The Morality of Emotional Life

I kind of rambled the other day about how emotions matter and so changing them might be important. But I didn’t really address the fundamental question: what is the relationship between morality and emotions?

To clarify an important point from my last post: I did not make (or rather, did not intend to make) any independent moral claims about emotions, for instance some being morally better than others. The case I intended to make was that, if you already believe in morality or moral standards, or have any opinions at all on the morality of certain actions, then it’s reasonable for you to believe in the morality of cultivating certain emotions in yourself and other people. These emotions will not only make the moral activity easier and more likely, but they will also create social approval for the kind of activity that is desired. This analysis applies utterly regardless of what morality is at stake. Christians should (and do, by the way) want people to love God and therefore want to do what God commands of them. Utilitarians should want people to desire the most good, to feel that it’s the right way to think about the right thing to do. Pro-lifers want people to be disgusted by abortion, pro-choicers don’t, even though disgust (or a lack of disgust) isn’t required for being pro-life or pro-choice.

I cannot tell you how many tumblrs there are dedicated entirely to beautifully lit and faded pictures about god, Jesus and Christianity.

(Of course, part of this can be explained by the fact that some moral systems contain within them moral claims about emotions, like loving God or having a Good Will. All that means, as far as I’m concerned, is that other, smarter, people came up with my idea long before I did.)

This applies both to what we might call moral emotions and nonmoral ones. Certainly, moral emotions fit in very strongly here. What we’re attracted to or repulsed by makes up an enormous component of our morality. Murder, for instance, disgusts us, and we are highly disturbed (another moral sentiment) when it does not disgust others. We tend to call those people psychopaths. In fact, I would argue, though this is unrelated to the other claims made in this post, that it is that disgust which forms the basis of most of our morality in the first place. Of course, lots of other things disgust us as well, from vomit to incest, so we have to engage in both intellectual and emotive arguments about whether to feel that way about these things. And if we decide we shouldn’t, then we can work towards making ourselves not feel that way, through a number of methods. As a friend put it,

“For instance, there’s no moral value in being repulsed by a deformed child or a person with severe facial burns. On the contrary, that’s a (natural) impulse that we should try to overcome — and that we can overcome by educating ourselves. The same might pertain to differences in sexual identity or orientation. Educating ourselves, befriending people who differ from ourselves, and appreciating their humanity can go a long way toward overcoming revulsion.”

And we can certainly work on making others not feel that way. Citation:

So while we might object on a number of grounds, to the approach and methods of an organization like, for instance, PETA, I think it’s a matter of intellectual (and emotional) honesty that we acknowledge that videos and pictures meant to engineer disgust for the treatment of animals is an utterly reasonable, nay, obligatory, result of their beliefs. You don’t win public debates without winning hearts and minds, as so many others have noted. But more than that, part of what you want out of winning a public debate is that people feel the way you do. That’s part of what you’re fighting for.

But I also think that the analysis of moral questions applies to nonmoral emotions (if there are such things). If you have a morality already, then perhaps you’d want to be happy to follow it, not reluctant, and you’d want the same from others. You’d want a friend to be thrilled to help you in a time of need, not to seem unhappy or irritated at the prospect of performing an amicable duty. That’s partially because it would make you unhappy, and it might make you question the friendship, and those are nonmoral emotional considerations, but it’s also that case that many would think that it’s part of being a moral person to be happy to help others.

And, then, I think this entire approach is applicable to utterly nonmoral questions, questions that concern themselves only with utility and advisability. There are many reasons why some emotions are better than others, just as there are many reasons why some actions are better than others. It might be a good idea to like cleaning your room, just as it might be a good idea to clean your room on a regular basis. It might therefore also be a good idea to inculcate a love of cleaning into your children and anyone else you have an influence on. In this case, we can call the emotions people would rather have “adaptive”, a word I’m here borrowing from the mental health lexicon.

But just as a final note, I also think we shouldn’t jump too quickly to make the sharp distinction between moral and nonmoral questions. The case of polyamorous relationships clarifies this nicely (primer on polyamory here). Being polyamorous means, generally, having the understanding that your partner may have other partners. It does not, generally, mean that you lack jealousy. Thus, a lot of work often goes into cultivating a lack of (or at least a minimum of) the kind of jealousy that makes your life as a poly person harder to deal with. Now, this is not in and of itself a moral question. Jealousy isn’t necessarily good or bad. It can alert you to a problem in your relationship, which is valuable, or it can take over your life and make you miserable, which isn’t. It’s simply the case that if you’ve already decided to be in a polyamorous relationship, it’s very useful to you to not feel sick and violated every time your partner goes on a date with someone else. It’ll just make your life better. No one would fault you morally if you end up feeling jealous despite your best efforts. That said, since you are in a polyamorous relationship, and your partners, as well as your partner’s partners, are going to be affected by how you feel (from feeling guilty to being sad that you’re sad to being frustrated at not being able to help), it may be part of your obligation to them to work on jealousy, especially if it’s so severe as to be causing problems. All of a sudden, it’s a moral consideration. Our emotions are always going to affect other people, whether through our actions as a result of the emotions or simply the knowledge of those emotions becoming public. Anything that affects others will have a moral component, which means that the forms of analysis I’ve laid out here are not distinct, but rather inextricably intertwined.

Emotions give us our moral intuitions, they cause us to do moral things or immoral things, they can hijack our rational faculties, and as I’ve laid out here, they can themselves be up for moral critique. The question is really just, what kind of moral critique, and how do we make it?

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