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.

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