‘Humans Smile With So Little Provocation’

Skipping over the next essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy”, the next essay in “Star Trek and Philosophy” is “Humans Smile With So Little Provocation” by Harald Thorsrud, an examination of the opposing views on emotion between Data and Spock, with Data not having any emotion but wishing he had it and striving to attain it, while Spock has emotion but is striving to eliminate it like all good Vulcans. This provides excellent fodder for the philosophical discussion of emotion, and Thorsrud does an excellent job comparing fairly and accurately Aristotle and the Stoics, although Thorsrud does seem to come down, at the end of the essay, on the side of emotion. What’s most impressive about it is that Thorsrud doesn’t stuff either view into the extreme view of either that emotions are good and we should have, experience, and rely on them all or that emotions are all bad and we have to get rid of them completely, which is something that would follow from the views of the two main characters in the debate. Instead, Thorsrud notes that Aristotle wanted to moderate the emotions and that some emotions are not worth moderating, and that the Stoics did think that even the Stoic sage will still feel emotions but won’t rely on their judgement and won’t allow them to overly influence their behaviour. So the Aristolean is not going to be someone driven by emotion unencumbered by rational thought, and the Stoic sage is not going to be someone totally unaffected by the world and unconcerned with it.

Now, I come down on the Stoic side, and the reason is that for many emotions, even emotions that we see as positive or as potentially useful, moderation of them is really, really difficult to do. This is because, and Jesse Prinz notes, the general purpose and structure of emotions is that they assess and make judgements about the world. When you get angry, it’s not just the case that you are having a reaction to a stimulus from the world. The anger itself is a judgement about how the world is, usually that it is being unfair to you. Love, betrayal, happiness, sadness, fear, guilt … all of these are the result of a judgement of the world and your place in it. And as these judgements tend to be lightning fast, emotions would be great ways to come to these sorts of judgements … if they weren’t so often massively and dangerously wrong. Additionally, emotions don’t just make judgements, they also suggest and prime us for actions that we can take in response to that judgement; emotions usually include suggestions for what we ought to do next. Unfortunately, a lot of those suggestions are crude and best and terribly wrong at worst.

So emotions make judgements about our condition and bias us towards certain responses, but those judgements and biases are often wrong. Thus, if we want to react properly to the world, we would have to subject every single emotional reaction to the scrutiny of reason to make sure that it is actually judging and advocating correctly in this case. But since emotion tends to bias us, just its presence will bias even our reasoning towards its conclusions. We will always tend towards rationalization of our emotional reactions instead of reasoning properly about them, which means that even when we’re wrong we’ll be more likely to conclude that the emotion really is right. Thus, we want to minimize that sort of rationalization … but the only way to limit it is to eliminate the emotional reaction, either by not having it kick off in those cases, or by calming ourselves down after it does kick off.

I believe there are two broad cases where emotion can be useful in making judgements instead of detrimental:

1) Emotions whose default reaction is “Stop and think”. A vague sense of unease is a great example, as that simply makes you stop and look around at your environment to see what might be the problem. Even here, though, there’s a risk that you’ll find something just to find something, but at least it makes you think about it and doesn’t just push you to action.

2) Emotions that kick off reflexive reactions in cases where you have to react quickly. It’s harder to find cases like this, but the speed of judgement and reaction that comes from emotion can be useful for, say, jumping out of the way of speeding objects. But to be effective, all of these have to be conditioned to the rational response, and ones that are keyed to irrational responses have to be culled.

But we shouldn’t need emotions for anything else. We shouldn’t need to get angry at an injustice to see that it is one and that it must be corrected. We shouldn’t need to feel guilt to note that we did something wrong and need to make amends. We shouldn’t need to know what the other people are feeling in order to know that we shouldn’t do bad things to them, or to decide what a bad thing to do to them would be. If emotions are making judgements that are rational, then rationality should lead us to the same judgements. And if emotions are making irrational judgements, why in the world would we want to accept them?

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