Is reason overrated?

Carefree, AZ

That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.

Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.

The elephant and the rider

Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.

Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.

The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.

The lord of the rings

The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.

Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.

Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.

Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.

Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.

Reason is indifferent to virtue

It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.

How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.

But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.

Reason is a social activity

No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.

Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.

The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.