Friday, 14 June 2013

What's Love Got to Do with It?

Much as I welcome feedback, my ethical structure as developed in the series of articles posted over the past few weeks was cruelly challenged before I even began posting it because emotions appear not to have been considered.  This sort of challenge makes me very angry, somewhat sad and has obviously provided me with the opportunity to make a little joke about it, so I’ve ended up slightly amused.  What a watershed of emotion!

More seriously, it is certainly true that there is no reference to emotion in my development of the ethical structure.  However, emotion was not considered for the same reason that childhood experience was not considered.  It’s not strictly relevant.

I shall try to explain.

First and foremost, we should not even consider applying emotion to an ethical structure without understanding what emotion is and why we have it.  We probably all believe that we know what emotions are: those things we feel, or – for the psychopaths among us – those things that other people feel.  However, when we start to think about it in depth, the exact nature of emotions becomes a little less clear.

One thing that strikes me when reviewing philosophical ponderings about emotions is that, throughout history, they have had a bit of a bad reputation – Plato and Aristotle looked at emotions as undesirable (evil even!), while the Ancient Chinese thought they damaged your qi and even modern Buddhists tend to eschew emotions as indicative of attachment.  In the modernising West emotions were seen, until relatively recently, as unhealthy and certainly inferior to reason. 

During the Middle Ages, at least according to Yana Suchy, emotions were actually thought to be immoral (Suchy, Yana (2011). Clinical neuropsychology of emotion. New York, NY: Guilford – per Wikipedia).  If such thinking were to be correct, it would eliminate emotions as worthy of any consideration with respect to the development of ethical structures.

There have been a number of theories regarding emotions.  Early theories posited some sort of fluid or essence associated with each type of emotion – in Ancient Mesopotamia, and later Ancient Greece, we had “humors” corresponding with four fundamental temperaments.  Anger was related to an overabundance of yellow bile while melancholia was due to too much black bile.  Blood was about courage, hope and love while phlegm was about cool, calm reason (hence “phlegmatic”).  The Greeks, who took a rather dodgy idea from Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia and developed it into something approaching a science, managed to get the whole thing terribly wrong – they thought that blood was associated with the liver, and that phlegm was created in the brain (the latter is only true in slightly more than fifty percent of normal people and approximately ninety five percent of apologists).

In more modern terms, we can perhaps postulate that an emotion is a brain (neurological) state that is coupled with some physical (physiological) state.  We know that we can identify our own emotions from within, so we can assume that there is at least some element of cognition involved – not only in triggering the emotion, but also in recognising the emotion.

Sometimes, however, we only really recognise our emotions as a result of our physiological reactions – for example, we might only realise that we have become angry or frightened when we later notice that we are shaking, or shamed when we redden.

Similarly, we might catch a glimpse of our reflection and note that our expression reveals an emotional response that we weren’t otherwise aware of.  When doing so, we are using an ability associated with reading the emotional states of other creatures.  This ability to read emotional state is not limited to humans: we ourselves can read the emotions of an extensive range of animals while our emotions can be read by certain animals, for example our pets and, to a lesser extent, even wild animals.

We also reveal our emotions in our speech, much as other animals do in their somewhat more limited vocalisations.  (In fact, some animals only vocalise when afraid or in pain.)

Modern theorists have identified a number of individual emotional states that are consistently recognised by all humans, irrespective of their cultural and educational backgrounds (colour coded – Ekman, Plutnik, Ekman/Plutnik):



Trusting (Admiring)







To my way of thinking, Plutnik’s wheel is a little strained by the attempt to maintain such attractive symmetry, with what might be described as “excitement” being diluted across many categories.  Ekman’s range of emotions on the other hand is somewhat lacking, for example disgust is missing.  Even so, we can see that each of the emotions listed can be recognised uniquely – along with this one, which seems to be missing from both categorisations:




(For anyone who is emotionally challenged, that expression is pride.)

So, if we can agree that emotions are recognisable states like fear, pride, joy, anger and sadness, the next question is – why do we have them?

It should come as no surprise that in my opinion the emotions we have are those which promote survival.  If a species had a suite of emotions that were more likely to bring death to members of that species, then that species would not be long for this world.

