Are reason and emotion equally important in justifying moral decisions?

 Each day we are faced with options. Often times we find ourselves questioning whether the decision we made was the “right” one, the “morally correct” one that we can reasonably justify to others and to ourselves. The benefit of being able to justify a decision enables our conscience to avoid the emotion of guilt because we know that we did the “right” thing. How do we know that the decision we made was morally justifiable? Sometimes we know based on our religion, our culture, the law, intuition or even having the answer biologically ingrained into us. With all these ways of knowing, maybe emotions and reasoning do not play a significant role in our justification of our decision until it comes to persuading someone that we are right. At what point, do the moral foundations of reasoning enable us to ease our own emotions and those around us? Is it more important for us to intuitively know or have emotional peace within ourselves because we act correctly, disregarding any evidence?


In order to discern if emotions and reason play an equal role in justifying moral decisions, we must, first question whether either, emotion or reason can be independently used to justify a moral decision. David Hume once claimed, “Reason is, and ought to be, a slave to passion (emotions),” as such, one can assume that if emotions were removed, human reasoning would be drastically altered. In a study led by several leading neuroscientists, when a group of people who had suffered damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region essential for the normal generation of emotions, where given a hypothetical situation where a minority of people being sacrificed would lead to the betterment of society as a whole, a utilitarian approach, ensuring “the greatest happiness for the largest amount of people” was easily taken by the test subjects. Although, not immoral, the utilitarian approach, due to it’s disregard of emotions, stood in direct opposition to the majority of society’s moral values and decisions. Thus, from the study Antonio Damasio  “reason alone is not enough to make a moral decision.” We can therefore conclude, that in the absence of emotion, human reasoning no longer remains aligned with societal expectations of moral decisions; therefore causing the decision to be immoral. Similarly, emotions without reasoning result in humans acting irrationally and primitively, based on inbuilt and instinctive reactions. In conclusion, neither emotion nor reason can be independently used to justify moral decisions, without the aid of the other.

If a moral decision is based on our religion then we have the emotional peace of having granted all responsibility to a higher power. I know that a large part of me takes comfort in having the Ten Commandments for direction and evidence that what I did is right. One time, when my seven-year-old nephew asked if he would ever die, because of his age I felt the desire to protect him, shield him from an answer that I knew would only scare him. Nevertheless, I knew that the ninth commandment is “thou shalt not lie” and I also knew that God’s commandment left no room for exceptions and that morally, such a justification held no limitations. However, when my mother was ill in hospital and she specifically told me not to tell my sister, who was in America at the time, the ten commandment (instead of giving me direction) left me torn. I did not know if there was a hierarchy in the commandments. The fifth commandment states “Thou shalt honor thy mother and father” but did this commandment hold more weight than honoring God’s other commandment that I should not lie? This time, I could not deduce the correct answer. Finally though, I chose to listen to my mother because I was much more scared of my mum’s authority than that of a God I couldn’t empirically see, touch, hear or see; therefore I couldn’t know without a doubt that he existed, and I faced the uncertainty of not knowing what he would have desired at that moment in time. In justifying my moral decision with my nephew, reason played a more significant role than my emotions. Nevertheless, with my mother, the fear of her wrath (thus emotions) played a more significant role in justifying my moral decision than my reasoning did.

