After much agonizing over this decision, I’ve decided that I will be publishing Eros and Ethos, my forthcoming book on sexual ethics, as two separate volumes. Thus, instead of:
Eros and Ethos: A New Theory and Application of Sexual Ethics
It will be:
Eros and Ethos: Volume 1, A New Theory of Sexual Ethics
Eros and Ethos: Volume 2, A New Application of Sexual Ethics
There are a number of reasons for publishing Eros and Ethos separately. The primary reason is that each half of Eros and Ethos is as long as most nonfiction books by itself: Volume 1 is around 100,000 words or about 210 book pages and Volume 2 is around 95,000 words or about 200 book pages. So, as you can see, publishing them separately makes sense. Moreover, each can easily stand on its own as a separate book. Most importantly, this means that I can focus my attention on finishing the final drafts of Volume 1 and getting it published right away.
Volume 1 should be released within the next 6-8 months and Volume 2 should follow within the next 3-5 years. After both volumes have been published, I will release an omnibus edition, in probably 7-10 years, that will bring together revised editions of the first two volumes and include another 50-100 pages of original content.
This is really exciting news for me, because it means that Eros and Ethos: Volume 1 will be published soon!
I’m so excited about this. I’m excited for you to see it. I’m excited for it to be in the world. I’m excited about all of the original philosophy that it contains, which has never been done by anyone before. I’m excited to have created something that I think is amazing, new, revolutionary, and a boon for human flourishing.
I’m excited to have done something about which I can be proud.
To give you an idea of why I’m so excited about, and proud of, this project, let me give you just some of the things it includes:
A new theory of ethics.
A new theory of emotions, including how to understand the connection between a person’s beliefs and their emotions.
A new theory of erotic love and better ways to think about love more generally.
A new theory of sexual attraction and a full explanation of it.
New ways to understand sexual orientation, sexual identities, as well as masculinity and femininity.
And much more!
AND, most importantly, all of this culminates in a new way to understand sex and its importance in a human life.
I really think that these books have the potential to make the world better and improve people’s lives.
I’ll send out another update once I have a better idea of the publication date, but it’s time to get excited about it.
Aporia(ἀπορɛία): an impasse, puzzlement, doubt, or confusion; a difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it.
Aporia’s are a chance for me to try to work through a philosophical problem. I do it in writing because writing helps me think more clearly. I do it publicly, because you might find it interesting. Also, sometimes the solutions to complicated problems are easier to see from the outside. Today’s aporia is the emotional process.
Note: this aporia presumes background knowledge of: the Objectivist theory of emotions, Robert Solomon’s form of philosophical cognitivism, the cognitive model of emotions from CBT (esp. Beck), and the Aristotelian understanding of emotions.
My general theory of emotions is that emotions are a unique kind of psychic phenomenon that are a response to antecedent beliefs. My former thoughts about emotions followed Robert Solomon closely, except that I think that emotions are responses to beliefs and not judgments.
I recently wrote a paper for one of my MA’s classes about my personal take on counseling, where I said:
I am, principally, a philosopher. I have long been interested in questions in philosophy of mind, especially with regards to emotions and motivations for action. Philosophically, I am indebted to Aristotle, the Stoics (to some degree), Robert Solomon, and Ayn Rand. These philosophers, in different ways, have all postulated a cognitivist view of emotions whereby emotions are a natural part of what it means to be human, that they should be integrated into one’s life in healthy ways, and that our emotions are a response to prior “somethings” in our minds (I say “somethings,” because there is a significant disagreement about what sorts of antecedent things can cause emotions). For example, Aristotle thought that one could not end up having a good character if he was not raised well as he recognized the pivotal role our parents have in shaping our early beliefs and the great effect these have on us throughout our lives. Aristotle also thought that our emotions were open to our reason, in contrast to Plato.* The Stoics thought that emotions that caused a disturbance in our calm were bad, but those that accorded to reason were good (Stoic ideal of “eupatheia” over “apatheia”). Robert Solomon’s The Passions (1976) came out at the beginning of the psychological cognitivist movement and his book renewed an interest in philosophical accounts of emotions. However, Solomon situated emotions as response to antecedent judgments and not antecedent beliefs, rejecting the latter proposition because he thought that only judgements of how a thing would impact the self could be important enough to cause the emotional response. Ayn Rand developed a theory of sense of life (which are like core beliefs directed at the world and one’s efficacy in it) and also introduced the idea that our emotions are rational and follows necessarily from our beliefs into the philosophical world.
