Would human behavior be more or less ethical if decision making was devoid of emotional attachment?

There are many different philosophical systems that argue either for or against emotional attachment like Buddhism, stoicism, Christianity, and the emotional attachment to the right to pursue happiness is at the center of much of the attitude of modern life as the most desirable goal. What would the implications be on ethical behavior without the desire to attain a feeling?

Imagine a thought experiment of a simulated reality similar to the matrix except at any point you could hit the reset button and restart the simulation and every time you died it automatically restarted. It could be argued that living in such a simulated reality you would never develop an emotional attachment to anything (not even your own life as there would be no reason to fear death) or fear losing it because you could just hit the reset button every time an experience that you wanted to be extended or repeated ended. Inversely you would never fear any consequence to any act. In such a reality what would be considered ethical behavior. The idea of reincarnation would imply reality itself resembles this kind of simulation.

  • The frst part of this question seems identical to this question: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/14386/… though I'm not sure if I understand the latter half of the question. Are you asking about the implications of emotional detachment to ethical decision making, or more broadly, or something else?
    – That Guy
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 20:20
  • Spinoza says something very strange about this in the Ethics, basically that everything done on account of passion could also just as well have been done on account of reason -- I'll try to track this down
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 16:45

2 Answers 2


In Western Buddhism there appears to be a common misconception that Buddhism requires emotional detachment; I'm not sure that this is correct.

The central problem that Siddartha Guatama, the Buddha identified is that of dukkha, in all its manifestations - one of which is suffering; and what leads to suffering is trishna that is thirst or desire (its useful to recall here Humes aphorism that 'reason is the slave of the passions'); this does not mean all kinds of desire.

To give a simple example - to eat when one is hungry is correct, to stop eating when one is not is also correct; to not eat when one is hungry is not correct; to keep eating when one is no longer hungry is also not correct; it is desire that motivates all four assertions; but the first form of desire is correct; and the second is not. One should detach oneself from the second form of desire; and not the first.

it is tamas that separates the first couple of assertions from the second; that is ignorance - this may not be simply at the level of individual but also at the level of society (ie food advertising).

What is true of a natural physical desire like hunger is roughly true of a non-physical desire whose expression is emotion. Thus it isn't emotion per se that one should be detached from; but to express or feel them in the right kind of way; to detach one self from harmful manifestations.

Nussbaum, a Jewish-American philosopher of law, in her book Hiding from Humanity makes a similar claim - that the law must take emotion into account; both in its judgements and in its understanding the plaintiffs suit and the defendents motivations. She writes:

Perhaps, then we can formulate Dworkins proposal as the proposal that emotions are alkways irrational in the sense they emody defective thought, thought that should never guide us in important matters.

The Greek stoics had such a view...they did hold emotions were normatively irrational as a class. A person who thinks well will have none of them...[however] it is not a view on which a system of law can be plausibly be based. It makes no sense to have criminal laws if rape, murder, kidnapping and property crime are not really damages, as a strict stoic would require us to believe.

To get back to Buddhism; karuna (compassion) is a central preoccupation, the Dalai Lama writes in the Stages of Meditation:

Moved by compassion[karunā], Bodhisattvas take the vow to liberate all sentient beings. Then by overcoming their self-centered outlook, they engage eagerly and continuously in the very difficult practices of accumulating merit and insight. Having entered into this practice, they will certainly complete the collection of merit and insight.

Accomplishing the accumulation of merit and insight is like having omniscience itself in the palm of your hand. Therefore, since compassion is the only root of omniscience, you should become familiar with this practice from the very beginning.

In the Buddhist tradition karma & reincarnation go together; to act well is to be reborn as a higher being; to act badly as a lower one; it is a metaphysics of judgement; within the Abrahamic religion there is only one life, and only one judgement; within the Indian traditions Judgement is a process; one might say it is more compassionate - as one has many lifetimes to learn how to escape samsara, the world of phenomenal being (tamas) & attain nirvana; whereas the Abrahmic religions allow only the one life, the one that one is living now.

Thus, one can say in the normative materialist or secular traditions of the West, emotion is a central component of Judgement, as Nussbaum affirms; in the main world religions - Indian & Semitic - compassion is a central virtue of Judgement.


ethics != emotion

There are examples of ethical behavior that might still cause a negative emotional response to some people, notably the greater good argument it still hotly debated on both sides. So simply removing emotional attachment would have little or no effect on the ethicacy (that has to be a word) of a person's choices.

Even in a universe where everything can be repeated and the consequences are marginalized they are never eliminated. Doing unethical things is still unethical even if the consequences are small. The only way to completely remove any concern for ethics without consequence to anyone is to isolate your choices from effecting anyone outside yourself.

So in your theoretical universe where we have infinite chances to redo everything, if one person kills another they are still behaving unethically because they are causing that person to have to restart and do everything again. This could possibly go on forever, in which case is becomes severely unethical and torturous to do this to someone over and over again for eternity.

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