I often hear that we are emotional beings, that we make decisions based on our feelings, mood and emotions. These decisions may not be logical and serve us best.

On the other hand some argue that we humans are logical beings, use logic and science to argue and build, and advance in life. So what is the verdict in your option or in the opinion of majority of philosophers, can humans be categorized as logical species or are most of our decisions emotional? If we are more emotional than logical then our intepretation of life and events happening around us is different than when we look at humans as entities making logical decisions that produce the same result. Can we say the creation of proper governments and physical tangle products such as structures are from the emotions?

  • There's two or three questions here. One question is "do most philosophers think we are rational or emotional?" (which could perhaps be better qualified by asking about contemporary views or views in a period than the ambiguous "most"). There's a second question about whether it matters whether we are more logical or emotional. There's third question about political philosophy. Can you narrow this to the one that interests you the most? And then potentially ask in other questions the others if they are still relevant.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 2:24
  • It seems to me "obvious" that the answer is "we are both". But I've come up short looking for studies that very clearly demonstrate the strong influence of rational thought on emotions, and of emotional state on what should be rational decision making. (I've only found the latter.) So I'm not sure. It's an empirical question, I think; I just haven't seen/found the right studies to have a good idea of the answer. I wonder whether they've been done?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 8:04
  • @RexKerr It's a very current topic in philosophy. There's several things be funded by the Templeton Foundation that relate to this, e.g., character project at wake forest, a new project at St. Louis University, another one at Marquette / N.D. I think one of the difficulties is that philosophers can't just armchair this and need to work with psychologists on it. The classic picture of pure rationality is a view I only see in the literature as boogeyman but I haven't seen definitive work on this question. Closest I've seen is Martha Nussbaum.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 8:07
  • @RexKerr You can look at 'cognitive dissonance' studies like Festinger's as the effect of rationality on emotion, in that having a rational explanation for your own behavior insulates one from having your emotional reactions altered by experience. (The less I reward you to do something you dislike while pretending otherwise, the less clearly you can recall the actual dislike, and the more likely you are to get duped into doing it again. I am removing the emotional manipulation caused by your forced pretense by providing a rational motivator.)
    – user9166
    Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 14:36
  • 1
    Yes, they do!!!! Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 18:49

6 Answers 6


This is a false dichotomy which falls apart under a little introspection. In attempts to contrast reason with emotion, we are confusing the message with its medium.

We are biological entities, and we refer almost every aspect of our state of mind through our senses and emotions. Even when you are acting logically, that logic is mediated through an emotion. We have a feeling of 'rightness' or 'clarity' when we accept our own deductions, which is, in itself, a physiological sensation that accompanies or predicts the mind's ease with the decision. If we cannot reach that point in some way, we do not find the action reasonable, whatever its source.

We rely upon our emotional machinery to accommodate our experience and to come to give this signal of 'rightness' in the presence of appropriately logical deductions. But we expect the same of our other emotions when we learn to fear the sound of an oncoming car but not to be afraid of the dark. Effective fear that has served us appropriately seems equally 'right'.

In the end, just as we may avoid accidents by trusting our fear, other successful use of logic rests upon developing a trustworthy relationship with other emotions, often this emotional sensation of harmony. In more modern terms, rationality depends upon finding ways to resolve "cognitive dissonance".

Cognitive dissonance experiments themselves seem to indicate that whatever behavior we exhibit that cannot be explained rationally to ourselves becomes part of our future reason, usually in the form of perceptual bias. If we work harder than expected and are not paid more we retroactively find the work more pleasant or more meaningful than if we were paid more (see Festinger). Boot camp and hazing create a sense of duty. Seemingly perversely, removing the threat of punishment makes people feel unsafe (see studies of early Naval discipline, of the aftermath of Stockholm syndrome, and of the domestically abused), because we internalize compliance as a value when we answer to authority in defiance of our own logic. Habit becomes logic the same way logic becomes habit.

This can be used as a basis for a general theory of learning via emotional adaptation, where we are evolved to incorporate reason from outside sources to exactly the degree we do not already have it. So when apparently effective external causes escape our ability to explain them, they become part of our understanding, instead.

It is tempting to point out the experience of using language to capture logic. We can try to identify reason with verbally-processed motivation. But we see at the same time how verbal processing can be used to whip someone up into a frenzy or impart dread. So this is not a useful contrast, either, just a trend.