My own position on the matter is that our emotions are response to antecedent beliefs in a direct way. To quote from the conclusion to my chapter on emotions from my forthcoming book Eros and Ethos: The Ethics of Modern Sex:
Emotions are undoubtedly a complicated subject, since it has usually been assumed that they were impervious to reason and beyond our ability to understand. […] But the idea that emotions cannot be understood is wrong: not only can we understand the emotions themselves, we can also understand where they come from and how they are formed.
We started with drawing distinctions between emotions and other psychic phenomenon. We then moved on to see that emotions are a response to our beliefs. After a brief analysis […] we came to a provisional definition of emotions that was: “emotions are a form of automatic evaluation with a very specific underlying process.”
Problematically, we didn’t yet know what that specific underlying process was, so our next step was to seek to understand that process and how it works, since it underlies emotions. We saw that the emotional response has three distinct phases (although it is always experienced as a totality), which are: identification, evaluation, and response. In the first phase, identification, the object is identified and its relation to the your life. In the second phase, evaluation, our subconscious compares the object to our past network of beliefs and evaluations looking for relevance and, if it finds enough of a match, the emotional process moves forward to the third phase. The third phase is the emotional response itself, which is what we experience as the emotion.[…]
We then moved on to the issue of sense of life, which is an emotional response to a person’s past judgments about his efficacy in the world and his judgments regarding the nature of the world in which he acts. This manifests in one of two primary forms: as a benevolent sense of life where you think it is possible to act in the world and your actions are efficacious or a malevolent sense of life where you think real action is impossible in the world and your actions are inefficacious. Sense of life is important as it forms one of the core components of our personality and is evident even in our unconscious actions and the way we carry ourselves. Not only that, but insofar as it is a thing, sense of life is what underlies the idea of “love at first sight.”
We then moved to philosophy and sense of life. Although most people don’t think of their philosophy as having any bearing on their emotions, since our emotions come from our beliefs and our beliefs come from our philosophy, our emotions literally come from our philosophy. This can be good or bad, depending on whether our philosophy is well integrated and aimed at helping to live a human life or is aimed at its opposite.
Finally, we looked at the idea of a passionate life, a life where emotions and philosophy are integrated together such that we can experience the reality of our philosophy through our emotions and our emotions can help us to motivate our philosophy so that we can create meaning in our lives in a robust way. If we want meaning in our lives, we must create it and that can only be done by both having the right kind of philosophy and being able to experience its power through our emotions. When we know what is right and feel that it is right too, that is when we are truly living well.
* For example, Plato, in the Phaedrus (253d), uses the metaphor of a charioteer pulled by two strong steeds: a white purebred (reason) and a wild black stallion (the passions). He claims that in order to maintain one’s path, one must tame the black stallion as much as possible so that the two horses work together. If the black horse of the passions cannot be tamed, then he shall pull the chariot astray. The problem with Plato’s psychology is that it treats the passions as innate and irreducible, in addition to being opposed to reason. This position obvious greatly influenced christianity and filtered up into our own culture through both that channel and Freud, i.e. (id/black steed/passions) vs. (superego/white steed/reason) vs. (ego/charioteer/”self”). This Platonic and Freudian view must be rejected for the cognitivist, if emotions are going to have an important role in our lives.
