Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Emotions, rationality, morality and "Catholic Romanticism"

We easily allow ourselves to be persuaded that our emotions are irrational. When someone tells you that "you're being emotional" they mean that your judgments are unreliable because your emotions are governing you. The implication is that it is immoral to be emotional.

On the other hand, we also recognize that the person incapable of feeling emotions is likely to be, as Jane Austen described Mr. John Dashwood, "cold-hearted, and rather selfish". Here, emotion is a prerequisite for being moral. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was moved with pity.

Robert Solomon argues that emotions are judgments but also dispositions. To be afraid is to be afraid of something, to love is to love someone and so on down the roster of emotions. At the same time, to be angry or jealous or suspicious is often the consequence of a life-time of training ourselves to be that way.

In addition, there are feelings that, unlike full-blown emotions, aren't directed at anything in particular. Anxiety is the feeling that bad things are about to happen—when I am anxious I have no idea where the crap is going to come from but I'm sure it will hit soon. Similarly, Thos. was telling me a while ago that he has patients who suffer from severe stress problems that are triggered by their own body responses to stress—they notice that their heart is running fast and that makes them nervous so their heart starts running even faster so they get more nervous so they break out in a sweat which makes them even more nervous ... lather, rinse, repeat until they have to take you away in an ambulance. I've done something like this on a smaller scale when I've had too much coffee and my own stress level makes me think that something must be wrong even though there is no fact or situation to justify my concern.

This all happens because our emotional responses are unconscious—a right-brain phenomenon. We often become aware of being uneasy without being consciously aware of what in specific is making us uneasy. We can focus on the feeling rather than looking for what caused it. You could say that feelings don't rise to the level of an emotion. I once heard someone say that anxiety is what you feel when you don't have the courage to have an emotion; that's too broad a generalization but it is true some of the time. (It took me a longer time than it should have to become a real adult because I lived in an almost constant state of anxiety because I was scared to have actual emotions towards the people closest to me.)


We cannot simply dismiss emotions as irrational. The tendency to do so is rooted in a number of things. It is undeniably true that emotions can be wrong, even very wrong. I can be angry at my sister but later discover that she had not done the thing that I did not like. It's also true that emotions are hard to reverse—once I'm worked up into a state of high dudgeon, I can't easily calm down even when shown that my original reasons for being angry are unjustified.

But lots of human activities can sometimes be wrong without being qualified as irrational. Courts occasionally convict innocent people and instruments occasionally give incorrect readings. Our faith in these things is not based on their being infallible but rather on their being correct much more often than not. (A false conviction rate of even one percent would be regarded as ridiculously high.) The same should be true of emotions. We notice when emotions are unjustified because that is a relatively rare phenomenon. We don't notice the many, many times our emotions are correct. And it must be this way: if our emotions were not highly reliable cognitive indicators they would have been evolved out of the human race centuries ago.
Anterior and posterior emotion
When we worry about the rationality of an emotion, we typically do so as a posterior phenomenon. I start to feel anger and stop and ask myself whether the anger is justified. Even if I decide that my anger is justified, I should think carefully about how I react and I might, I often do as a personal matter, do my best to hide my anger even though I I believe that anger to be justified.

We think less often about the anterior rational process. We don't worry so much about the habits and ways of thinking that incline us to have certain emotional responses in the first place. But the first way people jump tells us a lot about them. In The Philadelphia Story, Tracey Samantha Lord rejects George because he suspected her of infidelity on the eve of their wedding. His suspicion is not ungrounded. Tracey was drunk and isn't entirely certain what she did or didn't do. She certainly did something—she flirted with and amorously kissed another man. She did not, however, have sex with him as George suspects and she herself fears. In the end, after she is cleared and George is reassured, she leaves him because she thinks that his initial response should have been to trust her. She would prefer a husband who would instinctively take her side.

That's analogous to the way Catholic moralists talk about conscience. That is the opposite of the way we usually think of conscience. In our culture, we think of conscience as a posterior phenomenon: I do something and then start to question whether I should have done it. Catholic moralists recognize that that is part of conscience but believe and argue that anterior conscience is the more important thing; that it is more important to have a disposition to react in a certain way in the first place rather than to correct mistakes afterward.

Emotions have to be part of this. Empathy is a trained emotion; we have to spend years learning how to be empathetic. This is true of a wide range of emotions, both good and bad. I had a relative who spent her entire life training herself to lose her temper when others failed to respond as she wished. She was highly intelligent and she never changed so it obviously worked for her. People got scared off and didn't challenge her. Of course, they also got scared off and kept their distance so she ended up having very few close friends despite having a very large social network. (She also, and this was probably narcissism, rejected other people's emotions as illegitimate any time they did not line up with her assessments.)

Emotional disposition is a kind of moral fitness. It isn't a matter of making moral choices. That is a cold activity, something like a moral calculus. The relative I mention above also used to exhort others to "be more charitable". What she meant by that was to make more effort to see the good in others. I don't think she realized, however, that she herself was not a good role model in this regard. She grasped the principle perfectly but hadn't done the moral training to make herself better at it. Charity was not an anterior emotion for her.

Moral fitness is hard work because we don't have direct access to the thing we are trying to change. We can't adjust it the way we can move the thermostat or put on a sweater when we want to be warmer. It's more of a long-term project that involves changing our habits and showing constancy much as is the case if we want to get into better physical shape.

Catholic Romanticism

One of the things that a certain kind of romanticism did was to value emotions as rational ways of being human. The Enlightenment emphasized rationality but the rationality it emphasized was a narrowly proscribed rationality. That is to say, Enlightenment thinkers set out to be rational by outlawing a lot of human behaviour as irrational. That produced a counter-reaction. At first the reaction was to reject rationality and embrace feeling (the term at the time was "sensibility") as something separate from and superior to rationality. For many people, this is what Romanticism did. Others argue that it was an attempt to expand what counted as irrational so as to include some emotional responses.

(At the same time, this sort of Romanticism, as Oakeshott argued, would have to expand what counted as irrational. Some kinds of activity that meet the Enlightenment requirements for rationality perfectly should be recognized as irrational and monstrous.)

That sort of Romanticism appeals to me. It is not what everyone means by Romantic. I would, even though many would refuse to do so, recognize Jane Austen as Romantic and even have tendency to see her as the exemplary Romantic.

I would further, however, modify Romanticism with the adjective "Catholic". I would not accept "Romantic Catholicism" even though there are aspects of it that I mind find congenial because I think that when we redeem Romanticism from most of its sins when we modify it with Catholic. This will be, I hope, something of a theme of this blog as I go forward.

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