Helm explores role of emotion, morality, rationality in human reason

By Justin Kozloski, Senior Staff ||

Bennett Helm, Elijah E. Kresge professor of philosophy, delivered a Common Hour presentation on emotional reason. Photo by Krissy Montville ’14

What does it mean to be a person? This was the question this week’s Common Hour sought to answer with a talk by Bennett W. Helm, Elijah E. Kresge professor of philosophy, titled “Emotional Reason and what it is to be a Person.” This Common Hour was slightly different in that there was a sign language interpreter provided by the American Sign Language association.

Helm began his talk by outlining how traditional schools of philosophy have sought to define a person in the past.

“Traditional philosophy holds that emotion and reason are in constant oppositions but that is a misconception,” Helm said. “Emotion is fundamental to the formation of our
reasoning.”

To begin, Helm pointed out that recently, people have begun to reduce the concepts of their values into terms of currency and that this concept, of reducing intangible experiences of emotion, is decreasing the role emotions play in the formulation of reason. He also went on to show how we deem some experiences priceless and what this means for the money-based value system.

“To say that [experiences] are priceless is not to say that they are worth any amount of money that you might be willing to pay for them,” Helm said. “Rather, it is to say that the value they have is a value that cannot be assessed in monetary terms.”

After pointing out that basing emotions on monetary value is impossible, Helm moved on to define what it is to be a person.

“The classification of persons is not the same as the classification of human beings,” Helm said.

Helm also pointed out that there can be persons that are not human beings and human beings that are not technically persons, such as infants and the severely mentally-handicapped who cannot internalize and contemplate their emotions and experiences in a way that allows them to be defined as persons.

“The criteria for being a person is designed to capture those attributes which are the subject of our most humane concern with ourselves and the source of what we regard as most important and most problematic in our live,” Helm said.

Helm went on to discuss how people are both rational and moral creatures and how the rational mind cannot be separated from the emotional and moral aspects of a person.

“When we talk about ourselves as rational animals, philosophers believe that there are two separate states of reason,” Helm said. “There is theoretical reasoning which is reasoning about that which is true. That can be as mundane as trying to figure out where you left your cell phone to as to as complex and interesting as scientific reasoning. There is theoretically reasoning on the one hand and on the other is practical reasoning. Practical reasoning is reasoning on what to do, which includes not merely trying to satisfy our desires but, more interestingly, trying to figure out how to live.”

“We are rational creatures and we are also moral creatures,” Helm continued. “Moral creatures are creatures that are capable of some kind of moral agency and this involves being responsible to moral standards and accountable to others, both practically and theoretically. Practically for what we do and theoretically for what we think.”

This discussion of persons as both rational and moral beings led to a conclusion about the role of emotions in the determination of our agency to both reason and make decisions about important matters.

“What I want to suggest is that our capacity for free and responsible agency are grounded in our emotional and social nature,” he said.

However, in order to understand this statement, it was necessary for Helm to explain the formation and understanding of emotion and how this construction leads to the development of value and care.

Helm defined emotion as a patterned response to something either positive or negative that happens to an individual. This pattern of response is constructed based on a target, which is the object or event that triggers a response, a formal object, which is the evaluation of the emotional response, and the focus, which are the background events that make someone care about and make intelligible the emotive evaluation in terms of the formal object.

“To care about something is to have that object have import to you,” Helm said. “To care about something is for it to be the focus of a projectable, rational pattern of emotions. To value something is to care about it as an element of a life that is worth living.”The conclusion to the talk was the statement that the ideas of split rational thinking and the irrational emotion are false and that both are necessary for the construction of the person.

“The mind is not the sort of thing that is split into an irrational faculty of emotion on one hand and the ration faculty of judgement on the other,” Helm said. “Rather, your emotions and your judgements come together as more or less equal partners to form a single value perspective. A single perspective that constitutes our
caring.”

 

Senior Justin Kozloski is senior staff. His email is jkozlosk@fandm.edu.

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