Tradition has often tried to make a distinction between the chaotic emotions and the calmer reason. But really there are only a range of emotions from the more chaotic to the most calm, and the latter are more trainable by experience.

So we have no choice but to act from emotion, which has been trained by experience, and therefore incorporates reason. They are layers in a mediated system, with reason relying upon emotion for its acquisition and enforcement.


Jobermark's answer is very well considered. If I might add a few points :

Historically, philosophers have often admired rational, logical thought over emotion. This may be an error. It is very difficult to disentangle the emotional and rational aspects of decision making. With respect to the general functioning of mind, it may be impossible to have one (rational thinking) without the other (emotion).

The neuroscientist Antonia Damasio refers to this as "Descartes' error" and provides evidence that emotion is intrinsic to thinking and decision making. For example, people who have suffered frontal lobe damage become emotionally flat. However, they do not become super-rational decision makers; rather, they become unable to make up their mind at all.

On a lighter note - another problem is that what may appear to be an illogical decision to one observer, may appear to be perfectly logical to the decision maker (or to another observer) - or vice-versa. [aside : We probably all have a family member who fits this bill.]


The idea that people can always act rationally, and should strive to do so, if they know what is good for them, is attributed to Socrates. But already Plato, his student, gave an allegory, where the chariot of soul is driven by two horses, one of reason and one of passions, with charioteer struggling to control them. With the rise of Christianity and focus on such philosophical subjects as the nature of evil, morality, weakness of will, etc., Socratic rationalism came to be seen as hopelessly naive.

In our time the issue partially moved to the realm of psychology, where relations between rational, moral and emotional influences in determining human behavior are studied empirically. A major figure in psychology, Freud, gave the following surnise of the issue:"The voice of reason is small, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind, but in itself it signifies not a little".


You mentioned logic and emotions. You missed out on instinctive behaviour. In a very short time frame, when a very fast decision is needed, instinct takes over. Say you cross the road, and hear a car with screeching tyres coming around the corner. Logic: I could try to reach the other side of the road as quick as possible. Or I could (thought ends when you are hit by the car). Emotion: I feel good, but the noise of that car is annoying me. It also makes me feel fear and (thought ends when you are hit by the car). Instinct: Run. On the other side of the road there is time for emotion and logic.

  • I think you might bifurcating emotion and instinctive behavior in a way that depends on an idiosyncratic definition of emotion. Or put more simply, there's a wide range of things under emotion that can include primal drives, fleeting feelings, sustained dispositions, and outlooks (or some the contemporary researchers on this topic tell us).
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 9:33

The question of whether humans act on logic or emotions was largely the topic of Trigant Burrow's book, Preconscious Foundations of Human Experience.

Trigant Burrow, (September 7, 1875 – May 24, 1950) was an American psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, psychologist, and, alongside Joseph H. Pratt and Paul Schilder, founder of group analysis in the United States. He was the inventor of the concept of neurodynamics. - source: Wikipedia

In Preconscious Foundations, Burrows says due to humans' long evolution in basic tribes our brains are wired for instinctive and emotional interactivity. Logic and reason, and even language, were late-developed skills compared to our long, basic ancestry.

Nevertheless, language and logic are spellbinding. So much so that a new level of consciousness now sits over the preconscious foundations. Problems can arise when the new logic, such as 'given in books', runs counter to basic, instinctive preconscious thought patterns. In fact, Burrows said that this synthetic, compelling 'logic' and literalist language sometimes runs so counter to the more natural, instinctive thought patterns that it make people ill. His form of therapy was for people to try to get back in touch with their emotional selves, rather like an early version of primal scream therapy.

So, in conclusion, humans probably act on given logic too much for their own good. On the other hand, our culture helps people to self-actualise and think for themselves, and on that score being logical is probably beneficial. People can still tie themselves in knots doing that though.


My opinion is that humans make decisions based mostly on emotion. However, the few times we make logical decisions, specially in consensus with others, "better" outcomes are obtained. Some survivor studies have shown that the chances for a group's survival, are increased when there is a consensus of opinion. In most instances, staying calm (not emotional) will allow us to select a more appropriate course of action.

  • 2
    Can you improve on this answer by making it depend less on raw opinion?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 9:32

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .