Should emotion play a role in the evaluation of knowledge claims? Are there circumstances under which, in order to evaluate a knowledge claim, one should ignore or, alternatively, pay special attention to one’s emotions? We would think of emotion and reason as two completely different things. However, it is difficult to make a clear distinction between them. According to me, Reason is a sense of awareness; its function is to arrive at a conclusion from the observational data. And reason is a volitional sense; it has the power to change its logic and in turn its conclusions. Emotion, by contrast, is a sense not of perception, but of reaction to one’s perceptions. This kind of sense has no power of observation. In short, Reason is what one does to reach a conclusion and emotion is how one will live with consequence.
To test this premise, let us take an ethical dilemma as ethics uses both reason and emotion to come to a conclusion. Let the ethical dilemma be ‘Is abortion wrong?’ Let us use reason to come to a conclusion. One would see abortion as a wrong practice if their religion said it was a wrong practice (Christianity says that every life is precious) and if it is illegal in their country. They would see it as the correct thing to do if they do not have enough money to support the child, if they were rape victims and they do not want they baby and if it they already have children and do not want anymore. Let us suppose that I am a rape victim. I do not want the child but even though I have made my decision it is hard to finally do it. Even though there is debate on this issue, we would think of the fetus as alive and emotion would start playing. Emotion would make us think if we could live with the decision. If we couldn’t, we would probably change our decision so we could live with it afterwards.
So we can say that emotion is almost like an opposite of reason; there are times like when we are solving a maths problem, we are in the reason part of the spectrum and there are times like when we are furious we are in the emotion part of the spectrum and there are other times when we are somewhere in the middle. Let us consider another ethical dilemma. There was once a bridge which spanned a large river. During most of the day the bridge sat with its length running up and down the river paralleled with the banks, allowing ships to pass thru freely on both sides of the bridge. But at certain times each day, a train would come along and the bridge would be turned sideways across the river, allowing a train to cross it.
There was a man in a shack who controlled the bridge and one day he brought his four-year-old son to work. A ship was coming though so he told his son to go play while he put the bridge up. After the ship had passed, a train was coming so he had to close the bridge. But to his horror he saw his son down there inspecting the machinery of the bridge. If he closed the bridge to let the train pass, he would kill his son. But if he let the bridge up he would kill everyone on the train. He chose to sacrifice his son to save everyone on the train. Nobody on that train knew that their life was in danger and what the bridge keeper had to do.
It is very rare that someone uses reasoning over emotion to come to a conclusion in an ethical situation. The bridge keeper used reasoning to see which the correct thing to do was; whether to sacrifice his four-year-old son or to sacrifice approximately 200 people in the train. He came to the conclusion that sacrificing his son for all the people on the train for the lesser of the two devils. However, his emotion or the question “How will you live with the outcome?” did not change the conclusion. It could be that his reason was much stronger than the emotion and he forced his emotion to live with the consequence, even though it would be hard for anybody. If I was put in that situation I would personally (if nobody would have found out) saved my son. But then if I was really put in that situation I do not know what my real actions would be.
Let us consider yet another ethical dilemma. I experienced this dilemma myself around 2 year ago. In my previous school, my best friend had done something illegal where he could hurt himself. I knew of it, but I did not know whether to tell anybody so he was safe but in trouble or to not tell anybody so he wasn’t in trouble but not at all safe. Let’s look at it in the reason perception, he would be punished in both conclusions and if I tell anyone he would not be friends with me and if I don’t, he will continue to hurt himself. If I chose either of the two conclusions I would not be able to live with it afterwards. So we would have to look at this from the emotion aspect. We would have to use our emotion to see in which case we would see him safer. We would see him safer if we told somebody as there would not be such a long term effect of danger to his life.
Emotion blunts reason. Emotion leads to biased perceptions because if we can’t reach a conclusion we can live with, we distort the reason so it does become a conclusion we can live with. Emotion makes us make fallacious reasoning. Emotion doesn’t make sense that way. Emotion makes reason point to the conclusion we want even though the reason doesn’t make sense. Isn’t that how God or religion was created. We wanted a reason the universe was created and so our emotion created God. And emotion in ethical issues shows us the right path – emotion (sympathy, anger, sadness) will show the answer we want which we hope to be correct.
Here is my last dilemma: A company who sells drugs has made a new drug. They know that there are some side effects which will affect some kinds of people very badly. Is it right to put it on the market knowingly to make money and to harm x amount of people? We would think it is wrong so that is what our emotion tells us to. So our emotion, a way of knowing, can be connected to our gut feeling, or if we think about this psychologically, ESP. So therefore I think emotion should play a role in the evaluation of knowledge claims. It should because if we cannot live with the conclusion it is usually something bad. Just like in the case of the bridge keeper, if individuals do not use emotion it is their choice. But it still should play a role in the evaluation of knowledge claims.
Lagemaat, R.V.D. (2005) Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press