pieces
    of student written work
  • Annotated by
    experienced teachers
  • Ideas and feedback to
    improve your own work