A Balanced View of Emotion


The Case for Reason

Emotion is often contrasted unfavourably with reason. The argument goes like this: emotions lead us to act rashly, and in our decisions to favour sentiment over sound reasons. By contrast, reason gives us the clarity to decide on the basis of evidence and sound argument. Not only that, in the longer term emotion can lead people to act in their own self interest more than according to the commitments they have made to others.

I'm sure everyone can picture examples of exactly this kind of thing. There is certainly a case for cautions of this kind, pointing out to people that doing good cannot just be a matter of passing emotion but must be grounded more deeply on commitment of the will, to persevere regardless of changing circumstance.

Although the above perspective is true and necessary, it can lead to an imbalance.

This happens because we are not really comparing apples with apples, but apples with oranges. It compares sound reason with disordered emotion. But the opposite can also occur. We also need to consider the case of disordered reason and well ordered emotions.

The Case for Emotion

What is an example of disordered reason? Ideology. An ideology is a view involving partial truths considered as whole truths. For example, Communism emphasised the material dimension of human nature, insisting that people's economic well-being had to be treated as more important than the supposed rights of a few to great wealth. But it also repudiated the spiritual dimension of humanity, and as a result became profoundly inhumane.

Well ordered emotion should help people see through such ideological claims. Someone who feels compassion for others should not be able to contemplate killing them as a means to some end. Emotion is a defence against extremist ideas.

Well ordered emotion objects and says, "Hey, that argument can't be right."

In the more ordinary everyday case this holds true as well. In all sorts of ways we need our feelings to act as a check on our ideas. Someone might propose a certain course of action which sounds reasonable, until someone else objects, "But how would that affect So and So?" Imagination, feeling and empathy help us keep the right balance.

A Question of Balance

We have become used to using the word 'reason' as a synonym for 'sound reason', but somehow we don't use the word 'emotion' as a synonym for 'well ordered emotion'. Yet emotions can be well ordered. The solution is not to pit reason and emotion against each other but to understand the balance needed between them. Each helps the other to become well ordered.

A similar difficulty can arise with the word 'attraction'. Because of its close connection with emotion we can be inclined to see attraction as something superficial.

However, attraction between persons is ultimately a spiritual reality.

This understanding is important when we come to speak about relations between men and women, including especially marriage. It is easy enough to see the problems that arise when people think of emotion and attraction as the essential measure of love. Love must also involve the commitment of will and be in accord with reason.

A Personal Integration

What is needed is a better understanding of how emotion, reason and will are interrelated. Each helps to reinforce the other. How effective is will if not backed up by the strength of feeling?

Feeling does not consist only of fluctuating and superficial emotions but also of tenacious attachment to what one most values.

Sometimes we don't think of this as 'feeling', but it is. If my very sense of self is of someone who is faithful, then my feelings are deeply invested in actions conducive to fidelity. And this can be very closely bound to the feeling of attraction to this person to whom I have made this commitment. The underlying force of this 'attraction' crosses over into 'attachment'. This very feeling should make it unthinkable to consider infidelity.

A Deficit of Feeling

Problems such as infidelity can then be seen as involving a deficit of feeling - not an excess. This could be characterised as giving too much attention to more superficial feelings at the expense of deeper feeling. It makes a lot of sense to cultivate and emphasise the emotional dimension, but not in a free-floating way as if separated from reason.

In some ways this is a more helpful way of conceiving the situation.

If we contrast reason and emotion we could see reason as the weak link.

On its own reason doesn't provide the motive force. It points in the right direction but doesn't provide the energy to take you there. It clarifies the difference between right and wrong but doesn't provide a sufficient counter to the force of disordered emotion attracting you to what is wrong.

From Surface to Depth

What we need then is a balanced development that integrates reason, feeling and will. A well order cultivation of emotion-attraction proceeds by a process of deepening. It doesn't just cultivate the surface of feelings.

A formative process works by 'leveraging' the more obvious attractions to deepen their personal quality.

This mobilises the energy that is undeniably present in physical-sexual attraction and channels it in a process of growth that personalises these feelings. This does not play down the role of feelings but accentuates it. This accentuation is not then a source of disorder but of greater order, that is, integration.