What’s causing this aporia, then, is that I’m not sure how to situate the CBT idea of “Automatic Thoughts” or AT’s into this framework. Usually someone in a clinical framework has had their AT’s structured negatively, so they are suffering from Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANT’s. Automatic negative thoughts are one of the core ideas of CBT and the theory that they exist and operate has been demonstrated to be both true and clinically very efficacious. The idea is this: our emotions are a response to a (not quite conscious) thought about our situation that sets the emotional process into motion. We can, through the help of a therapist and self-reflection, come to identify these automatic thoughts and their impact on us.
Now, if you look at my theory above, the emotional process does not need this quasi-conscious thought to operate. On the other hand, my theory is compatible with the idea, as an AT could be the catalyst to initiate the emotional process.
My question, or aporia, is this: is an automatic thought a retrospective construct that integrates what is happening in the subconscious into something understandable to the conscious mind or is it actually a causal part of the emotional process? Is an automatic thought simply picking up the antecedent belief that the emotional process is responding to, or is the automatic thought part of the causal chain? To put it differently: are automatic thoughts always present in the emotional process? Are they the initiators of the process? Are they simply a retrospective construct to understand what has happened?
It seems to me that AT’s can be both the antecedent causes of the emotional process in their subconscious form and also a retrospective understanding of what has happened.
By this I think that we can have these kinds of robust composite beliefs (like intermediate beliefs and core beliefs, or sense of life) form in the subconscious and these can definitely be the cause of emotions. But, it’s also the case that we can give them a real form by bringing them into conscious awareness. These beliefs that define us, define our personality, our orientation to the world, our deepest beliefs, they are not consciously known. They reside in the subconscious and are not easily accessible. We can only bring them into conscious awareness through introspection and effort and we may or may not be completely capturing them.
Another problem presents itself here: thoughts are different than beliefs. Or is this an issue or language and not a real issue? One can think about beliefs. Beliefs are the result of thought. On the other hand, AT’s are probably more actually beliefs: “I felt overwhelmed. I thought I wasn’t capable enough to handle it.” You’re not actually thinking about the situation and judging whether you’re capable enough to handle it, you’re bringing up your belief that you’re not. In this since Automatic Thought’s is probably a misnomer. It should probably be something more like “Automatized Beliefs.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it though, that’s for sure.
It seems like we need to reconceptualize the process and transition to “automatized beliefs” and these beliefs are part of the milieu of antecedent beliefs from which our emotional response arises.
I often get asked, because I advocate that sexual attraction is a response to values, whether physical beauty is a value. The intention of the question is, of course, to see if I think that physical beauty is a sufficient value to justify sexual activity. I’ve always thought this was an interesting question and I think it’s time we analyzed it in depth—although I’m not sure I have an answer to this yet. So, as with my other aporia, consider this an open question.
Let us start by looking at the question of whether physical beauty is a value. I think it is generally agreed that physical beauty is at least some kind of value. In Attic Greek culture, for example, the human form was held up as one of the ideals of beauty: as one of the most beautiful objects in existence and I think this is right. Unfortunately, here as in many places, the mystic nonsense of the christians corrupted this pure idea and held that the body was shameful and base, that it was a platonic prison of the soul which had to be ignored as much as possible in order for the soul to reach some special place after death. This hatred of the physical body has manifested in strange ways, such as the idea that natural functions such as breast-feeding are sexual (since in breast-feeding a breast is used and breasts are always sexual?). The Greeks did not think that beautiful bodies were always being sexual. Indeed, the early Olympic games were played in the nude and one of the great values that the spectators derived was from the sight of the beautiful and strong bodies moving well and exerting themselves.
