I’m pretty tired, but I enjoy writing, have what I consider to be a thought worth thinking, and haven’t written in a while, so I will do my best now.
I’m doing an independent study on virtue ethics this summer, and I’ve just been trying to think through whatever little pieces of that topic come to my mind. I was just now thinking about emotions, and how they would fit with my belief that being truly good has a lot to do with having good character and embodying these good, genuine tendencies toward good actions (these tendencies are called “virtues”, examples would be Courage, Self-control, Honesty, Humility, etc.).
Emotions are very important things. They, in a way, define who we are. We experience our emotional states often much more stongly and easily than our other mental states like the states of believing or wondering (people are almost totally unaware of most of their beliefs at any given moment, and many people don’t realize that they hold a certain very important belief until the question is raised for the first time – and the belief is revealed; but people are nearly constantly aware of their emotional states). Ask someone what they believe about cloning for reproductive purposes, then ask them if they feel happy or sad. Which one will take longer for them to figure out?
So, do our emotions effect whether we are good or bad people?
I think they certainly do! How? Well I think they determine whether we are good or bad depending on what role we allow them to play in our daily choices. But what role should they play? There seem to be two different roles we can allow our emotions to play in our daily choicemaking. The first one, if adopted, will almost always lead us to develop various vices, and will thus make us increacingly wicked and vicious people. The second, if consistently adopted, will help us clearly think through our choices, help us develop certain virtues, and will open the door for us to truly be in control of our actions.
The first possible place we can give to our emotions in choicemaking is to make them the primary factor in determining what to do in a situation. Most people, I think, have lived their entire lives giving their emotions this role. That means 2 things: for one, since it’s all they know, they aren’t any more aware of it than a person who has lived in a totally dark room his whole life is aware of the deep darkness that surrounds him; secondly, If I’m right, then you’ve probably lived your life largely making your choices primarily based on your emotions. Just ask yourself if you’ve ever reacted out of anger, or have you ever explained an action by saying “I felt happy/sad/angry/etc”? If so, you’ve obviously made that decision based on your emotional states instead of something else.
But what’s the alternative? Suggesting that there’s anything wrong with choosing which course of action to take based on the strongest emotion at the thime may be a very radical idea; no alternative may pop into our heads at the first mention of a possible problem here. Well, I think the alternative is to base our actions on our beliefs instead of our emotions. Now, certainly, there will often be a strong paralell between our beliefs and our feelings, but often there won’t be. Often they will be totally opposed to each other. For instance, probably 60% of the time, when I wake up in the morning I feel afraid, nervous, and sad. Now choosing to act primarily out of those emotions would keep me in bed until the sun set, but is that how anyone should live? NO! We would certainly not call such a person whole, good, or right to live that way. We even have a special term for such a person – Coward. And what is cowardice? I’ll give you a hint – it’s present in every list of vices ever proposed.
So what should a person who feels similarly do? Which beliefs should he act upon? Well, there’s certainly a hierarchy of beliefs. Some are more important than others (for instance, my beliefs about who the twenty-sixth president was is much less important than my beliefs about whether there is a God or whether the green light or the red light means “go” – the first belief won’t have many consequences if it’s false, but the others may have some very serious – even eternal – ones). So, in the list of all our beliefs, we should try – only as best as we can – to start with the most important ones, going down the list until we come to one that has some bearing on the situation. This may be awkward for the first months or years that we do it since we’re often so thoughtless and unaware of our beliefs, and used to placing little importance on them since our culture tells us that it’s wrong to believe that your beliefs are true or good or whatever. But onece we go through our important beliefs, we will find one that has bearing on the situation. In my case I find my beliefs that there is a God who has taken me as a son, and who promises that his hand is on my life and that whatever I meet that day – wonderful or absolutely devastating – will work to forge me into His likeness and that one day, when we are united, I will know tides of joy because we will be united in character. So I get out of bed – not because I FEEL like it, but because I believe that it is the best choice for me, and the rest of the world. (And i may need to find other beliefs I have to make sense out of that too).
So the advantages to acting based on beliefs are many. We are driven to contemplate the importance of beliefs, and we are then compelled to seek and find out which beliefs are worth believing – that is, the true ones. This is even good for our emotional states, because it’s often a belief that somewhere triggers an emotion; though it may be one of the ones that we are unaware of and that we might even reject as patently false were we to see it in broad daylight! Secondly, in light of our true, important beliefs, we will develop the virtue of courage (doing what we believe we ought to do even though we are afraid to do it) when we stop to think not on our emotions, but on which choice is the better one. We will also, in all of this, be practicing the virtues of self-control (in not letting our emotional selves rule us), wisdom (in contemplating what is right as more important that what we feel), and humility (in giving more importance to right living than to the temptation to satisfy every wind of feeling that blows through us).
