Morality, Ethics, and Love, Spirituality and Love

Two Mistakes We Often Make with Our Emotions

This week I was thinking about two mistakes we often make with our emotions.

I was thinking about this because I am teaching ethics this semester (as I usually do).

And one of the points I regularly make to my students is that our emotions are not a suitable sole foundation for moral decision-making.

“Expressions of Emotions”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

You can probably think of several reasons why this is so.

For instance, if you are anything like most people (including me), your emotions can change drastically within a day, or even within a few hours.

For instance, I can wake up and go for a walk outside. And i might feel like the world is an amazing place because of all the beauty I see around me.

This is a picture from a walk on campus the other day. I was in love with the world and with fall when I took this picture.

But then later, I can be overwhelmed by deadlines  or congested traffic and feel like the world is a dark and gloomy place and that everything is falling apart.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Use and Reuse Collections.

In addition, most of us experience intense negative emotions at times. Such emotions can be out of proportion to the situation that causes them.

For example, we might feel a flash of rage or disgust with someone simply because we slept poorly or ate something that makes us feel sick, and their actions strike us the wrong way.

Our emotions are like flashes and floods of pleasure and pain. And because they are flashes and floods, they lack accompanying reason, logic, or planning.

Dante Gabriel Rosettie, “Christina Rosetti in a Tantrum”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As such, feelings in themselves are not a suitable sole guide for making good decisions.

So the first mistake we can make with our emotions is to treat them as a suitable sole guide for decision-making.

But there is another mistake we can make with our emotions.

The second mistake is to completely ignore our emotions and to assume they are immoral or bad, simply because they are emotions.

Once again, emotions are flashes and floods of pleasure or pain. And there is usually some cause for our our emotions. We should pay attention to that.

For example, when we feel fear in a situation, there is usually something potentially dangerous in our environment.

And when we feel anger at someone, it is often (although not always) because someone has acted objectionably in some way, or at least in a way that seems objectionable to us.

Since our emotions usually have a provocation of some sort, they can serve as a helpful early detection system.

This is especially true regarding our negative emotions, like fear. Let me illustrate this point with something you have likely observed in your pets.

Have you ever noticed your dog or cat acting fearfully, and you are not sure why? And then a minute later, you hear thunder?

You realize that your pets could sense the storm before you are aware of it.

Animals can sense danger like storms and earthquakes before humans can.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I think of our emotions, to some degree, as our animal sense.

Our emotions often result from our body’s wisdom which comes from a combination of memory, observation, and reflection.

Often our emotions sense things before our reason fully grasps the situation.

For example, if you are anything like me, you have sometimes felt that something was off with a person, or something they said, even before you knew exactly what it was.

That’s because your body stores memories of the experiences, observations, and reflections you’ve had over the course of your life.

This is stored body wisdom, and you draw on it to live your life well and survive.

For example, I have been teaching for several decades, and I have developed a sort of sixth sense for how to respond in certain classroom situations.

Sometimes I am wrong but often I am right.

That’s because I have several decades worth of experiences, observations, and reflections  stored inside me that give me a sense of what is going on in my classroom at any moment.

I can often feel what is going on before I fully understand it with my reason.

So I listen to my emotions, even though I don’t use them as a sole guide for decision-making in the classroom.

Athletes, musicians, or parents who have invested hundreds of hours in their sport, music, or children develop a similar sixth sense about the right way to respond in certain situations.

And they often feel things that they cannot necessary expression through reason, at least not initially.

Emotions are often an expression of stored body wisdom. As such, they are invaluable for living our life well.

So, how do we reconcile these two aspects of emotions? 1) they are often volatile and disproportionately intense; and 2) they often express deep body wisdom.

The philosopher Aristotle gives us a possible path forward.

“Aristotle, Line Engraving” by P. Fidanza, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Aristotle discusses an ideal human state called eudaimonia. The English language doesn’t have an exact translation for eudaimonia. It literally means good spirit.[1]

Translators often translated the word as happiness, but it means something more like flourishing.

If you wonder what flourishing means for a human being, think of someone who cultivates and expresses every positive human character trait they can express.

For example, according to Aristotle, humans can express positive character traits like courage, self-control, generosity, self-respect, proper ambition, and playfulness.

These are just a few of the positive character traits we can develop. (You can see a chart of Aristotle’s virtues here: What CPAs Can Learn from Aristotle.)

These character traits, according to Aristotle, are virtues which express a healthy, balanced, inner life.

And in fact, Aristotle compares virtue to physical health, which we achieve when we avoid excess and defect.  Aristotle writes,

It is the nature of such things to be spoiled by defect and excess; as we see in the case of health and strength . . .  for excessive training impairs the strength as well as deficient:

meat and drink, in like manner, in too great or too small quantities, impair the health: while in due proportion they cause, increase, and preserve it.

Thus it is therefore with the habits of perfected Self-Mastery and Courage and the rest of the Virtues.[2]

Aristotle suggests that if we want to cultivate virtues, we must practice using both emotion and reason to respond in a balanced, harmonious manner.

I think of our ability to respond virtuously to situations as a type of gracefulness.

For example, consider what we mean when we say that someone “has their act together”. We mean, among other things, that the person seems to know how to act in the right way at the right time.

For example, they remain cool and focused under pressure. But they can also be playful and witty at the right time, without crossing the line into inappropriate or excessive behavior.

Aristotle would say that such a person is a eudaimon or a good-spirited person.

That is, they have continually practiced combining reason with emotion in just the right amount to respond in a harmonious way to different situations in life.

And I would further add that such a person appears graceful to us and like they have their act together.

“Thierry Blannchard Ballerina Project Brasil”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And in fact, when we think someone does not have their act together, we often mean that their response to situations is either excessive or defective in some manner.

For instance, when I feel like I don’t have my act together, I feel like I lack proper organization or planning or that I rush around in crisis mode all day.

Or I feel like I lack proper care or respect for important things in life.

For example, when I don’t have my act together, I lack the ability to revel in a beautiful sunset or to think carefully about my goals and values.

That is, when I don’t have my act together, I feel like I am either excessive or defective in important character traits that help me live a good, flourishing life.

Namely, I struggle to use my emotions and reason together to act well in life.

When I do have my act together, I use my emotions and reason together to act well.

So, when people cultivate eudaimonia, they neither neglect their emotions nor use them as their sole guide for acting.

Rather, they heed their emotions, temper them with reason (not too much or tool little), and through practice learn to respond wisely to the situations they face.

Emotions are energy that helps fuel our life. Reason is the tool that helps us temper or enhance our emotions so we can channel them properly towards a constructive goal.

This is a constructive goal like acting courageously, playfully, or generously to live well. And when we act that way, we become a good- spirited person or a eudaimon.

And anyone, even you and me, can become a eudaimon.

We can pay attention to our emotions and then use reason to temper or enhance or emotions to achieve a harmonious spirit.

Such a response helps us achieve constructive goals.

If you would like to read more about Aristotle, you might like this post: How to Flourish by Cultivating Virtues.

And if you would like to read more about using reason and virtue to cultivate a good spirit, you might like this course I recently published on our intrinsic worth: The Four Basic Truths: Worth, Capable, Connected, and Called to Adventure.


[1] You can read all the following ideas about Aristotle’s philosophy in books 1-3 of Nicomachean Ethics.

[2] See Book II of Nicomachean Ethics.

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