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Reason, Emotion, & Relation


I have been an admirer of Scottish philosopher John Macmurray for two decades. His proposal for unifying reason, emotion, ethics, science, and culture was to see emotions as the basic human motivators. Reason was
actually a subset of emotion, an emotional state itself. It requires discipline to acheive a rational state of mind through the restraint of our immediate short-term emotional responses in the service of various long-term goals. Reason isn’t an end in itself, its complete fulfillment lies applying the acheivements of reason to our practical needs and goals.

These practical needs and goals are always carried out in the context of other emotional, reasoning, practical human beings, the context of community and relationships. To speak of culture as either something innate or as disconnected from reason doesn’t seem accurate. Culture is a product of human relations, as is ethics. We are born helpless in this world at the mercy of caregivers we can’t comprehend. Some speculate that religion arises from this primal dependence. Culture, and generalities are somewhat elusive, can be characterized as the emotively symbolic creations that arise from our emotional and relational context. Similarly, Science can be characterized as the cognitively symbolic creations that arise from more strictly rational and objective pursuits.
To complete the classical triad, Ethics can be characterized as the practical application of both reason and emotion to relational situations.

I don’t think it is accurate to hold that ethics arises from intuitions, though this might be a question of  terminology. I see the human ethical sense as a development of perspective-taking. We are born with a fairly
narrow realization of ethical capacity, though our brains are fabulously equipped to expand this capacity. Piaget’s stages of cognition have been complemented by Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. While there is
some controversy about the exact character of moral development, that we do develop from narrow to wider moral reasoning seems indisputable. That this moral reasoning is deeply imbedded in intimate experiences of
family and friendship seems obvious to me.

In sum, I see emotion as the basic human response to life and reason as its disciplined partner, developing from an initially narrow individual reference to wider and more complex relationships. With Peter Singer, I believe that the challenge of our modern global world is to expand our historically provincial sense of community to the whole of humanity and nature.

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