Towards a Theory of Emotions as Decision-Making Justifiers

By Benjamin Koslowe

What rational thought can ever justify emotion-based decision-making? It would seem, at face value, that this is the wrong question to ask in a magazine whose ethos is unabashed, uncompromised pathos. And yet, upon further reflection, the question seems not only acceptable, but even fully warranted as Perspective closes the book on its first year of publication.

Answering this question begs an attempt at defining the terms ‘rational thought’ and ‘emotion.’ While I have not the page space—or, for that matter, the adequate precision of reasoning—to provide fully necessary and sufficient definitions that will hold up for this entire article, I think that loose stipulations can at least help clarify what I’m attempting to discuss. Let us say that thoughts are rational when there can exist logical lines of reasoning validating these thoughts, with no base intuitions or passions as necessary assumptions. And in discussing emotions, let us refer to those feelings that we commonly associate with our heart, as opposed to our minds—in short, phenomenological experiences including, but not limited to, eagerness, fear, hope, longing, and pride. Though I loathe terminology explanations that lack rigor, I suspect that this introduction will suffice to calibrate most readers’ comprehension of my intended meaning. I thus proceed.

My opening question quite obviously implies a certain worldview that values rational thought highly. Introspection tells me that, at least for myself, this worldview is essentially self-evident, an axiom too basic to be proved from other assumptions. My impression is that many people who instinctively discard such thinking would, when pressed, actually share this attitude. Are not the rules of logic the most basic, necessary reasoning tools of which we know, tools that categorically ought to trump our less reliable tools of instinct and the like?

After posing this question to myself and chewing it through sufficiently, I found three answers that seem satisfyingly coherent. I share all three answers both to cover a broad intellectual space, and also because I legitimately am not sure which explanation sits best with me.

Minimally, relying on ‘emotion’ in life decisions is justifiable because our emotions are equipped to serve us in rational ways. By some process of our intellectual development, we train our instincts to serve as an effective machine by guiding our decisions in the most proper way that cold rationality would dictate. Emotions have value of themselves, but not in themselves. We are justified in heeding our emotions only because they are effective substitutes for more nuanced logical reasoning.

Another explanation that makes sense, I think, is that emotions are justified when they serve as ‘tie-breakers’ in decision-making. Decisions involve complex thought processes (naturally), and we often arrive at a figurative crossroads, even after careful deliberation. Emotions can play a role here. After cerebral reasoning takes us so far before ultimately failing us, our emotions may as well seize the helm and steer a decision to its destination.

A third answer presents itself as well, an answer that in itself stirs serious uneasiness inside me, the kind of long-lasting and deeply penetrating uneasiness that arises only from existential angst, or sometimes from excessive Chobani yogurt ingestion. Despite my intellectual and practical commitment to logical thinking, it seems to be the case, I will grant with begrudging intellectual honesty, that I am simply not a fully rational being. Without imparting personal specifics, I can testify to several major life decisions that, when push came to shove, were more emotionally-driven than logical. Though my intellectual faculties may have played some role, these decisions ultimately came down to gut feelings rather than principled argumentation.

I feel confident enough, based on anecdotal evidence and life experience, to abstract this phenomenon upon other people as well; said otherwise, my circumstance is not unique. We act often based on our feelings, regardless of whether or not such is the supremely rational thing to do at those decision-making moments. We act in this way even, perhaps, when we are consciously aware that our instincts run counter to rationality.

If you have made it to this point in the article, I’m sorry to say that this is the end—I don’t have any more precise resolution than that which has been presented. Having read every article in this magazine, I know that there are writers and readers who value emotions, who stress the importance of processing and considering their impact on our decisions. Surely anyone who cares about intentionality in life can appreciate some philosophical waxing from time to time, even about unexpected topics. Perhaps some dedicated Perspective readers will reflect on their cherishing of emotional succulence, and the extent to which we permit it to justify our decisions.

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