Reasoning can often be used to justify an initial emotional response to an occurrence. In terms of emotion or reasoning having, dominance over the other, rationalist Emanual Kant believed in the supremacy of reason over emotions in deciding a moral decision. Upon hearing of a Thai actress who had aborted her child, my initial reaction of outrage that such a cruel act could only serve to win her more publicity made me view her decision as immoral. However, the level of strength that our initial emotional responses actually hold in such a situation, does not take into consideration the cultural rational surrounding the issue. In Thai society, how a person is perceived and how they present themselves has a greater importance than their actions or their personalities. She could easily justify her abortion by claiming that she did not want a baby that would ruin her figure and her career and people would understand. The moral principles upon which she based her decisions were correct within Thai society. Although, to me the justification was weak and unconvincing; to someone raised in Thai society the justification was strong and persuasive. This enables us to conclude that through reasoning, the initial emotional response of a person can be altered and as a result, in the justification of a moral decision, reasoning would actually prove superior. However, it must be noted, that the actress the decision was based on what decision would provide her with the most emotional security or societal acceptance. Joshua Greene, a Harvard Cognitive Scientist, with the aid of an fMRI device, monitored the two areas of the brain associated with higher order reasoning and rapid emotional responses in people who were given hypothetical moral dilemmas to ponder. His studies disproved Kant’s theory and presented the increasing importance of emotion as both areas, which were monitored lit up during the activity. Greene’s studies support Damasio’s claim that “reason and emotion are not so diametrically opposed and straightforward but rather intricately intertwined on a physiological level and reliant on each other.” Therefore, in the case of the actress, we must note that her reasoning was emotionally driven and that emotions and reason were both important in justifying her decision. Nevertheless, whether the role of the two remains balanced throughout all cultures and upbringings is questionable.

We often turn on our televisions and come face to face with documentaries or advertisements seeking to appeal to our emotions in hopes of convincing us to buy a product we do not need, or support a cause we would not have initially given any thought to. The media uses “shocking” images, biased footage and “loaded language” full of strong adjectives to instigate an emotional response and although from a legal point of view, as long as they do not make direct false claims and only distort the truth to a minimal extent than they are still within the realm of moral rightness, in a legal sense. We cannot criticize them though; they are simply doing their jobs. Yet, if the media, the largest form of communication available on a national level, has chosen to prioritize emotions over reasoning then maybe emotions are more important in justifying a moral decision. Yet, if emotions are so easily swayed and ranging across different cultures, would it be rational to base our moral decisions on them? A documentary on the domestic abuse of elephants would not invoke as strong an emotional response in a Thai person as it would in an American person, simply because a Thai person would have seen the elephants used in the shows and known that the media was exaggerating the information. However, replace the elephant with a child and suddenly both cultures would form emotional attachments to the abused child. Biological empathy for an organism of the same species and at an age perceived to be “young and innocent” evokes a much stronger emotional response than that of a moral dilemma further removed. In such a case, emotions play a greater role than reason in the justification of a moral decision. However, can moral decisions range in importance, and as such, in itself, alter the balance of emotional and reasonable justification? It can be said that the greater the moral dilemma and the greater our emotional reaction, the less of a moral decision it is and the more of an automatic, built in emotional reaction that hinges on our upbringing, the decision becomes.

As a knower, I have come to conclude that both emotions and reason play roles of importance in justifying a moral decision. However, I have found that the shift between the balance of the two and the supremacy of one over the other differentiates depending on the moral decision at hand, and the attachments that can be formed, by the knower, to the moral dilemma. I do not believe there is great benefit in extracting one from the other, as I am Christian. I do not believe we would have been born with the two if it was not for the intertwining and equal reliance we have upon both of them. As such, although the importance of each may alter across different moral decisions, they both still play equally important roles in the justifying of any moral decision.




Ø       Damasio, Antonio R., Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Quill Publishing, (2000)

Ø       Solomon Robert C., The Handbook of Emotions, Pg. 3, The Guilford Press (2004).

Ø       Zalta, Edward N., "Kant's Moral Philosophy." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University Press, (1997)



Ø       Koenigs M, Young L, Adolphs R, Tranel D, Cushman F, Hauser M, Damasio A. R.. "Damage to the Prefrontal Cortex Increases Utilitarian Moral Judgements." Nature 21 March 2007

Ø       Greene, Joshua. "An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgement." Science, vol. 293, pg. 2105-2108 (2001)



Ø       A study guide of the NIV Bible ,Concerning the 10 Commandments,, 20 February 2008.