For a rational person, physical beauty is at least some kind of value. Furthermore, it seems to be a value in a similar way that art is a value. While art is a metaphysical recreation of reality according to the artist’s value judgments, that is the artist portrays the world according to how he sees it and what he thinks is important, a physically beautiful person can resonate with a person’s sense of life and value judgments as well. That is, if a person values human life, living well, and human virtue, then he will respond positively to a beautiful person. Now whether or not this is justified is a different question, but it is the case that we see beautiful people as instances of what humans could look like, of humans that are living well in the sense of maintaining their bodies well and presenting themselves well, and who are living well in the moral sense and succeeding at life. It is psychologically true that we see beautiful people as good and think of ugly people as evil. This idea was well known in Greek culture and they thought that the face was a window to the soul: that one’s moral character reflected out and either made one more or less beautiful. As an interesting aside, this idea also plays a prominent role in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, where Dorian’s evil actions are reflected only on the painting of him and since his face and body remain beautiful and youthful, people think that he is therefore good. Whether or not we are justified in inducing a person’s moral character from their physical appearance, and likely we are usually not justified in this, it remains a fact that we naturally do this.
An interesting line of inquiry might be whether beauty is naturally pleasant and whether we project our moral framework onto it in order to see it as even more attractive and pleasant, since we are attracted to what we think is good and find it pleasant. I imagine this is the case, as I have argued elsewhere that our moral judgments can override the value of physical beauty and that if we know a physically beautiful person who is a moral monster, that we cannot help but to see their beauty as tainted and them as less beautiful than they would be if their character were better. Furthermore, that is we know them to be immoral, that we cannot see them as sexually attractive (except for, perhaps, in some abstract way, but that we cannot respond to them sexually).
When we meet a person who is a cognitive blank to us, where we know nothing of them or their character, we can still judge them aesthetically as beautiful or not. However, I think in order to do this, I think we have to project our moral framework onto them and project a good character. I think we naturally want to think of beauty as good and since we already respond to it at a primitive level, we want to have a fuller response, so we flesh out their persona with our own judgments in order to have a full response to them. We want them to be the kind of person that we would be very attracted to and want to know and so we project our framework onto them so that we see them as robustly good. On the other hand, it could be simply that we see beauty as a natural good and therefore as embodying our values (which we think are good), and therefore we think that since beauty is a good that it must be conjoined by moral good, since we think that the beauty is caused from within.
I want to return to an earlier point and ask whether beauty is some sort of natural good. I want to say that yet, it is. Much in the same way seeing the beauty of a sunset or an artwork is a great value, I think human beauty is also a value. We need, as a psychological fact, to see beauty in life. It is a reaffirmation of the beauty of existence and of the good in the world. It is an encouragement to keep fighting against evil and of the black blanket of destruction it brings. Beauty brings us joy and motivation: it is like spiritual fuel. Human beauty is, to me at least, one of the highest kinds of beauty as I value humanity.
Several obvious questions arise: what is the connection between aesthetic judgments of beauty and moral judgments of beauty? Is there such a thing as a moral judgment of beauty or can moral judgements only augment or detract from beauty? I think it is the latter. There are some people who are so ugly that even an exemplary soul would not make me think they were attractive: I might respect them for their character, but they would not become attractive if they were physically ugly enough. So, it’s not the case that there is a moral judgment of beauty. There is an aesthetic judgment of beauty and a moral judgment overlay that greatly influences our response to the physical characteristics. I actually don’t think that one can maintain a judgement of aesthetic beauty in the face of knowledge of a bad immorality and a bad character.
Beauty is, then, a value, but only when combined with a good character: beauty is not a self-justifying value. However, beauty is an important value and it should not be minimized.
I think it’s also important to consider that sexual attraction is not the same as physical beauty: you might judge someone as physically beautiful, but not sexually attractive. If we are happily partnered and monogamous, and therefore not looking for new partners, we’re much more likely to experience a person’s physical beauty without having a sexual response to it. This, though, raises another question: does our judgment of beauty necessarily contain a sexual judgment? Is saying that you think a person is beautiful connected to you saying you would have sex with a person? Is it the same thing? I’m not sure. I think that they can be different, that one can make an aesthetic judgment of beauty without necessarily implying the further sexual step.
