A Nagging Question
This article is part two of a series. It is an attempt on my part, to address some nagging questions after some late-night studying: what part do emotions play in logic & moral reasoning? Prevailing opinions in the field of philosophy appear to define feelings as antithetical to reason and logic (Bennett, 2015; Damasio, 2006; Nussbaum, 2003). Consequently, emotions are thought to play no meaningful role. The fields of neuroscience and psychiatry examine emotions from a clinical diagnostic stance. As someone who holds a social science persepctive, I wonder instead, how individual and cultural interpretations play a role. If the body and mind are connected, how can we separate these two experiential components apart in moral judgments? In the living of daily life, when discerning amongst viable alternatives how does one differentiate truth from bullshit?
Personally, I believe feelings reflect our reactions to life events in terms of our own needs and desires. They are an experiential connecting points between the body’s interaction with the environment and our minds interpretative mechanisms. In this respect, they warrant closer examination…
(((BTW))), if I’m being honest, this question is more than purely intellectual in nature.
In my family of origin I was a minority (of sorts). As a Myers-Briggs INFP living in an “SJ” world, the only individual who even remotely understood me was my INTP dad, and he was little help. A neuroscientist by trade, his research endeavors occupied the majority of his mental energy. My depression and anxiety was too much for him to handle. I was a sensitive and imaginative child who felt like the oddball out. My sister and mother, both SJ’s, could not make sense of me. My way of being was constantly “corrected” in favor of a familial ideal that stressed reasoning, logic, and pragmatism. You know that fable by Hand Christensen Andersen titled “the Emperor’s New Clothes”? I’m the kid who points out the king is naked and gets in trouble….
….This intellectual endeavor reflects an attempt to seek the value in my own”way of being”. What if anything can be gained by acknowledging and making sense of my emotional world, (despite familial protestations?)…
In part one of this series, I try to make sense of an article titled, “The Multi-System of Moral Psychology”, by Cushman, et al, (2010). The authors of this article review brain research as evidence of a dual-system of moral reasoning. Essentially, they assert the following based on this evidence:
“These lesion studies lend strong support to the theory that characteristically deontological judgments are – in many people, at least – driven by intuitive emotional responses that depend on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex while characteristically consequentialist judgments are supported by controlled cognitive processes based in the dorsilateral prefrontal cortex” (Cushman, et al, 2010, p5).
Deontological moral judgments, characterized as pragmatic and absolutist, are associated with alarm bell emotions and are essentially intuitive reactions (Cushman, et al, 2010). In contrast, consequentialist moral judgments, characterized as sentimental, are cognitive processes in which currency style emotions attribute varied degrees of motivational weight to our options (Cushman, et al, 2010). Alternatives are considered against a welfare-maximizing standard in a cost-benefit fashion. The rest of this post explores insights from other resources that shed further light on the intelligence of emotions.
The value of emotions
“Emotions are ‘non-reasoning movements’, unthinking energies that simply push the person around, without being hooked to the ways in [one] perceives or thinks…like gusts of wind…they move…obtusely, without vision of an object or beliefs about it.” (Nussbaum, 2003).
This quote comes from Nussbaum’s (2003) book, “Upheavals of Thought”, and comprises a common criticism of emotions. In some respects this viewpoint is correct. After all, emotions hippocampal memories of past experiences and the amygdala’s assessment of what is essential for survival (Nussbaum, 2003). They are subjective in nature and reflect our deepest desires. They are a reflection of a reality which is uniquely our own – relevant to what we perceive as valuable. With this in mind, dismissing them so quickly as “non-reasoning movements” (Nussbaum, 2003) is short-sighted. By thinking through them rather than with them, there is much we can stand to learn about ourselves…
The fallacy of the “disembodied mind”…
“Human reason depends on several brain systems working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization…both ‘high level’ and ‘low level’ brain regions, from the prefrontal cortices to the hypothalamus and brain stem cooperate in the making of reason” (Damasio, 2006, p. xiii)
The problem with discounting emotions is that it dismisses much of what makes us human. In order to make reasoned judgments based on pure empiricism, you would need to gain access to a reality that is absolute, objective, and external. The truth is, “while there is an external reality, we [can] never know how faithful our knowledge is [of it]” (Damasio, 2006, p235). Human experience is based on a bodily self as the mind’s only reference point. We are held captive to the subjectivity of our life experience. No one else can understand what it is to walk in our shoes. Likewise, we can never truly “know” another’s experience. The mind rises out of a holistic organism, since the brain & body function interdependently. Underlying this inherent subjectivity, is a way of perceiving that begins as the body interacts with a stimulus and ends when the brain interprets this sensory information and determines the appropriate response. Emotions become an essential connecting point “between rational and nonrational processes” (Damasio, 2006, p. 133) and reflect both bodily sensations and internal cognitions. It is safe to say, on the basis of all this that feelings play a critical role in moral judgment.
the neural self
So if emotions play a critical role in our reasoning processes, what does this say about our lived experiences? How might one begin to understand subjectivity, as a moment-to-moment awareness of live experience? In a book titled “Decartes’ Error”, Damasio, (2006), describes our subjectivity as a “consistent perspective…rooted in a relatively stable, endlessly repeated biological state” (p. 238). We define this experientially as “the self”. Damasio, (2006) asserts that the “self” is a neural construction and says the following about our subjective experiences:
“subjectivity emerges…when the brain is producing not just images object, not just images of [an] organism’s responses…but…of an organism in the act of perceiving and responding to an object” (Damasio, 2005, p. 242).
Concluding remarks in favor of “self-ishness”
At the outset of this two-part series, I sought to address the following questions: “are emotions matters of self-deception as byproducts of limbic activity – and nothing more?…is there more to be said about the role of emotions in our judgments and decisions?” The short answer, in my honest opinion, is best summarized in the following with quote.
“A lot is at stake if we view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, they cannot…be easily sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment” (Nussbaum, 2003, p1).
These sorts of questions represent a personal struggle of the proper perspective upon which to take in my own life history. When I review my life course, the question which always pops up is: “was it real, or all just in my head?” As a biracial individual, I reflect upon the “inbetween space” I held within the extended family, where hidden meanings of interactions were left unacknowledged by everyone but me. I remember witnessing the effects of personal and cultural belief systems as self-fulfilling prophecies about one’s place in the world. Similar threads of hidden truth are found within my expereinces as bullied child, survivor of psychological abuse, and PTSD sufferer. That childlike complaint teenagers yell to parents: “YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!!” Echos in my mind as I reminisce. Nobody noticed these bad things happening to me or stepped in. When help was offered, pragmatic advice was given on how to best resolve matters. Falling in line with the “stick’s and stones” idea, nobody noticed my inner struggle with self-blame, as I struggled heal the hurt that overwhelmed me. Today, with 20-20 hindsight, I live my life according to the following ideal:
Common sense is a highly over-rated majority rules notion that overlooks deeply held values relevant to ones unique life experience, for blind pragmatism.
Our perspectives in life are uniquely our own, and nobody else can understand what it is to walk into our shoes. For this reason, I firmly believe the key to empowerment is self-responsibility. I’m a big believer in living life according to a standard of “self-ishness” – not in terms of the conventional definition of the term, but as a matter of orientation towards the self. Merriam Webster (n.d.), defines selfishness as “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people”. This is most definitely not what I’m speaking of here: I’m not a proponent of “assholery” . Instead, I prefer the following definition: