the heart of the matter

the heart of the matter
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Views on the necessity and propriety of emotion have varied among scholars long before Socrates’ (c. 470–399 BCE) time. While some intellectuals place great value on the role of emotions in the human experience, others suggest that emotions are redundant and therefore superfluous. Shaffer (1983) sides with the latter by proposing that because emotions do not serve a unique role in our lives, an unemotional life is not only possible but also desirable, and therefore worth pursuing. He builds his argument on the idea that emotion arises from complex beliefs and desires and manifests through physiological sensations, which might be accompanied by behavioural components (161). Shaffer argues against the behaviourist tradition, that emotions can be analyzed based on the resulting behaviour they induce. Instead, he states that no behaviour is neither sufficient nor necessary for emotion and therefore reduces emotions to their feeling states. Nevertheless, as this essay will demonstrate, the behavioural component of emotion is crucial to human survival as linked to decision-making, which is central to our survival even today, and not just in the past “when fight, flight, or immobility were appropriate responses to common situations” (166). By analyzing Shaffer’s “An assessment of Emotion”, this essay proposes that although unemotional lives are possible, they are undesirable because emotions are informative, assure continuity of the human self, and assist in goal-directed actions, hence emotions are necessary for not only our survival but our thriving in the wider human community.  

Shaffer defines emotions as “complex physiological processes and sensations caused by certain beliefs and desires” (161). This implies that there are two core elements of emotion: belief-desire complex and physiological changes. It is true that for most emotions, we combine our version of what is happening in our environment (belief) with how an event or persons involved align with our wants and wishes (desire). Shaffer describes how this is a complex combination which brings about varying physiological changes from person to person and from context to context (163). For instance, anxiety does not always produce an increased heartbeat, sweaty palms, and incoherent speech. There are no clear-cut sensational responses for emotion across humankind because there is no set path between the belief/desire element and the physiological effects that follow. 

Because of this, Shaffer argues that emotional reactions are redundant. In his rational assessment of emotion, for instance, he advances that even in weighing the reasonableness of emotion, “it is the causally relevant beliefs and desires which form the object of such assessments” (164). If the beliefs and desires behind an emotion are rational, then the emotional reaction itself can be assessed as rational, except when the emotional reaction is excessive in comparison to the beliefs and desires that formed it. In that case, despite the reasonableness of the beliefs and desires behind an emotion, the reaction that follows remains unreasonable. For instance, physically abusing a child by flogging them out of anger is an excessive punishment for a child throwing a tantrum. To also accurately make a moral assessment of emotion, we consider its antecedent beliefs and desires. Shaffer writes, “To have no right to some emotion is for those beliefs and desires to be unjustified” (165). In this sense, when we say someone ought to feel content, for instance, we are saying that they ought to acknowledge that the state of their affairs in a given situation is satisfactory. Yet this varies by context because like Shaffer notes, “the moral status of an emotion is merely a matter of the moral status of the causative beliefs and desires” (165). 

This argument of variability in our justification of emotion further goes into our experience of emotions, that is, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Most may agree that hate is an unpleasant feeling, but if one’s hate is, in some sense, justifiable, and therefore “good”, it may feel quite pleasant for him or her to experience that “good hate” (166). The same can be said of envy, which some scholars have defended that when one feels envy, it is perhaps a good experience because it shows one what he or she wants to achieve in a particular sphere of life. Therefore, just by the virtue of allowing oneself to experience an emotion, one can gain important information about oneself, and that can push one to strive for their goals through action that follows the feeling of the emotion. Nonetheless, Shaffer clarifies that this is yet another case in which emotions are redundant because the desire element of the belief/desire complex which formed the basis of one’s envy is enough to understand one’s wishes and wants. 

However, suggesting that emotions are superfluous because they are redundant in accomplishing the same goals as our beliefs and desires is one way in which Shaffer’s analysis of emotions is wrong. His analysis undermines the purpose of emotions by reducing them to just sensations caused by belief-desire combinations. Feldman-Barrett (2017) suggests that emotions are constructed in three different ways: social construction, psychological construction, and neurological construction, all of which determine how different situations affect us and cause us to experience emotions in a wide range. So the construction of emotions is a complex process. Yet even though Shaffer acknowledges that an emotion such as love “has always defied any simple analysis” (169), he still goes ahead to reduce love to “sensational states, such as “butterflies in the stomach” or a sensation of great calm, and the physiological concomitants of such feelings” (170). Yet emotions cannot be described in such simplistic terms that downplay the influence emotion has on our survival on earth. Simply believing that a tiger is a dangerous animal and desiring to not be harmed by it is not enough to want to run with one’s might at the sight of a tiger; as a matter of fact, just imagine how difficult that would be without the adrenaline rush in one’s body that fast tracks one’s decision-making and facilitates the body systems needed to help one reach safety. Emotion does not just rehash our already-existing beliefs and desires, it amplifies them. It gives them a megaphone, and in the few instances when we are self-aware, we extract important knowledge about ourselves and our environments through emotion. This is essential in our continual survival in the universe, both in having a grip on our understanding of ourselves and of others. An illustration of the significance of emotions in our ability to connect with others is emotional contagion, that is,  “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronise expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally” (Hatfield et. al, 96). 

Another way in which Shaffer’s analysis is lacking is in its treatment of behaviours that follow the experience of an emotion, particularly goals that promote our continuity of self. For example, when one is sad while grieving the loss of a loved one, is it accurate to suggest that this feeling of sadness is not essential? In this case of grief, there is not much that one can do if, for instance, his or her belief is that it is important to have a grandmother in one’s life and the desire is to see his or her grandmother live a long and healthy life. At the death of the grandmother, what can one do with just the belief and desire combination? Certainly not much. Yet from the emotion of sadness, one can conclude that one is sad because one misses someone he or she loved deeply, so moving forward, he or she will make an effort to spend more time cherishing the people he or she loves. There is an additional element here, that is, emotions facilitate the goal-setting process and therefore champion goal-directed behaviour, no matter how irrational those goals may be. Therefore, this means that we live through our emotions and not despite them.    

Finally, Shaffer notes that we do not need emotions to be human or to have personhood. He writes, “And it is easy enough to imagine individual lives and even a whole world in which things would be much better if there were no emotion” (169). Although that world is imaginable, and in some sense, achievable, what would be the exact benefits of pursuing an unemotional life? Clearly, there are no intuitive advantages to abandoning one’s emotional life. Come to think of it, in what sense exactly is a world full of emotionless beings much better than the one we currently live in? Is getting butterflies when one sees their lover too burdensome for us that our hearts will feel lighter once we free ourselves of emotion? Are goosebumps and blushing a waste of our body’s resources? So, if we somehow figure out how to stop exhibiting these sensations, then according to Shaffer, we will have more energy to spend on more important and necessary aspects of our being than superfluous features like emotions. 

Works Cited

Feldman Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. London: MacMillan, 2017.

Hatfield, Elaine, John T. Cacioppo, and Richard L. Rapson. “Emotional Contagion.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 2, no. 3 (1993): 96-99.

Scarantino, Andrea. “The Motivational Theory of Emotions.” In Moral Psychology and Human Agency: Philosophical Essays on the Science of Ethics, edited by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson, 156-185. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014

Shaffer, Jerome A. "An assessment of emotion." American Philosophical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1983): 161-173.