One final, and very important, question that we still need to address: what ultimately justifies sexual activity? Is beauty a sufficient reason to have sex with a person? I think, given the foregoing, that the answer is a very qualified yes. If the beautiful person is also a good person, if you’re not treating sex lightly, and if it’s not harming other values in your life, then I think it’s perfectly moral to have sex with a person because they are beautiful. On the other hand, if you ignore and evade a person’s bad character in order to justify having sex with them, then it is immoral.
This is all I have to say on the topic right now. I welcome feedback on this aporia and I will write another essay at some point in the future with my more considered opinion. I hope that this has at least raised some interesting questions for you.
I was perusing this week’s Objectivist Blog Carnival when I noticed a post that sounded interesting: Benjamin Skipper’s “You Can Only Hate What’s *There*.” Now, I was interested in this because I’m very interested in theories of emotion and this piece sounded particularly misguided by the title. The piece didn’t disappoint.
The core argument is this:
What clarified things for me is remembering that only existence exists. That which does not exist cannot have an impact on reality, and anyone who claims to deal with things that don’t exist, such as supernatural entities, are only dealing with content within their mind. Since the thing doesn’t actually exist, they can’t interact with it, or even direct their emotions towards it.
This is one of the best example of rationalism I’ve encountered recently. Consider the premise that “that which does not exist cannot have an impact on reality.” That’s true, but only if you consider no more than the literal meanings of the words. Consider the implication, though. Ben thinks that believing in a god won’t have an impact on reality, since the god doesn’t exist. History, of course, disagrees. He also thinks that you can’t direct your emotions to something that doesn’t exist. That’s also nonsense and, in fact, we do this all the time.
Consider this scenario: I think I hear something in the night and I become afraid that someone might be breaking into my house to do me harm. I will feel fear and the object of my fear will be the person who wishes me harm. Now, let’s say that I was mistaken that there was someone breaking in to my house, my fear will subside because it turns out there was no object of my emotion. But, emotions do not need actually existing objects, they respond to beliefs, and we can have beliefs about all sorts of things, whether they exist or not. In my example, my emotional response of fear was to the belief that someone might be breaking into my house, not the that fact that someone actually was. As another example, I believe unicorns are creatures that look a lot like horses, but who have a single horn on their head. This thought might even cause me some pleasure to consider what such a creature might look like. However, unicorns do not exist. Yet, I can still form beliefs about them and I can respond emotionally to my beliefs. Just because I am “only dealing with content within [my] mind,” does not mean that I’m not having real emotions. In fact, emotions only ever deal with things within my mind, beliefs, even if the beliefs are formed because of some fact of reality. The object of an emotion is always a belief.
This rationalistic deduction is the kind of thing that leads nascent Objectivists astray and causes them to hold all sorts of crazy beliefs. Rationalism is one of our most dangerous enemies as philosophers and we need to ward against this kind of thinking in all things.
Now, let this discussion not be taken as a general criticism of Ben or his blog as I don’t read it regularly and don’t know either way. Let this also not be taken as a criticism of Ben himself, as it is not an ad hominem. However, do take it as a complete repudiation of this post by Ben and, perhaps, also his understanding of emotions.
I got an e-mail from a reader the other day about an interesting idea called “quirkyalone.” First, though, I’d like to point out that “Jason Stotts” is not a nom de plume, but is actually my real name. So, anyone writing me can feel free to address me simply as Jason, no other appellation is necessary or desired.
February 14 is “International Quirkyalone Day”. Of course the date was picked to contrast it with Valentine’s Day, but it’s not about feeling sorry for singles. The “quirkyalone” is an interesting concept that I feel describes me very well, and apparently many others feel the same way about themselves.
Being quirkyalone means enjoying the freedom and solitude of being single, while being open to the possibility of finding love. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this idea at some point.
