On Philosophy

May 14, 2007

Spock And Kirk, Reason And Emotion

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I argued that it was best to ignore fleeting desires in preference of those that are more stable. And if we are attempting to maximally satisfy our desires it also follows that we should always act as reason dictates, in order to maximize our chances of satisfying our desires. Together these principles seem to imply that we should ignore our emotions. Almost by definition emotions push us towards actions that are not dictated by reason, which is why we call them emotions and not deductive conclusions. If acting on the basis of emotions can be justified it must be because emotions might be considered a certain kind of desire, or a cause of certain desires. However, most emotions, at least the kind that tend to prompt action, are short lived, and thus we may very well conclude that it is best not to act on the basis of emotion.

One famous example of a fictional person without emotions is Spock, of Star Trek fame. Spock acts according only to the principles of reason or, in his words, logic. And Spock is never swayed by emotion (except in that one episode with the plant). But despite the supposed advantages of being Spock it seems reasonable that we might prefer to be Kirk. Kirk is certainly more likely to be swayed by emotions than Spock, and certainly more fallible. However, Kirk seems to enjoy life more. From the outside we might have greater admiration for Spock, but if we had to live the life of one of them it may seem sensible to choose Kirk.

I am inclined to agree with this intuitive assessment; it might very well be better to be Kirk than Spock. Of course Kirk isn’t perfect either; it would be best to feel emotion like Kirk, but to make choices as good as those made by Spock. This might seem to contradict my previous claim. After all I have just advocated ignoring emotions, so how can I justify a preference for Kirk over Spock? The key point is that not being swayed by your emotions doesn’t mean not having them. It is perfectly possible to have an emotion but refuse to be swayed by it in any significant way*. That is the best way to live, as I see it.

Remember the ultimate justification for my advice on whether to be swayed by an emotion or fleeting desire or to ignore it is in order to best maximize our total satisfaction with life, not just in the moment, but over its entire extent. However, satisfaction itself is a kind of emotion (although not quite the same kind as pain or joy). Thus a life lived without experiencing any emotions would be one not worth living (although it wouldn’t be something to be avoided either).

* Of course it is possible that Spock does have emotions, and simply chooses not to show them. In which case it would indeed be preferable to be Spock. Now I am not an expert on the original series, but it seems more likely to me that Spock didn’t have emotions. Feel free to correct me if I have gotten this bit of Star Trek trivia wrong.

Update: Apparently I was wrong about Spock, since he is half-human he does experience emotions. Of course the point I am making still holds, but perhaps I should find a better analogy, like Data.

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