So the formula is this:
When approached with any choice (for example, you’re choosing what to eat for lunch at a resturaunt)
1. Stop and detect your emotions/feelings at the moment.
-Which ones have to do specifically with the choice you’re making? (you feel sad because you want a burger, but you feel like you’re fat and unattractive)
-Which ones aren’t attached to the choice, but may effect you in making your decision? (you feel sort of hopeless because you’ve tried to lose weight but you yo-yo back and fourth and it never seems to work for long periods of time, and what’s more, you’ve had a frustrating day with little pleasure, and the simple pleasure of eating something you really like would brighten it a bit)
-Which ones aren’t attached to the choice, and won’t effect your decision much? (you feel a bit perplexed because of a problem raised in philosophy class today)
2. Next, figure out which courses of action you could take in making this choice.
-(you could either order, say, a salad, a grilled chicken sandwich, or a burger as an entree, and a shake or a tea as a drink)
3. Try (just TRY….it may be a bit difficult, but you will get better over time) to find a few important beliefs that may have some bearing on the situation. We are assuming these beliefs are true, it is best to think through beliefs to determine their validity in more neutral situations than when you are faced with a decision to make in light of them.
-(You believe that you should take care of your body, not only to look good, but to honor God, and to extend your life so that you may be a longer lasting light in the world, you also, after a moment, realize that, when you DO eat burgers, they don’t satisfy your felt need nearly as well as you anticipate, you also believe, after a moment of sorting thoughts out, that your’re really not that unattractive – you may not be the most beautiful person alive, but everyone tells you you have great hair, or maybe you think you have nice legs, though maybe losing five or eight pounds would suit you better and make you healthier. In any case, even if you are fat, your worth is not determined by your appearance; the fattest person alive is just as valuable as the most beautiful – possibly even more so if the fat person is otherwise morally exemplary and the beautiful person is infectiously wicked, as is often the case. Another important belief may be that pleasure isn’t a bad thing – it’s actually good, and enjoying food may be a legitimate pleasure in life that should be pursued if it can be pursued rightly).
4. Compare your important beliefs to your emotions; are your emotions valid and sensible in light of them? Is the strength of them appropriate or are they too weak or too strong?
-(Since you see that you’re not nearly the hideous gargoyle that you felt like five minutes ago, your feeling fat and terribly ugly isn’t really justified, – though losing six pounds would be healthier and would make you feel better about yourself. Even if this isn’t the case, and you need to lose a hundred pounds, the chances are that the terribly painful feeling of unattractiveness is nearly ALWAYS inappropriately strong since the false connection between self worth and attractiveness is made)
5. If your emotions are valid, sensible, and their strength is right, then act ACCORDING TO YOUR BELIEFS WITH PASSION FUELED BY YOUR EMOTIONS. This is the very essence of being a whole person: believing truth and living in light of it with proper passion.
-(this step is easier to understand but, in our situation, we can’t yet take it, so we will skip it for now)
6. If your emotions are invalid or insensible, then congratulations! You have an opportunity to exercise virtuous action, and thus begin to buid or refine a virtue in your soul! Ask: “in light of the truth about the matter, what in light of my beliefs and my possible choices, which one is right?
-(If eating the burger is going to keep your body a bit too flabby and prevent you from exercising good stewardship, but the salad would be totally unenjoyable for you and would firther discourage you in your efforts to make good dietary decisions, then go for the chicken sandwich. You have then moderately acted in accordance with your beliefs that it is good to be a good body steward, that enjoying food is a good thing when done responsibly, and have made a sensible compromise between the two that, if consistently done will free you from the tyranny of disatisfaction with self image, constant desire for tasty food, and the pendulum swing between indulgence and then guilt and self-hatred).
7. If your emotions are valid and sensible, but their strength is inapropriate, then perform step six, and pick an appropriate time later to think through your feelings, what experiences or beliefs may contribute to their inappropriate weakness or strength, and the mere act of this (possibly repeated) contemplation will help to regulate your emotive states.
Hope this helps you to life in the light of truth to the end of becoming a whole person.