Note that I refer to a suite of emotions, by which I mean a sort of balanced portfolio of emotions that is appropriate to the species in question.  As a rather large, omnivorous, social animal, the human needs a different range of emotions to survive to, say, a sand cat or a goldfish.  Each of the emotions listed above have a survival-related aspect:

Happiness – social signal (approval)

Tenderness – social binding (e.g. mutual grooming, hugging)

Trust – social binding (e.g. willingness to engage)
Fear – danger avoidance (preparedness to flee)

Surprise – heightened state of alert at unusual situations

Sadness – social signal (disapproval)

Disgust – danger avoidance (e.g. revulsion at the idea of eating rotten food)

Anger – defence mechanism (preparedness to fight)

Excitement – motivation mechanism (e.g. interest in hunting)

Pride – motivation mechanism (e.g. training and educating young)

I’ve seen all these demonstrated clearly by dogs (although their tolerance for disgust seems quite high until you start trying to give them something like worming paste).  Cats, while not quite as demonstrative, indicate the same range of emotions – although their primary emotion in relation to humans tends to be “distain”, they are much more likely to indicate disgust (particularly with respect to cat-food) and, with more than a few cats, the warm glow of mutual trust and understanding tends to be short-lived before turning into skin-shredding anger.

(Some people claim that cats are neurotic, because of their tendency to flip suddenly from cuddly little creature that adores the attention being provided by its pet human to crazed killer intent on doing as much damage as possible to said human’s hand.  Ignorant people such as these are unlikely to make good pets for a cat and should be encouraged to keep alternative pets such as hermit crabs, slugs, ants or possibly sea-monkeys.)

In Morality as Playing Games and An Ethical Structure, I argue that morality is about survival.  If emotions are also about survival, then they are parallel mechanisms – and this is what I believe to be the case.

Emotions can operate on the ethical structure in at least two ways.

Firstly, the rules and guidelines in the lowest tier of the structure are arbitrary and can, therefore, be guided by emotions.  For example, the disgust of some at the idea of men kissing each other can lead to a societal more against homosexuality.   Equally, disgust at the idea of being covered in diseased phlegm can lead to guidelines about politely sneezing into handkerchiefs or tissues.

Secondly, when confronted with a moral dilemma in which moral imperatives or injunctions are in conflict, emotions can be used to resolve the dilemma.  For example, when making the snap decision as to whether to divert a runaway train from its current path (which will kill 20 people in a stationary carriage) onto a side track (that will kill 5 people who would otherwise have survived), you can use your emotional response as a guide.

Your emotional response is, probably, about the only thing you can use if there is no time in which to make a fully informed decision.  It is, however, often a poor basis on which to make a decision, especially if other options are available.  For example, with time to sift all the relevant data, you might come to know that the 20 were all single, balding, highly anti-social, middle-aged orphans, all of whom were soon to die from a drug resistant, highly virulent form of tuberculosis contracted from the orphanage and who were just about jump into separate planes to deliberately spread their tuberculosis as a sick form of revenge on the injustice of the world.  The 5, on the other hand, were all young newlywed belles, all currently pregnant (with twins) and all born into large loving families, with scads of relatives and friends who adored them.  If the 20 died, no-one would miss them and the world would be spared a plague of tuberculosis while hundreds would mourn the 5, or 15, if you count their unborn twins (at least, they would mourn those deaths until they contracted tuberculosis at which time they’d be likely to start worrying more about their own problems …)

In both the setting of moral standards and in the assessment of moral dilemmas, rationality, rather than emotion, is highly likely to be your better guide.

If men kissing each other can really cause a problem, then we can reasonably consider banning such behaviour.  But if there is nothing rational supporting someone’s feeling of disgust, then we should use our rationality to address the origins of that feeling of disgust rather than punishing those who inadvertently trigger it.  We know that harm can come from sneezing (it’s one of the vectors for the transmission of tuberculosis, for example, admittedly along with speaking and singing) so we can throw our support behind the guidelines vis a vis handkerchiefs – on the basis of rationality, without having to resort to emotions at all.

So, in answer to the (slightly rephrased) question “what do emotions have to do with morality?” the rational answer is “as little as possible, thank you very much”.


A little coda:

Perhaps the best application of emotion in making a moral decision is associated with self-awareness.  It’s quite likely that, after making an important moral decision, you will later reflect on the options that were available and the choice you made from those options.  It’s probably a good idea to make sure that any decision you make (moral or otherwise) is the one that will cause the least regret.  This requires a level of self-awareness and understanding not only of your current emotional state but of your likely future emotional states – many a decision made in anger is regretted in a later moment of quiet reflection.  What this self-awareness does, however, is to provide you with some ability to recognise and filter out, or to counteract your current emotions.

Unfortunately, most people aren’t really aware of their emotions and not completely aware of what effect their emotions have.  Here are some pointers from research on the topic:

Happiness makes you underestimate risk (if you are sad you will overestimate risk), and

The upshot of all this is that, if you are happy, you’ll take more risks because you don’t perceive them as risks and you will overestimate the potential benefits, but you are likely to be overly cautious when you are sad.  If you are angry you may recognise risks in a course of action but may court disaster by continuing with it anyway while if you are afraid you will simply avoid risks by taking the safest possible path (thus missing out on opportunities).

The happy medium can be struck by not letting any emotion sway you (not even the ecstatic joy that invariably follows landing a really good blow on a happy medium).



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