Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Addition to emotional awards

Negative emotions—and righteous indignation is familiar one these days—have a purpose in human life. Anytime we find ourselves faced with pop psychology telling us that we need to rid ourselves of some emotion—be it righteous indignation, or resentment, or jealousy—we should stop and remind ourselves that these have all survived tens-of-thousands of years of evolution. If there wasn't something positive about these negative emotions they would have been weeded out of humanity long ago.

But the gist of the advice against righteous indignation is good. It can a dead end and there is something addictive about it. The same can be said of alcohol mind you. That said, training ourselves to have a drink every time we wanted a lift is suicidal. Similarly, it would make no sense to train ourselves to be good at reacting with righteous indignation. And yet, that is exactly what much of the modern culture does.

I see it everyday of Facebook. Someone I know will share a link with a heading that reads something like, "See how X responded to trolls who ...". Click on the link and you'll get some supposedly searing putdown of these evil people. And you'll get to share in the feeling of smug moral superiority that comes from seeing evil people crushed like bugs.

On the other hand, that was what the "trolls" who picked on these people were seeking in the first place.

But it gets worse the more you think about it. Some celebrity, and quite likely some celebrity you'd never heard of until two minutes ago, gets a riff off at the expense of people you didn't know existed and you get a vicarious thrill out of sharing in it.

And we do this with our entertainment too. Think of how many times the hero of a movie or TV show triumphs in a moral argument by becoming self righteous. Shows such as  M*A*S*H and West Wing traded on nothing but self-righteous indignation season after season. What does it do to our moral character to work ourselves up into this state about fictions?

Righteous versus self-righteous

When righteous seems unjustified to us, we call it "self-righteous". That gets a bit tricky if we dismiss any sense of moral realism as the modern world has largely done. If I can't point at actual moral facts, as opposed to my sense of what is right or wrong, in a moral argument there is no longer any distinction between righteous indignation and self-righteous indignation; anyone who wants to bring about something I don't want will seem a fit target for my anger.

"Feel your feelings"

There is some very good advice about dealing with out tendency to become self-righteously indignant at this site. The whole thing is worth reading but one item in particular struck me:
3.  Feel your feelings.  How do you feel when you are complaining about or reporting this behavior?  Superior?  Powerful?  Is that the true motivation for it, rather than righting a wrong?
There is an assumption of moral realism behind that. Kellen believes that you can tell the difference between when there is a real injustice and when we are just getting high on the reward our emotions give us (he calls them "feelings" rather than emotions).

If we go back to the first point I made about the usefulness of negative emotions, we can get a sense of this. What happens when we are subject to an attack? We either shrink or rise up. If powerful forces unite against us, we'll usually shrink because the alternative is being crushed. It's not a good idea starting fights you're guaranteed to lose. Okay, but what happens when the attack against us is unfair? That's when self-righteous indignation can give us an emotional payoff. I may not be able to do much about trolls but I can retreat to some safe place and vent about them to my friends and I get an emotional charge that makes me feel better. "Those trolls can't hurt me!"

So far, so good. But that emotional reward is a reward whether it's deserved or not. Like all emotional rewards, it can become addictive.

We tend to think we are very good at understanding our emotional states but we're usually only good at having them. We don't often stop and reflect on what is happening and why. That's why we need people like Kellen to help us sometimes.

Before leaving the subject, I should note that the opposite mistake is also possible. That is to say, I can train myself—or be trained by others—to discount my feelings. If you had a parent or parents who saw you as primarily a problem to be dealt with rather than someone to love, your greatest joys and greatest defeats will have seemed like intrusions on their lives rather than something to share. The parent who thinks this way, and there are a lot of them, will train you from an early age to react to strong feelings by distrusting them. If you're feeling hurt, you need to get over yourself. Feeling good about something you've done, you need to get over yourself. Internalize that and you'll think every case of righteous indignation is unjustified simply because it is a strong feeling.

I suspect that what happens here is simply an addiction to another kind of reward. Controlling your feelings is an important thing to do so our body fires up the endorphins when we realize we've managed it. Insert a parent into your life who sees all your feelings as inconvenient and you'll get really good at feeling that reward. Pretty soon you'll get good at suppressing even justified anger.

The (moral) truth is out there.

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