Emotions, Emotional Training and the Right Way to Feel

Some emotions are better than others.

Is that controversial? I’m not sure. I think as a culture, we’re pretty confused about it. On the one hand, we tell ourselves and others that emotions are always legitimate, that we have a right to feel how we do, and that it’s wrong for others to tell us to feel differently. This is how we feel when others tell us to be less angry, or that it’s wrong to be upset or sad about something that makes us feel that way. On the other hand, we know that we shouldn’t be happy if something bad happens to a friend, and that there are things we shouldn’t be upset about. So how do we reconcile these?

I’m sticking to the claim that some emotions are better than others, which is to say that for a given situation, with a given set of facts known, some emotional responses are better to have. Some emotions may be more reasonable than others, an idea expressed, for instance, in accusing someone of overreacting. Some emotional responses may be more comfortable for everyone involved, as anyone who’s been in the same room as a screaming toddler knows. And sometimes certain emotional reactions are more appropriate, such as disgust for immorality or gratitude for favors done.

Now, it’s clear that enforcing this understanding of emotional reactions can be harmful and itself totally inappropriate. Watching people on the internet or in real life criticize the emotional responses of others, telling them they’re too angry about an issue or too sympathetic to an institution, is as cringe-worthy as anything I can think of. For one, emotions are utterly personal; they almost are our person, so criticizing them is a recipe for causing a lot of hurt and frustration. Second, telling people their emotions are wrong is probably one of the least productive ways to get them to change them, not only because you’re almost guaranteed a bad reaction, but also because emotional responses, if they can change at all, take a good long time to do so. And third, of course, these arguments are often incorrect; they criticize emotional engagement when it is neither morally incorrect nor inappropriate, but simply uncomfortable since it brings up difficult issues.

But if we maintain that for a variety of reasons, some emotions are better than others, then it must be the case that there are obligations in certain circumstances to change our emotional responses if they aren’t optimal, and also to change the emotional responses of others, as hard as both of those processes are. What does that look like? I don’t know, but I have a few examples and not totally coherent thoughts.

Becoming a skeptic or rationalist comes to mind as a good example of this. Sure, transitioning from believing things that aren’t true to things that are true is in part about the change of beliefs, but as most everyone would agree with, it’s in larger part about a change of approach. It’s learning to question instead of accept, to notice rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies and to think of the world as naturalistic and comprehensible. And a huge part of that is emotional training. We have to train ourselves to not feel defensive when offered evidence against our position. We have to notice the kinds of ideas to cause us to flinch away, and learn to lean into them. We have to cultivate the desire to investigate further and ask more questions when we notice something’s awry. We have to learn to be happy to be proven wrong. These are not strictly necessary to being a skeptic or rationalist, I suppose, but they make it a great deal easier. Furthermore, anyone who became offended and frustrated upon learning they might be wrong would likely be seen as a very poor kind of rationalist. Affect is part of the intellectual approach.

So it’s reasonable to expend effort on making ourselves better at having the emotional responses that help us become better rationalists. (It’s one of those bizarre habits of self-proclaimed rationalists that they deride the emotional life that might help them become better rationalists). We should work at being less emotionally attached to our beliefs and more happy to change our mind. And furthermore, we should be encouraging others to do the same. We can do this not by telling people that their emotions are wrong, but by modeling the emotional reactions we would like others to have, by extolling the virtue of those emotional reactions and by praising those who have them. This may sound manipulative, but it is no different than the way we encourage people to not get offended by reasonable accusations or to be disgusted by horrific crimes.

This approach makes sense for any ideological or epistemological framework, or really, any opinion at all. Democrats are best served when people are happy about tax increases and sad about gay marriage bans. Being a good Democrat might very well mean getting emotionally on board with that if you aren’t already, and it’s reasonable for Democrats to cultivate those feelings in others through emotionally laden advertising and rhetoric. And if you’re bothered by that, it’s your job to get in the game and convince people to have better emotions.

As an atheist, the community I inhabit tends to have not only strong opinions on the ill effects of religion, but strong feelings, too, feelings that they would prefer I share. As most who know me know, I don’t happen to share all of those sentiments (I like ritual and ceremony and holidays and practice). Now, I think I’m a perfectly good atheist anyway, but other atheists don’t like my approach at all. I think their emotions are wrongheaded and unhelpful, but since they’re trying to dismantle religion as a system, it’s pretty damn reasonable for them to want everyone to be disgusted and incensed by it. Moderate sentiments, like mine, do them no good. Hence the public shaming and the pope song, to get people to have different emotions than they do now. And maybe they’re right, not only on questions of facts but also of feelings.

Is it so wrong that this is the only bread I’m eating this week?

