Morality Needs Both Logic and Feeling

My new blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

As a child, I was a big “Star Trek” fan. I never wanted to be like Captain Kirk. The world was full of Kirk wannabes. My hero was Mr. Spock: stoic, brilliant, and supremely logical.

But is logic enough? With all due respect to Mr. Spock, the answer is no. Feeling is an essential part of moral judgment and moral action.

Even our Jewish tradition, which focuses more on what we do than what we feel, answers that logic is not enough. As Hillel said:

“That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Logic by itself can’t reveal what is hateful to you or your neighbor. Only feeling can tell you that. And even if you know how your neighbor feels, why should you care? If you care, it’s probably because of empathy, the ability to feel your neighbor’s happiness or suffering as if it were your own.

The role of feeling and empathy are well known both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Though best known for writing The Wealth of Nations (1776) that founded modern economics, Adam Smith was also famous for his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he wrote:

“However selfish man may be, there are principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others … That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it.”

Feeling helps us find the right things to do. Logic helps us understand and prioritize them. As A.J. Heschel wrote:

“Love offers an answer to the question of how to live. In Truth we find an answer to the question of how to think. … It is impossible to find Truth without being in love, and it is impossible to experience love without being truthful, without living Truth.”

Failure of empathy makes us indifferent to the suffering or happiness of others. We’re particularly vulnerable to such failure when we don’t see the people and events first-hand, with our own eyes. “Seeing is believing:” it’s easy to ignore what we don’t see. And it’s a short step from not seeing, to not wanting to see, and finally to closing our eyes so that we can’t see.

In the early 1940s, most Germans really didn’t know about the death camps. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to believe. If they had, they would have been forced to make a terrifying choice. So they didn’t. Their great-grandchildren and their nation still bear the shame of that failure.

But just as logic is not enough, feeling is not enough. Feeling pushes us to solve the problem we see, but it doesn’t consider problems we don’t see. In real life, there are always trade-offs.

We can all feel empathy for the suffering of people in war-torn regions of the world. When confronted with images and news reports, our natural inclination is to help: to bring them to our countries, take them into our homes, and so forth.

That’s entirely laudable. But there are trade-offs. How would our actions affect our families and our societies? How would we know that the people we helped were refugees and not jihadists? Moreover, money we spend on helping refugees from other countries is money we cannot spend on helping the poor at home. We want to help both, but we can’t. Our resources are finite. We must make a choice. Our actions have opportunity costs.

Finite resources aren’t the only issue. Sometimes, as controversial Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner remarked, the best way to help people is not to help them. If we help them the wrong way or at the wrong time, then we deprive them of the personal strength and self-respect they’d get from solving their own problems. Of course, that can also become an excuse for not helping people when we should. By itself, feeling can’t tell us when to help or not help.

The upshot is that neither feeling alone nor logic alone should guide us. We need both of them to make sound moral decisions. There are no cookbook answers, even in Jewish law, which we must apply with honest intelligence and generous hearts.

How can we learn to use both logic and feeling in a balanced way?

  • Do engage in activities that remind you about the importance of all human beings. Such activities include study, religious observance, volunteer work, and morally inspiring entertainment.
  • Do consider both the benefits and potential costs of your actions.
  • Don’t make important decisions impulsively or when you’re in the grip of strong emotion.
  • Don’t forget that although everyone is equal in human dignity, your duties to everyone are not the same. Your first duties are to your family, to your community, and to your people. Make sure that your actions to help anyone else don’t conflict with your most important obligations.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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