Pyrrho on reason and emotion


“I know at least a few people here who share David Hume’s view on the relationship between reason and emotion (or passions). I’m leaning toward it as well, but I wonder how Hume would would explain the following scenario, which I suspect that many members here have encountered while growing up and thus are familiar with.

“Bill wants to play computer games rather than doing his homework. However, it is clearly not in his interest to play too much computer games at the expense of him homework. Many (non-Humeans) would view this as a conflict between Bill’s emotions (he should play computer games) and Bill’s reason (he should do his homework).””

Pyrrho the second

“That is actually nicely dealt with by Epicurus, but you want Hume, which, in this case, will be basically the same.

Okay, here is the deal: Bill’s emotions tell him he does not want to be a loser when he grows up, and he wants to know various things. He then applies his reason to this, and that gives him a bit of a conflict with his immediate desire to just play video games, because his reasoning tells him that he is going to have problems in the future if he totally neglects his studies. If Bill is not a fool, he will pay attention to his reasoning regarding what he desires (which is about emotions) for his future, and not just play video games.

You can have the same conflict between any other immediate desire and a desire about the future that is not compatible with satisfying all of the immediate desires. In such cases, people often imagine it is a contest between reason and desire, but in reality it is a contest between two desires; one about immediate pleasure, and one about the future.

Or, if you prefer, if Bill did not care about his future, then he would not regard it as a bad thing to just play video games now. It is caring about the future that brings reasoning into the matter, but the caring itself is not reason. The reasoning is relevant because it is what tells him the various facts about how to get one result in the future versus another result. Wanting one of those results and not wanting another result gives him a desire to bring about the one and not the other, and consequently he looks at the means to bring about the desired future state. Reason is the source for figuring out the means to whatever ultimate ends one has.

When thinking about things logically and rationally, those things can tell one how to best achieve one’s goals. But reason and logic do not give one any ultimate goals in the absence of emotion. That is sometimes confusing for people because of the fact that reason can give one intermediate goals, based upon the ultimate goals emotion gives one. Thus, for example, if one wants to be healthy, reason can aide one in setting weight goals, exercise goals, eating goals, etc., that are all of them intermediate and which tend to lead to the ultimate goal of good health. But reason does not tell you to value good health, except when the good health is itself an intermediate goal to something else that one’s emotions have given one as a goal.

Reason tells you about facts of various kinds. But unless you care about those facts, they have no motivational power. That caring is emotion.”


This Post Has One Comment

  1. whynot

    So, does Bill rely on emotions or reason to decide what to do now? I agree that emotions are responsible for value assignment. I don’t think emotions are responsible entirely for resolving conflicts between values. Bill may use reason to analyze the consequences of a choice either way…but his emotions will not facilitate this analysis…only reason and rational thought can do that. He may rationalize his way into a bad choice if he fails to use reason to guide his way through the conflict. I use rationalize here in the negative…as in making weak excuses not to do what he believes he should do, but doesn’t want to do right now. Bill can rely on his emotions to erect a veto over his reasoning by rationalizing an excuse to put off doing what he knows or believes he should do, in favor of doing what he enjoys doing more…playing video games.

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