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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > June 2019 > Is reason the slave of the passions?

Is reason the slave of the passions?

YES Yes, reason is ultimately subordinate to the passions. David Hume already knew in the 18th century that our thinking is less directed by logic and reason than most supposed. He would not have been shocked by psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s findings that the instinctive, emotional, fast thinking of the brain’s “system one” usually trumps the slow, logical cogitations of “system two.”

But Hume’s challenge to the power of reason is more radical and interesting than this. He wrote “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

It is one thing to accept that reason is driven by emotion, quite another to believe that it should be. But Hume was correct. He understood that pure reason is motivationally inert. Logic alone cannot give you a reason to do something or not. Through reasoning, for example, we can sometimes do utilitarian calculations to see which of a given range of actions would produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But that cannot tell us why we ought to want the greatest happiness in the first place. The only “reason” we have to want to increase the welfare of sentient beings is a kind of moral sympathy.

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In Prospect's June issue: