Are emotions evil?

High Tatras, Slovakia. Photographer: Martin Sojka.

High Tatras, Slovakia. Photographer: Martin Sojka.

Humans are emotional creatures. Anger, lust, anxiousness, boredom, disgust, and a whole slew of others can affect us in our day-to-day lives. Sometimes these emotions boil over. We talk about ‘crimes of passion’, for example – crimes that people have committed in the heat of the moment, their emotions raging, and where they have ultimately let their emotions control their actions to such a degree that they overrode their reason or normal temperament. In the case of such crimes, we tend to treat the perpetrator differently to how we treat someone who committed an identical act but with pre-meditation and planning. Given that in an ordinary circumstance we can, to some extent, control or direct our emotions, it seems plausible that acting from emotion (or at least partly) can be morally praiseworthy if properly directed. However, completely trusting one’s emotions to produce morally perfect, and thus morally praiseworthy actions, is naïve. Likewise, acting purely from reason can lead one just as astray as acting purely from emotion. Emotion balanced with reason, then, is necessary for reliable moral praiseworthiness.

Barbara Herman once gave the example of a happy-go-lucky agent motivated by sympathy who unwittingly assists an art thief to steal a heavy piece of artwork. The agent, in this case, is acting out of a commendable emotional reaction: to feel sympathy for someone struggling to carry a heavy object. It just so happens that the person carrying the object is acting wrongly – in other words, it’s simply an ‘unlucky’ or ‘unfortuitous’ circumstance for the agent’s otherwise admirable willingness to help someone who might be in need. If the circumstances were different, say, had it been the gallery assistant and not the art thief, then the happy-go-lucky agent’s action would align with the admirability of their emotional motive. Herein lies the problem: acting purely from emotion is gambling the morality of your actions on fortuitous contexts.

Is the happy-go-lucky agent deserving of moral worth in either scenario? Or is worth only granted when the agent combines their emotional motive with reasons? In the original scenario, where the agent unwittingly helps the art thief, we are only told of the agent’s temperament and not their capacity to, or consideration of, reason. Given the unintentional nature of the agent’s accessory to the robbery, we might claim their action was wrong but avoid claiming their action was morally blameworthy. Perhaps we could say, “you should have known better,” but, then, perhaps they could not have otherwise known better due to the circumstances, their temperament, or a combination thereof. Therefore, if we are going to say that reason is always required to attract moral worth, then we may be unfairly excluding those without full capacities to reason (due to their nature or physiatric ailment, for example) from ever doing anything that we can say is truly and fully ‘right’. Is such a situation ideal? If the happy-go-lucky agent is in fact legitimately incapable of reason (perhaps not always, but at least – for the sake of argument – for the duration of this scenario), it seems unfair of us to say that they acted completely wrongly in the scenario where they helped the art thief, but it also seems unfair of us to say that they didn’t act somewhat rightly when they helped the gallery assistant.

How many entirely naïve, happy-go-lucky agents actually exist though? While they might exist in a very small minority, we can probably say that most people aren’t so naïve as to help the art robber. If this is true, a balanced agent might recognise their emotional response in wanting to help someone in potential need, but then reason that within this context their helping would likely be in an immoral act and thus their helping would be similarly immoral. Their reason might direct their sympathy towards the owners of the artwork and cause the agent to notify the authorities. However, if the agent was acting purely from reason unguided by emotion, they might become a misguided agent who acts on reasons which are contrary to the emotion of sympathy or some other emotion. A classic example of such persons was presented in a paper by Jonathan Bennett. He described how Heinrich Himmler, who succeeded in killing millions of innocent people via World War II concentration camps, acted in accordance with bad reasons, ignoring his admitted sympathy for the people he was responsible for killing.

Reason and emotion can be equally misguiding. Acting purely out of emotion can attract moral worth where reason was not also possible, however where it was, it is morally preferable to guide one’s emotions with reason. The greatest moral worth, then, is attracted by the agent who utilises the greatest combination of both reason and emotion in their actions.

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