Emotions and the Meaning of Life

A painting of an autopsy, by Rembrandt, entitled "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"

Do emotions influence your view of the meaning of life more than rational considerations?If so then our thinking about meaning isn’t neutral but thoroughly infused with prejudices. In fact it is probably impossible to separate our reason and emotion from each other, and recent research suggests that emotions play an important part in our reasoning.[i] Our philosophy may simply reflect our personality.

Yet there is evidence that reason and emotion lead to different results when applied to philosophical issues. For instance, consider the “trolley problem,” where a runaway train approaches a fork in the track with one person tied to the track on one side, and five persons tied to a track on the other. People are more likely to recommend flipping a switch diverting a train to kill one person rather than five, than they are to recommend pushing a single individual in the train’s path to divert it—even though the outcome of the actions is the same. The typical explanation of this discrepancy is that flipping the switch is a more neutral action that elicits a cognitive response whereas pushing the person elicits a more emotional response.[ii]

We don’t know how or if our brain fuses its rational and emotional components to make philosophical decisions. It could be that reasoning leads to conclusions about meaning, but that our emotions resist them; or it could be that a unitary brain decides. We just don’t know. (It is doubtful whether talk of rational and emotional brains makes sense.) Given this uncertainty as to the role reasons, feelings, and attitudes play in the evaluative process, as well as whether our models adequately describe brains, we should be skeptical of our philosophical conclusions. If we really want to know what is true, we should continually reevaluate all of our tentative conclusions. We should remain fallibilists.


[i] Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995).

[ii] Joshua D. Greene, “The Secret Joke of Kant’s soul,” in Moral Psychology, Vol. 3: The Neuroscience of Morality, ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).

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