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A Problem with Emotions

abstract acrylic painting of divided canvas

There is a certain challenge to the adequacy of our emotional reactions — especially those reactions, like grief and joy, which feel ‘called for’ at certain times. Suppose a family has a child who falls grievously ill. After many sleepless nights, the child stabilizes and eventually recovers. There are appropriate emotional responses to this sequence; the parents will, and should, feel relieved and joyed at the child’s recovery. Now suppose another family has a child who similarly falls grievously ill. Except this child does not recover and eventually dies. Again, there are appropriate emotional responses. The parents will, and should, feel grieved and heartbroken at the child’s death.

So far, there is no challenge. But now suppose that instead of two different families, it was one family with two children — one recovers, one dies. Here, what are the parents supposed to feel? There are a couple of options.

Perhaps they should feel a sort of moderated grief. After all, something wonderful has happened (a child has recovered) and something terrible has happened (a child has died). Do they partially cancel out (but maybe weighted in the direction of grief since ‘bad is stronger than good’)? The problem with this answer is that the grief is a response to the tragedy of the child’s death. And that child’s death is no less a tragedy just because the other child survived. Moderation would be appropriate if something happened to moderate the tragedy of the child’s death — such as the child being spared death and instead placed within an enchanted sleep — but it does not seem like the appropriate response to some other good thing occurring.

Perhaps then, you just need to feel either emotion. Both grief and joy are appropriate — so long as you feel one, then you are feeling well. But this won’t do either. There is something wrong with the parent who feels nothing for the recovery of their child, just as there is something wrong with the parent who feels nothing for the child’s death.

In fact, the only response that seems appropriate to the situation is to feel both grief and joy. You ought to be grieved at the one child’s death and joyed at the other child’s recovery.

But here is the issue. It doesn’t seem possible to fully feel both at once. Feelings, unlike some other mental states, compete with each other. When I feel happy about one thing, it pushes sadness about other things to the periphery. This is unlike, say, beliefs. The parents can fully believe that one child recovered while, at the same moment, fully believing that the other child died. This is because beliefs do not require active attention. Moments ago, you believed all sorts of things about your former elementary school, but I expect until you read this sentence you were not actively attending to any of those beliefs.

Emotions, however, do require attention. If I can become fully absorbed in my work, then for a time my grief will retreat. (Of course, one of the frustrating things about grief is the way that it maintains a ‘grip’ on your attention — forcing your thoughts to circle back and return again, and again, to the tragedy.)

So, to fully feel the grief at the one child’s death, and to fully feel the joy at the other child’s recovery, would require me to keep my full attention on both at the same time. But we can’t do that with attention, attention is a limited resource. It can only be fully engaged in one direction.

The best we can do, then, is a sort of ping-ponging back and forth between grief and joy. Feeling complete grief when attending to the death, feeling thankful and relieved when attending to the recovery. But at no point, it seems, can my emotions be completely responsive to what is called for.

Berislav Marušić, in his essay “Do Reasons Expire”, considers a related puzzle:

“Grief is, plausibly, a response to reasons; the reason for my grief was my mother’s death; her death does not change over time; but it is not wrong for me to grieve less over time. Yet how could the diminution of grief not be wrong, if my reason for grief stays the same?”

The reason the problem is similar is that there is a disconnect between the response demanded by the event (the tragedy of someone’s death) and the psychological realities of our capacity to have emotions. You just can’t indefinitely grieve, and in turn you don’t indefinitely grieve. But doesn’t it seem as if there is a sense in which you ought to?

There is a conflict, then, between the psychological realities that constraint our emotions, and the appropriateness conditions surrounding what emotions we ‘ought’ to feel.

This is an important conflict to think about. One reason it’s important to be aware of this conflict is because it helps recognize exactly why we need to be so skeptical of grounding our moral decisions simply on emotions like anger or grief. Since we can only feel some emotions to an extent, our emotional responses, at a given time, are usually not responsive to the full range of relevant considerations. You can feel outrage about an injustice, or hopeful at political progress that has been made, but you can’t feel both at the same time to the appropriate extent. But given that psychological reality, that means that basing policy recommendations on emotions of rage or optimistic hope is likely to be morally dangerous.