I had never heard of quirkyalone before and so I followed the links to find out more about it. Wikipedia, which is, of course, omniscient, had this to say:
Quirkyalone is a neologism referring to someone who enjoys being single (but is not opposed to being in a relationship) and generally prefers to be alone rather than dating for the sake of being in a couple.[…] It started in 2003 as a “celebration of romance, freedom and individuality”.
From what little information I can gather, it sounds like people who are “quirkyalone” want to wait for the right person to date and don’t want to date people who they don’t think will be a good long term fit or even “the one.”
I think this is a terrible idea.
There is so much that we learn about ourselves, what we want in a partner, love, our preferences, our sexuality, etc., from being in relationships, even with the “wrong” people, that cannot be discovered by standing aloof from relationships and waiting for one’s Platonic ideal. There is simply no way to rationalistically learn about our needs for relationships, love, and sex except for by going out into the world and experiencing these things and reflecting on how they work for us. While I can know beforehand that someone who is abusive is ruled out prima facie, that really doesn’t tell me much. What kinds of traits do I want in a lover? What things annoy me? What are my boundaries? What are deal-breakers for me? There is simply no way to answer these questions except through experience and experience is precisely what one will not gain without going out into the world and having relationships.
On the other hand, I also think it’s a terrible idea to date simply in order to be in a relationship, solely in order to not be alone. This, I think, is much worse than standing aloof from relationships. There is much we learn about ourselves from being alone and if we are always in relationships, we may know who we are with John or Kim, but we won’t know who we are by ourselves. Furthermore, many people who are always in relationships are motivated by a fear of being alone. They are afraid that they won’t get the external validation they need in order to bolster their sense of self-esteem or perhaps they are afraid of what they might find if they were alone too much and forced to introspect too carefully.
The ability to enjoy spending time alone with only your thoughts to keep you company is a good one and leads one to a level of introspection that few people achieve. Through this introspection, we come to know ourselves much better and to understand our own needs and desires.
The ideal, as should be obvious, is to neither stand aloof nor to be in a relationship for the sake of being in a relationship, but to date purposefully and with an eye to both the present and the future. To be alone when it makes sense and to have a partner when it makes sense. To do each in the right time and each with purpose. Furthermore, we should not count it a failure if a relationship doesn’t end in death. We are neither Christians nor mystics. We, as Objectivists, believe that sex should be tied to values, but that doesn’t mean we need to seek our platonic soul mates. If you have even a short relationship with another person and you both enjoy yourselves and learn more about yourselves, then this should be considered a successful relationship. Furthermore, just because a relationship ends in death, doesn’t make it successful. Many people stay in unhappy relationships only in order to say that they are still in relationships, so they can say that their relationship didn’t fail. But, truly, isn’t an unhappy and unhealthy relationship the only kind of failed relationship? There is nothing intrinsically valuable about a relationship that ends in death and we should not shoot for this as our ideal. Instead, let us shoot for healthy and happy relationships, as long as they may last.
Of course, this is not to denigrate long term relationships and I think there are values that you gain through long term relationships that you don’t have in short term ones, like a shared life and past. The sense of shared identity and intimacy that comes from a long term relationship cannot be equaled by a short term relationship and I might even go so far as to argue that this kind of intimacy is constitutive of happiness, but perhaps that’s an argument for another essay.
So, to return to quirkyalone, from what little I understand of it, it seems like a bad idea and a way to make oneself feel better about being alone. Instead, I think we should shoot for a balance in relationships and to learn from our experiences and count all of our happy and healthy relationships as successes, no matter their length. Of course, as I said in the beginning, I didn’t have much information about Quirkyalone to go on, so I may be off base on that particular. The rest, however, stands.
The following is a rough draft of what was going to be section 1 of chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Sexual Perfection: Foundations of a New Sexual Ethic. However, the section had to be cut after a restructuring. Instead of merely scrapping the material, I’ve decided to post it here so that you, our loyal readers, can have a look at it.
