Emotions and Reason

There is no consensus about a standard use of ‘reason,’ but it is frequently used as a contrast or complementary term for ‘faith.’  On this view, reason stands for the faculties of rational reflection, sensations and experience, memory and inference, and any a priori or a posteriori judgments that may be exercised without relying on a religious faith that is unsupported by reason.  In this schema, faith is beyond reason, but it may or may not be incompatible with reason.  Such usage is not, however, uniform, for some philosophers argue that the content of religious faith (e.g., there is a Creator God and Redeemer) is supported by reason.

Emotions (anger, love, hate, happiness) are sometimes distinguished from reason in ethical theory and thought to be in tension, though more recent works by Robert Solomon and others treat emotions as essentially involving reason. Anger, for example, involves a person condemning or feeling rage on the basis of reason, e.g. a belief that a wronged injury has occurred. In religious ethics, there is debate over the voluntariness of emotions (is a person responsible for their emotions?), the relationship of emotions and action (e.g. perhaps one can have a duty to engage in loving action, but it is more problematic to suppose that a person can have a duty to feel love as an emotion), and the ethical status and definition of emotions (e.g. what is the difference between love and lust?).


Conscience is the power to discern what appears to be morally right or wrong, a virtue or vice.  Religious ethicists debate the extent to which a person’s conscience is normative: if a person’s conscience leads her to think X is morally required, does she have a duty to do X?  Problem cases include persons whose conscience may be disordered but not due to any blameworthy act of the person herself.

Guilt and Shame

There is a distinction between objective guilt and feelings of guilt. One may be guilty of some act (betrayal of a friend) and yet have no feelings of guilt. Likewise, one may have feelings of guilt (one feels guilt for surviving an accident), and yet have not objective guilt (it isn’t their fault they survived). Customarily, it is assumed that you can only be guilty of what you are responsible (but this might not always be the case; See “Individual & Collective Responsibility”).

Shame is often thought to differ from guilt insofar as you may feel shame over something you have no control over. A white European male may feel shame about the European colonization of Africa, even though he has might not be blameworthy as an individual.


Ancient, medieval, and some modern uses of the term in English presuppose that courage involves the perceived risk-taking for a good, or at least an ostensibly good cause.  Risk-taking that is not for the good has customarily been described with other terms such as boldness or recklessness in the context Aristotle uses in describing an excess that fails to achieve a golden mean (moderation).  Current usage in English is vague and ambiguous.

Reason and Emotion in Ancient Sources

While the current, and in our view the most plausible, account of emotions construes the emotions in terms of cognitive judgments (anger cannot successfully be analyzed only in terms of physiological sensations, for the sensations may be present without anger), the emotions are often considered quite different from reason in Ancient Greece.  So, consider these lines from Medea just before she kills her children to avenge the betrayal of Jason:

“Go, leave me; I cannot bear to see you longer.  Overcome by grief, now I understand what I am about to do; Passion –that cause of our most dire woes – has vanquished my rational power.”

It would be not just a stretch (but false) to claim that there is a unified account of emotion, passion, and desire, on the one hand, and reason on the other in Ancient Greece, but the tension between the two is poignant.  A particularly brutal portrait of someone being taken over by passion (in this case it is the rage of the wolf or Lyssa) is when Diomedes goes berserk on the battlefield before the City of Troy in the Iliad. In general (and making this claim at the risk of over simplification), the philosophers often portrayed evil as something that is unnatural or something that is an aberration or perversion of something that ought to be good.  And while following one’s good or natural law is what we ought to do, sometimes doing so can be at a great price, as when Antigone follows a law that is deeper and takes primacy over a King’s edict (she honors her brother by burying his body notwithstanding King Creon commands that the brother’s body be left unburied, and thus disgraced).  In the play Antigone, we seem to see that NOMOS (the rule of law) is more ancient and authoritative than the rule of Kings.

In response to the madness of disordered passion (whether this is in the shape of the Minotaemotion and peace of mindur that Theseus must slay with the help of the beautiful Ariadne or the madness that is instilled by Dionysus in the Bacchae) philosophers sought to use their skills in calming the soul and
enhance the role of reason in human affairs.  In Isocrates’ Panegyrics, philosophy “was given to the world by our city.”  Philosophers were not all opposed to a life of passion and desire.  Indeed, Aristotle thinks that feeling pleasure in right ways is essential for a person to be good.  But such feelings must be in moderation.  The definitive work on all of this is Richard Sorabji’s Emotion and Peace of Mind; From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation.

The idea that evil or morally wrong action is a perversion of nature has a long history and may be seen in etymology.  For example, the English term ‘mad’ comes from the Old English gemaedde (13th century term for ‘diverging from a normal state or being out of one’s mind); see also the term gemaiths, a related cognate, that means (essentially) being hurt or maimed or wounded.  Our term ‘fool’ or ‘folly’ also hints at the idea of vice being a harmful modification of what is natural… So, ‘fool’ comes from  the Latin follis (a kind of inflated ball) and related terms include reference to that which is swollen or blown up…. The idea here is that foolish pride or vainglory involves one’s soul (and body?) assuming unnatural, disproportionate features.