I’ve said it before in other venues, but it bears repeating: as a society, we need to stop giving so much respect and deference to emotions. I’ve gotten push-back on this idea before, but it’s really not that radical, nor that negative, a proposal.
I’m not recommending that we abandon emotions altogether (if that were even possible), or try to suppress them, a la the Vulcans in Star Trek. Emotions are a real, and significant, part of the experience of life. Everyone has them, and they are interesting and important. I don’t want to deny the validity and reality of any person’s emotional experiences, nor to dismiss the real pain and joy that emotional reactions can entail. The human experience is an emotional one, and emotional states can be useful in many ways. Joy over a success can lead one to try to repeat it in the future. Outrage over injustice can drive a person to act against it. Fear, as Gavin deBecker has eloquently pointed out, can protect us from real danger, which still exists in the world despite all our advances.
Emotions are ancient. They are very likely shared, certainly by every mammal, but probably—to some degree or other—by every animal that has a sophisticated nervous system and complex behavior patterns. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself, but it means that they evolved during ancestral times, long before the advent of civilization. They are quite clearly not the primary source of the incredible power and success of humanity. That source of is our ability to communicate sophisticated ideas with each other and more generally to reason.
All modern technology is the product of thought, not emotion, though invention and improvement are no doubt often triggered by feelings. The arguments for universal human rights, for the abolition of slavery, for the emancipation of women, and for other advances, are all rational arguments. They are not successful, to the degree that they have been, because of emotion. Opponents of these societal advances have been every bit as emotional in resisting them as any who promoted them. What led new and better ideas to succeed was the fact that they were better ideas, not that the people who proposed them felt more strongly about them.
Emotions are notoriously poor bases for decision-making. Though fear can be useful at a personal level in avoiding danger—when dealing with physical threats, it’s better to err on the side of caution than in the other direction—in many other instances, it can provide misleading guidance. Fear, especially regarding complex dangers, often leads us astray. For instance, the horror of a school mass shooting is extremely emotionally powerful, and the prospect is terrifying. Yet, our very fear of it can lead us to misdirect our attention and prioritize badly. Though mass shootings are not something we should consider acceptable, when we focus on them, our attention can be drawn away from events that cause far greater damage and death. Improving traffic regulation and strictly enforcing speed limits would likely save more lives—including those of children—than would the complete elimination of all mass shootings by a wish-granting genie. Similarly, our focus on assault weapons and their dangers distracts us from the fact that the vast majority of gun-related deaths—a hundred times as many as those in mass shootings, or more—involve ordinary pistols and rifles. Yet people become far more outraged, far more motivated, to deal with the former than the latter. When they do—when they share a meme on social media, or when they march in a protest—they probably feel good about doing it. They may even feel that they are making a difference.
Are they? Quite possibly, but we don’t determine success or failure—or the validity of an argument—by how it makes us feel. At least we shouldn’t. The road to Hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions, and this cliché is so prevalent because it makes a valid point. Intending to do good is barely the beginning of actually doing good, and feeling good about what you’ve done isn’t necessarily a useful indicator of whether or not you’ve actually done good. That can only be discerned by an objective assessment of processes and outcomes, and emotions are notoriously not objective.
Emotion, or at least our respect for it, is perniciously gumming up our public discourse. Our terrible fear of causing offense, and our belief that the fact of being offended is actionable evidence of some pseudo-crime, stunts the quality of argument, and keeps potentially useful things from being said because someone might hurl some accusation because of them.
Of course, it’s not admirable for someone deliberately to hurt other people’s feelings, but we can all recognize that someone who does that is an asshole, and it’s probably better overall to let such assholes declare themselves openly, so that we all know what we’re dealing with. But when someone makes an innocent statement or argument, intended to explore valid ideas, or is trying to make a reasoned point, right or wrong, it’s those who respond in knee-jerk offense and accusation who are the assholes. An invalid argument can and should be dealt with by means of evidence and argument. Hurling epithets such as “racist,” “sexist,” “islamaphobic,” etc., at someone because they have said something we don’t like—for emotional reasons—betrays the paucity of the hurler’s thinking.
I accept the fact that some ideas, even presented dispassionately, can cause some people to feel uncomfortable. That’s just too bad. Statements of true racism and sexism can be dismantled quickly and easily with the cold application of reason, and that dismantlement is far more convincing—and more uniquely human—than shouting a person down, disrupting their speech, or using violence against them when they are not using violence themselves. Hurt feelings are not equivalent to experiencing violence, as any victim of real violence should know.
The ability to be rational sets humans apart from all other life on Earth, and to embrace it does not require us to dismiss or discard the beneficial effects of emotion. Love can be rational, as can joy, as can anger and outrage, but only when we have good reasons for those emotions. This is the key point. Emotions must be the servants of reason, the subordinates, not the guides, and certainly not the leaders. Our frontal lobes are the most human parts of our brains, the parts most different from those of the other creatures on the world. We should embrace them.
When two emotions of equal strength are at odds, there is no emotional way to determine which is more correct, more justified, any more than a duel or a jousting match can determine which of two contestants is in the right. Only reasoned argument, evidence, and discussion can bring us better understanding of truth. It’s not a flawless process, but it can be self-correcting. If we allow emotions the place of honor in our interactions, then the loudest, the most obnoxious—the most emotionally unrestrained—will hold the day. Reason will show us that this is not likely to be a recipe for producing greater good, either as individuals or as a civilization.
Just as discipline is more effective than “motivation,” because it allows us to do what we think we ought to do even when we don’t feel “motivated” to do it, so the general discipline of reason, thought, and evidence will lead us to better choices and better conversations than will naked emotionalism. There’s nothing wrong with feeling strongly motivated to do something that we’ve decided to do for good reasons. That’s a wonderful bonus and can lead to some of the pinnacle experiences of life. But if you only do good when you “feel” like doing it, then you’re not much better off than a drug addict, who certainly “feels” like using drugs more than spending time and money on loved ones and necessities.
Emotions are fundamental and inescapable parts of the human experience; there’s nothing wrong with respecting them for what they are. But unless we subordinate them to our reason—that most human of our attributes—we are likely to be led astray, consistently, repeatedly, and predictably.