Section 1: Brief History of the Problem
What is an emotion?
Each of us has experienced what we think are emotions and most of us would likely say that he knew what an emotion is. However, it quickly becomes clear, once we begin to try to concretize this knowledge, that our conception of emotions is ephemeral at best.
For example, love is popularly considered a paradigm emotion, but what about shame, disgust, and pleasure? Are these things emotions? Furthermore, even in the paradigm case of love, it’s not clear what exactly love is: is love something inside me, or is it a relation between my lover and myself, or perhaps both? Once we try to pin down the precise nature of an emotion, we quickly discover that the certainty we thought we had evaporates.
Yet, if we cannot understand even the more basic emotions and the role they play in our lives, it is hard to imagine that we shall be able to come to understand the true nature of sex or to ever know happiness. But how, you may be wondering, with all of the advances in technology, in medicine, in psychology, and with the intervening 2500 years since philosophers began asking hard questions about emotions, how can we not know what emotions are? The problem is that for all this time, there have been some serious errors that have prevented our understanding of emotions from progressing.
Plato was the first philosopher, of whom we have substantial record, to attempt to untangle the confusion regarding emotions. He believed that humans were truly immortal souls trapped inside bodies and that after death these souls would transcend the material world to a pure world of Forms. However, while bound in a body, the soul had certain attributes. In the Phaedrus, Plato uses the metaphor of a charioteer pulled by two strong steeds: a white purebred (reason) and a wild black stallion (the passions). He claims that in order to maintain one’s path, one must tame the black stallion as much as possible so that the two horses work together. If the black horse of the passions cannot be tamed, then he shall pull the chariot astray.
The problem with Plato’s psychology is that it treats the passions as innate and irreducible, in addition to being opposed to reason. Thus, while Plato would agree that it is the sight of a beautiful youth that stirs desire for a Greek, he would not think that any further analysis could be done. Yet, if the sight of a young boy were simply enough to stir desire and this was innate, then all humans (or at least all human males) should feel desire for these beautiful youths. However, today young men are not the objects of the lust of older men, but rather it is women that now serve as the ideal of beauty (a concept completely foreign to the Greek mind). By considering emotions as irreducible and opposed to reason, Plato set the stage for two millennia of confusion.
The next major setback for the understanding of emotions comes again from the Greeks, although this time it is the Stoics. One of the Stoic ideals was what they called apatheia, or the absence of desire and emotions. This ideal springs from their belief that emotions obscure our connection with the world and confuse our minds. Instead, we are told by the Stoics to follow Reason dispassionately.
The Stoics, instead of contesting the idea that the passions are opposed to reason, instead accept this as fact and decide that the only appropriate course of action must be to reject emotions in favor of reason. However, with no emotional commitment to follow the edicts of reason, why should I desire to? By completely denying that a passionate life could be a reasonable life, the Stoics severed any chance of someone desiring a life of reason and set up the ideal of the dispassionate life of “cold reason.” We shall return to this point at the end of the chapter and see that our emotions can actually serve as the motivation for ethics.
So far, we have seen that Plato thought that emotions were unanalyzable and needed to be commanded by reason and that the Stoics went even farther by outright denying that emotions could have any useful role in life. Yet, it was Kant, who insisted that emotions were absolutely opposed to reason and therefore anathema to Ethics, that struck home the final nail in the coffin for emotions.
While the Stoics had sought to create a philosophy dedicated to human reason in order to live a good life, Kant’s goal is something different. Kant seeks to create a philosophy structured for a “pure rational agent”. He seeks, as much as possible, to remove any human elements from his system and to enshrine “reason itself” as his deity. Thus, he states an agent must always act “not from inclination but from duty, and by this would his conduct first acquire true moral worth.” Thus, for Kant if a person has any emotional commitment (inclination) to an end, it cannot be ethical. This emphasis completed the divorce of emotions and ethics that Plato started by insisting that reason had to tame emotions. It also was the final blow against emotions insofar as understanding goes, since if emotions are only destructive of ethics, then we need not try and understand them. It would be best to avoid them altogether.
