Ignoring Emotions Is Not Rational

There’s a trope that I’ve seen in a few places that emotions are inherently irrational and that if we want to be rational human beings we should strive to ignore our emotions and pay attention exclusively to facts. Most recently when Richard Dawkins stepped in it when talking about rape he doubled down by saying

“I think dispassionate logic and reason should not be banned from entering into discussion of cannibalism or trapped miners. And I was distressed to see that rape and pedophilia were also becoming taboo zones; no-go areas, off limits to reason and logic…

The point was a purely logical one: to judge something bad and something else very bad is not an endorsement of the lesser of two evils. Both are bad. I wasn’t making a point about which of the two was worse. I was merely asserting that to express an opinion one way or the other is not tantamount to approving the lesser evil.”

Dawkins’ point seems to be that logic and emotion are bitter enemies and that when we allow our emotions to reign logic necessarily will disappear. While he never explicitly states that he thinks we should excise our emotions from important discussions, he prioritizes the role of logic (particularly “dispassionate” logic) over anything else and derides emotion. This underlying theme of “emotions are bad when we’re talking about important things!” is something I’ve heard over and over, and all I can say to it is that cutting out our emotions when discussing things (yes, even philosophical questions) that affect our lives is not actually rational at all.

I’ll be the first to admit that when emotions are the only thing we take into account, we miss most of the facts and we generally end up making horrible decisions. But emotions are actually designed to give us further information about our situation. Let’s look at fear as an example. Fear is often held up as an example of “bad” emotion that will cause us to act irrationally. But fear was designed to protect us. If you’re in a dangerous situation, fear gives you immediate, motivating information that you need to get the hell out of there. It is 100% logical to be afraid if you’re in danger.

Where emotions become less rational is when they’re not actually matching up with a situation. If you’re afraid of leaving the house but there is nothing in particular outside your front door that is going to threaten you, it’s a good idea to rethink and challenge that fear. But if your fear is typically fairly well balanced and you start to feel fear when you walk out the door, it might be a good indication that you’ve picked up on something out of place: someone suspicious loitering or a large tiger for example. In those cases, if you don’t take your emotions into account, you could easily end up injured.

Generally, emotions are good for getting information quickly and when we have a good amount of time to think about something we can probably come to the same conclusions without necessarily requiring that emotion. In many of these cases that doesn’t negate the rationality of an emotion. Your first response to something might be anger and when you take the time to unpack the nuances of the situation it turns out that someone has in fact violated your boundaries and it makes perfect sense to be angry. Your anger is then a completely rational part of your self-identity and serves purposes like motivating action and helping make decisions (for example cutting someone out of your life who refuses to accept your boundaries).

But if an emotion is nagging and nagging at you no matter how logically you look at a situation, it might be a good idea to ask why because sometimes there are important considerations we haven’t fully articulated just yet and emotions are a helpful way to find those. There have certainly been times in which I’ve tried to convince myself that my anxiety around another person was illogical only to discover that they didn’t respect my boundaries or behaved in ways that made me uncomfortable and my emotions were 100% logical in the first place.

Emotions didn’t simply spring up out of nowhere. They were natural evolutions to provide us with protection and information, form social bonds, and survive more effectively. Any time we try to excise them from our lives we’re not only highly likely to fail, but we’re also losing out on an additional source of information. It’s not the only source of information, and I wouldn’t recommend relying on emotions in isolation, but the glorification of rationality over anything else results in ridiculous statements like the one Dawkins made. Don’t be like Dawkins.



Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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  1. Does anyone else notice how Dawkins’ sillier pronouncements are rooted in HIS emotional response?

    HIS 30 second molestation didn’t register as harmful TO HIM. Therefore…

    I’ve found that the ‘offensive’ things he’s said are almost reasonable. He goes off the rails when he mistakes his own, emotionally tinged, reactions for something fit to base sweeping generalizations upon.

    1. Many of us even speculated that he’s in denial about how harmful it was to him, IIRC.

      A lot of guys do this. I did so for a long time. In the end, it’s…not constructive, and it’s only giving in to society’s deep state of denial wrt: rape.

  2. As John pointed out, can’t help but notice that he described himself as “distressed”. Well, I’m sorry Professor, but your exhibiting emotion invalidates what you have to say, so I’ma have to ask you to sit down.

  3. Isn’t evil an inherently emotive concept, and isn’t judging also an effect of emotion at least partly? So wouldn’t that make judging evil inherently emotional? Or did I miss where we are keeping the big book of this is logically eviler then that?

    Perhaps Mr. Dawkins can explain to me why killing a beautiful butterfly is logically more evil then killing an ugly cicada. Or maybe he could just point out how stupid that concept is and perhaps learn something in the process, but then I tend to give smart people too much credit sometimes.

  4. Examining and questioning our emotions is sensible.

    Pretending that we have no emotions or ignoring them outright or saying that having emotions is stupid is not sensible.

  5. That’s not even what Surak meant, anyway – his ideology was that Vulcans should master their emotions, not excise them entirely.
    What do you mean we’re not talking Star Trek? Of course we are. Nobody would be so ridiculous as to try to adhere to a fictional philosophy!

    I would point out, though, that if you do manage to look at the world in a truly dispassionate manner, you’ll be able to turn yourself into a wasp and fight that tiger off.

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