Sort of similarly, there was a recent debate about emotional attitudes towards the verdict in the Steubenville rape case. How should we feel about the victim, Jane Doe? Certainly not the way these people did, with dismissive, disgusting callousness. But then, how are we to feel towards the rapists? With sympathy, like this CNN reporter seemed to? Well, that got a lot of criticism, for exactly the reasons I’m explaining here. People who want to make rape as infrequent as possible (like me, and hopefully all of you), want everyone to be really, thoroughly disgusted with the kind of people who violate the boundaries, agency and autonomy of other people (see what I just did there?). No one gets a free pass on just “feeling how they feel.” Of course, people will feel how they feel, and it’s not their fault, per se, but emotions aren’t morally neutral here. They have an effect on people’s thinking and actions. It is therefore not only reasonable but morally required to try to shift the emotional responses of others. Of course, there are other goals at play, which is why some have tried to cultivate sympathy both for the victim, who obviously deserves our sympathy, but also the rapists, who are still teenage boys going to prison. This tangled question of how to feel is not purely subjective nor unimportant. How people feel matters in terms of their own moral standing, it matters to all of the people who know of their emotional state, and it utterly shapes the public discussion.

The debate about proper emotions is not so different than the debate about proper opinions, and not just because they inform each other so heavily. It’s a debate that is had in public and in private, through argument and through custom and through praise and condemnation, just as with matters of opinion. It also goes without saying that those who win the debate of emotions tend to win the debate of opinion as well. And just as we each individually seek to have opinions that best line up with reality, so too ought we to be cultivating the emotions that are best suited to the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the kind of people we want to be. Our emotions are not incidental to our actions and our opinions. They affect them tremendously. They are matters of ideological consistency, intellectual commitment and moral standing. They matter.

Advertisements

Polyamorous Marriage: Who is it good for?

Ladies, gentlemen, and the dapperest of the nonbinary: the day has come when the liberal agenda has gone too far astray, just as predicted. Now that they feel they have won the day on gay marriage, with 75 prominent Republicans giving their support to the cause, progressives are showing us just how slippery the slope is and asking for polyamorous marriage.

The evidence: A facebook post by one Mike Mei with the above link to the New York Times article about the Republican lawmakers and this commentary,

Okay. This debate is over. Now it’s time to focus on efforts to build a system that can extend the marriage rights structure to more than two people.

Obviously, this is not, in fact, the end of the world, but it is a new debate, and all kinds of new arguments will begin if this ever becomes a discussion of public interest. I imagine they’d be mostly along the lines of:
– we shouldn’t privilege some sexualities over others
– get the government out of marriage
– equal rights for poly folk
– what happened to traditional marriage?
– tax issues!!
– where will it end??
– destruction of marriage and the social norm
– what about childcare?
– etc.

Sound familiar? I bet that a couple fairly knowledgeable people could predict and hash out most of these arguments in advance (I’ve given some of my ideas here), so I’m not terribly interested in the traditional discussion.

But here’s a question that might come up that I do find interesting: “What’s the point? How many poly people are there, really? Not many. So why is it worth overthrowing our entire system of responsibilities and benefits for them?”

As a utilitarian (generally speaking), I think this is an excellent question. Let’s start with the assumption that the government should indeed be part of marriage and making people fill out individual forms for hospital visitation, next of kin, health insurance sharing, joint bank accounts, change of name forms, fifth amendment, guardianship of children, etc. would be unfair and/or unwieldy. There are plenty of arguments against this, but if we grant the assumption, who would it help to have some arrangement in which the benefits of marriage are shared among multiple people? (We’re also ignoring the logistical concerns here).

1. Poly people who want to get married: This is sort of the obvious one, since these are the people the law would ostensibly have been changed to accommodate. People in situations where they are in long term stable relationships that are usually romantic or sexual with multiple people, or are attached to someone who is in partnerships with multiple people, can all get married to each other. Which can mean that someone is married to multiple people or that multiple people are in a single marriage or both, in varying arrangements.

Homework: draw a polycule that encapsulates the whole world, accommodating everyone’s gender preferences.

But it could help other people, too, I think. Like:

2. Poor people: Low-income people are more likely to live in family structures that are multi-generational and that share income and childrearing duties among more than two people. This is especially true as regards single mothers, who are some of those most punished by the restriction of marriage benefits to married couples. It might be incredibly helpful to legalize the distribution of benefits and child guardianship across single mothers, their parents and their friends. Weird, I know, and I don’t know how to deal with the fact that those friends and family members are probably married themselves (or would like to be someday), except that in a world of poly marriage, you can just keep adding people (which has its own problems). All I’m saying is that poor folks might disproportionately benefit from this kind of normalized legal structure, much like they might disproportionately benefit from gay marriage.

3. Anyone involved in surrogacy, sperm donation or the like: This means infertile people, gay people, any situation in which more than two people are involved in the making and caring of a baby. This can include adoptive parents too. Many feel that one of the main points of marriage is to care for children. Sometimes, children are cared for by more than two people, and it may be important that all of them are considered kin, as in an adoptive situation where the birth parents are still in the picture. Furthermore, as you increase the number of potential configurations (two lesbians and a gay sperm donor on a birth certificate? Why not?) the more important it is to have contracts that can be agreed upon beforehand, so tragic misunderstandings don’t take place, as they almost did in the article I linked to. This would also be an excellent opportunity to further regulate the surrogacy industry, which is fascinating and complicated and rife with potential for drastic error.

Any other ideas for who might be helped? Please let me know!

In sum, while I think there’s a lot to ask about the proper role of marriage in society, about whether and how much the government should be involved and how logistically disastrous it would be to have poly marriage, I don’t think these questions can be properly answered until we’ve considered more of the potential implications for a change in the law than are currently in the public discourse. What other changes do you think would happen?