The history of philosophy with regard to emotions is a rather bleak one and it gives rise to most of the problems we see in the current understanding of emotions. Today, the three major problems in relation to emotions are: the open hostility to emotions, the dichotomy of reason versus emotions, and the idea that emotions are unanalyzable. We have seen the historic and philosophic origins of these ideas and we have even anticipated the answers to some of these problems in chapter 1. Now let us briefly address each before moving on to a thorough analysis of emotions.
First, we must point out that emotions are not necessarily destructive of ethics. It is important to realize that Kant only thought that emotions were destructive of ethics because he was absolutely opposed to any sort of self-interested action and he believed that if emotions had any role in ethics, then people would be inclined towards egoism. Since we have already dismissed the arguments against egoism, let us set aside Kant’s agenda and move on to other problems.
Not only are emotions not necessarily destructive of ethics, they can also be the fuel that powers ethics. If we realign emotions and reason, then emotions could help us to be ethical. Imagine the difference in action between the person who was coldly ethical because he thought it was right, but had no emotional commitment to right action, and the person who passionately wanted to be good. It should be obvious that the latter person will not only be better able to achieve a good life, he will also enjoy this life in a way that the former person will not.
We saw in chapter one that the conception of a person as having a separable soul/body was incorrect and that humans are actually integrated beings of soul and body such that when the body dies, the soul does not persist. Although we can easily dispatch with dualism, we still need to understand the connections between reason and emotions in order to integrate the two back together. In order to do this we shall have to provide a positive theory of emotions to replace the mistaken historic conception, which we shall do below. In the process it will become clear that emotions are not irreducible primaries, but are open to analysis, and that reason and emotions are closely related.
Perhaps the single most important feature of emotions is that one now lost to us. Emotions have become afflictions that we bear: they are beyond reason, beyond understanding, and beyond our ability to control. Emotions do not, however, have to be this way.
Emotions, proper emotions, allow us to experience the reality of our judgments and give meaning to our lives. A life that is coldly rational, a life where reason and emotion stand in opposition, is a life that is without meaning. No matter how correct your judgments may be, they cannot be real to you unless you can experience them as part of yourself. Emotions give reality to our ideas; they are the divine bridge between our intellect and bodies and allow us to live as unified beings. That is, of course, if one can master them.
Yet, mastery of emotions need not be the Herculean effort that it is currently supposed. The reason that it is now so difficult is because emotions are not understood, and if one does not understand the operation of his emotions then he has no chance to try and change them. Yet, emotional operation is straightforward and within our ability to change.
Our emotions are automatic responses to our souls, to the core of our beliefs, to those judgments that we hold as definitive of our identities. The stronger the belief, the more central it is to one’s emotional structure and the more that it will affect one’s emotions. If we want this affect to be for the positive, we cannot leave the creation of our emotions to neglect! We must purposefully craft our emotions directly from our reasons and guarantee our creations through continual introspection.
It is not that we can directly control our emotions, but like a river we can shape its course and it will inevitably follow the channel we create if we do this with care. Emotions follow naturally, and automatically, from our beliefs and so we can ultimately change an emotion by changing this basis. If we consciously direct this process, instead of leaving it up to chance, we can bring our emotions in line with our reason and create a unified soul for ourselves.
By bringing our emotions into line with our reason, we can create a world in which we can not only judge, but can experience the reality of our judgments. We can create, for ourselves, a world where our emotions augment and strengthen our ideas with their passion, a world where good and evil become visceral, a world where our souls are not constantly struggling against themselves and, instead, we can experience the light purity of a soul that is good, that can experience this goodness, and can rejoice in the reality of its virtue. We can create the soul that can say: “I know, and feel, that I am good.”