This does not mean that emotions should play no role in our moral decision-making. Emotions are important. Instead, what this means is that we need to be extremely cautious when acting on our emotional reactions. We should always bear in mind that emotions are likely to not be reflective of the full range of complexities in any given case.

Sparking Joy: The Ethics of Medically-Induced Happiness

Photograph of a sunflower in sunshine with blue sky behind

Happiness is often viewed as an ephemeral thing. Finding happiness is an individual and ever-developing process. Biologically speaking, however, all emotions are the simple result of hormones and electrical impulses. In a recent medical breakthrough, a team of scientists has found a way to tap in to these electrical impulses and induce joy directly in the brain. This kind of procedure has long been the stuff of speculation, but now it has become a reality. While the technique shows a good deal of promise in treating disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress, it also presents an ethical conundrum worth considering.

On initial examination, it is difficult to point out anything particularly wrong with causing “artificial” joy. Ethical hedonism would prioritize happiness over all other values, regardless of the manner in which happiness is arrived at. However, many people would experience a knee-jerk rejection to the procedure. It bears some similarity to drug-induced euphoria, but unlike illicit drugs, this electrical procedure seems to have no harmful side effects, according to the published study. Of course, with a small sample size and a relatively short-term trial, addiction and other harmful aspects of the procedure may be yet undiscovered. If, as this initial study suggests, the procedure is risk-free, should it be ethically accepted? Or is there cause for hesitation beyond what is overtly harmful?

The possibility of instantaneous, over-the-counter happiness has been a frequent subject of science-fiction. Notable examples include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which featured a happiness-inducing drug called “soma”; and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later adapted into the film Blade Runner), which included a mood-altering device called a “mood organ.” Both novels treat these inventions as key elements in a dystopian future. Because the emotions produced by these devices are “false”—the direct result of chemical alteration, rather than a “natural” response to external conditions—the society which revolves around them is empty and void of meaning. What is the validity of this viewpoint? Our bias towards what we perceive as “natural” may be simply a matter of maintaining the status quo–we’re more comfortable with whatever we’re used to. This is similar to the preference for foods containing “natural” over “artificial” flavoring despite nearly identical chemical compositions. While we are instinctively wary of the “artificial” emotions, there may be no substantive difference to the unbiased feeler.

Of course, emotions exist for more than just the experience of feeling. The connection between emotions and the outside world was addressed by Kelly Bijanki, one of the scientists involved in the electrically-induced happiness study, in her interview with Discover Magazine: “Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us.” Just as pain helps us avoid dangerous hazards and our ability to taste bitterness helps us avoid poisonous things, negative emotions help drive us away from harmful situations and towards beneficial ones. However, living in a modern society to which the human body is not biologically adapted, our normally helpful sensory responses like pain and fear can sometimes backfire. Some people experience chronic pain connected to a bodily condition that cannot be immediately resolved; in these cases, the pain itself becomes the problem, rather than a useful signal. As such, we seek medical solutions to the pain itself. Chronic unhappiness, such as in cases of anxiety and depression, could be considered the same way: as a normally useful sensory feedback which has “gone wrong” and itself become a problem requiring medical treatment.

What if the use of electrically-induced happiness extended beyond temporary medical treatments? Why shouldn’t we opt to live our lives in a state of perpetual euphoria, or at least have the option to control our emotions directly? As was previously mentioned, artificial happiness may be indistinguishable from the real thing, at least as far as our bodies are concerned. Human beings already use a wide variety of chemicals and actions to “induce” happiness–that is, to make ourselves happy. If eating chocolate or exercising are “natural” paths to happiness, why would an electrical jolt be “unnatural”? Of course, the question of meaning still bears on the issue. Robert Nozick argues that humans make a qualitative distinction between the experience of doing something and actually doing it. We want our happiness to be tied to real accomplishments; the emotion alone isn’t enough. More concretely, we would probably become desensitized to happiness if it were all we experienced. In the right doses, sadness helps us value happiness more; occasional pain makes our pleasure more precious.

If happiness in the absence of meaning is truly “empty,” our ethical outlook toward happiness should reflect this view. Rather than viewing pleasure or happiness itself as the ultimate good, we might instead see happiness as a component of a well-lived life. Whether something is good would depend not on whether it brings happiness, but whether it fulfills some wider sense of meaning. Of course, exactly what constitutes this wider meaning would continue to be the subject of endless philosophical debate.

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