So far, about morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.
—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
It is an essential part of the process of maturing, I think, to come to terms with your own emotions. Can they be trusted? How far? In what circumstances are they misleading? Do they make you act irrationally or do things you don’t normally do? Are you afraid of your emotions? Are you afraid of communicating them to others? Why? Do you tend you bury your emotions, or to ignore them? With what consequences? All these questions, and more, are unavoidable as we grow older and learn how to deal with ourselves.
It is worth pointing out the odd fact, taken for granted by nearly everyone, that our emotions are discussed as something essentially separate from ourselves. They are things that happen to us, things that strike us, things that affect us like a sickness. And yet they are ourselves, aren’t they? What could be more integrally a part of yourself than your feelings?
Perhaps we think of emotions are outside events, comparable to snowstorms or car accidents, because we recognize that they are universal experiences. Being angry, depressed, giddy, the feeling of being in love—the triggers of an emotion vary, but the experience itself binds us together. And in that way, the emotions can be said to be objective facts, not the most intimate part of ourselves, because they are the same for everyone.
Or perhaps we talk of our emotions as separate from ourselves because they come and go, sometimes at random, and are often beyond our control. Feeling melancholy on a lonely walk is like being caught in the rain—an event that depends on the whims of fate.
As someone who prides himself on being logical—although, heaven knows how silly I can be—my relationship with my emotions has always been rather skeptical, even suspicious. My friends in elementary school used to tease me for being robotic. As I grew up, I lost most of this robotic coldness, but some traces of it remain. I am still quite skeptical of emotions, and I still find my feelings to be suspicious.
In my experience at least, emotions cannot be trusted as sources of information. A classic example is walking out the door and feeling that you’ve forgotten something, or packing for a trip and feeling sure that there’s something your missing. In my case, this feeling is almost inevitably wrong; my feeling of worry or confidence have almost nothing to do with whether I have actually forgotten something.
It was a major discovery—which I only made in university—that my mood had very little to do with the things I normally hold responsible for it. Sometimes I would get angry and think about all the unpleasant things my friends did and said, all the inanities of my roommates, all the annoyances of my classes. Or I would get melancholy and think about things I missed from home, or convince myself that I was lonely and unloved, or castigate myself for being a failure.
And yet all of these things I blamed for my mood were totally irrelevant. Almost inevitably, if I sat down and ate something, or if I had a coffee and a candy bar, my mood improved dramatically. Indeed, after I drink coffee I am often ecstatically happy, and I think equally unrealistic thoughts about how great my life is.
Experiences like these reinforce my skepticism about feelings. I can feel sure I’ve forgotten something, even after checking three times. I can be enraged and curse the world and everyone in it, and yet this is only due to hunger. Feelings come and go, each one seeming to tell me something clear and definite, only to be replaced in the next moment by another feeling that tells me the exact opposite thing. Each one is convincing in its strength, and yet each is totally devoid of substance; they give me the feeling of certainty without any evidence to support it.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there is a form of cognitive distortion, erroneous thinking, called “emotional reasoning.” This consists precisely in trusting your emotions. Depressed people often feel ashamed, worthless, and hopeless, and then reason that these things must be true, since why else would they feel that way so persistently? Similarly, anxious people feel afraid, and believe that this fear is justified and is telling them about a real threat to their safety.
Indeed, it seems to me—or at least it’s been my experience—that getting over anxiety and depression involves learning to distrust your own feelings. I have learned, for example, that my feelings of fear often have nothing to do with something bad that might actually happen; and that my feelings of shame are not a reliable indicator of what other people will actually think.
To a certain extent, I think most people would agree, in theory at least, that emotions can be misleading. Nevertheless, there is one domain in which nearly everyone puts implicit faith in their emotions: morality.
I remember reading a book by Steven Pinker in which he demonstrated the emotional basis of our moral thinking in this way.
Consider this short situation: A family’s dog, who had lived with them for many years, was killed in front of their house by a car. The family heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog and cooked him for dinner.
Now, in this situation, did the family act immorally? If you’re like me, you feel somewhat disgusted by this; and maybe you have decided that you’d never want to be friends with this family; and maybe you think it heartless that they could eat their loyal friend and companion. But did they do anything immoral?
I don’t think they did, because they didn’t hurt anyone or act out of accordance with the categorical imperative. And yet I admit that the first time I read this, I felt disgusted and almost outraged at this family. This illustrates Pinker’s general point: we have moral feelings first, and then try to rationalize them later. In other words, our moral reactions are not based on any logical standard but instead on gut feeling.
It is, of course, difficult to rationalize morality. Philosophers still struggle with it, and there are no easy answers. Be that as it may, this is no excuse to substitute feeling for thinking. Even a slight acquaintance with history shows that people have thought many things were terribly immoral—mixed-race marriages, or premarital sex—that nowadays don’t raise an eyebrow. The world is full of taboos and prohibitions that, to outsiders, don’t make any sense. We are capable of having strong moral reactions about activities that don’t harm anyone or pose any threat to society.
I do not know why people continue to trust their feelings of disgust and outrage when it has been shown again and again, even in my lifetime, that these feelings are often based on nothing at all. We trust our gut like it’s the Oracle of Delphi, handing out moral verdicts from on high; but out guts often disagree with one another, and just as often contradict themselves on different days.
Take the example of gay love. I remember when I was young, the idea of two men kissing was considered, by nearly everyone I knew, to be absolutely obscene; and now, we have a movie the features homoerotic love winning Best Picture. (I do not mean to suggest, even for a second, that we have overcome homophobia; but we have made progress.) The controversy surrounding trans people seems to be based on this same gut reaction of disgust. The “argument” about the “dangers” of trans people in public restrooms is so devoid of substance that I can only conclude it is feeble attempt to rationalize a feeling.
And yet I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, being transgender was considered as unremarkable as gay love. I can see no logical reason to regulate, ban, or even worry about sexuality, gender, and orientation, because they don’t hurt anyone and don’t pose any threat to society. You may not like gay love, you may find the idea of trans people gross, and that’s fine, but this feeling is no valid indication that these things are wrong.
This brings me around to Hemingway’s quote. Hemingway said this in connection with bullfighting. He expected to find bullfighting disgusting, but he loved it, and for that reason didn’t think it was wrong. Well, it’s obvious by now that I don’t agree with this method of telling right from wrong. If bullfighting is right or wrong, we need to explain why, with reference to some standard.
My problem is that I normally think of morality as a relationship between humans, and I actually don’t know how to think about morality regarding animals. A bull cannot understand a duty, an obligation, or the idea of consequences; a bull can’t be reasoned with or convinced. All of these things are necessary, I think, for a creature to be a moral agent, to be bound and protected by a system of moral injunctions. So when we’re dealing with animals, can an action be right or wrong?
My gut feeling is that bullfighting is wrong, because it involves animal cruelty. But this feeling, however intense, is just that: a feeling. Can I rationally believe bullfighting is wrong while continuing to eat hamburgers? I really don’t know. Thus I am in the uncomfortable situation of having a dilemma for which my moral reasoning provides no solution; and this leaves me with nothing but a feeling. I suppose I’ll have to read and think some more about the subject.