Where Emotions Fit In

Emotions play a significant role in our lives, and a philosophy needs to have some explanation for what they are, how they came to be, and what we should do with them. Are they a mysterious method of gaining knowledge about the world? Do they conflict with our minds? Are they reliable?

Objectivism says that emotions are responses to value judgments. We feel things when we think that something is important in our lives. The kind of emotion we feel depends on how something affects what we value. For instance, we feel fear when something we value is threatened.

Our emotions are reactions to these value judgments that we make. We feel love when we recognize our deepest values in someone else. Sorrow is a response to a loss of our values. Jealousy is a response to a desire for other people's values, and a belief that we should have them. Hatred is a response to a person threatening our values. Shame is a response to when we destroy our own values.

Each of these responses is based on what we value, and how we understand a particular situation. For instance, we don't feel fear, even if our values are threatened, if we're not aware of the threat. If a doctor told you that you tested positive for some rare condition, you may or may not feel fear based on whether you think it's a condition that might threaten your life. If you didn't think it was serious, you wouldn't feel fear even if it was actually serious. Once you found out, you likely would start to feel fear. Similarly, if you suspect that it's dangerous, you might feel fear even though it's really harmless.

The important point is that your understanding of things, combined with your value judgment, affects what kind of emotions you feel, as well as the intensity of them. You don't have direct control over your emotions, but there is a link between your rational thinking and what feelings you'll feel. Objectivism says that those emotions are near-instant responses that are essentially pre-programmed by your previous thinking.

Because it happens as an uncontrolled response, it's possible that your emotions are actually incorrect. You may feel fear or anger or any other emotion at an inappropriate time. The responses could be messed up by previous bad thinking about what kinds of things are valuable to you. They could be messed up by your mind making a generalization based on previous experience that doesn't apply to the current situation.

Objectivism says there's no necessary conflict between your mind and your emotions. If the two conflict, your goal should be to figure out which is right. Sometimes your emotions will be wrong, but sometimes they'll be insightful. They may be based on a kind of generalization that you haven't really thought about, but that you react to emotionally anyway. It's possible that your emotions react correctly, while you're rational mind could miss something.

The goal then is to try to reconcile the two. And that means rationally trying to understand the cause of your emotions, and figure out whether the emotion is faulty, or whether it was caused by something you missed. That means you shouldn't just go with whatever feeling you happen to have, but it also means that you shouldn't repress or ignore your emotions. Emotions are a powerful tool, and a huge motivator in life. The goal is to reconcile emotions with your reasoning mind so that the two are no longer at war, but instead act harmoniously to further your life.

That means Objectivism doesn't think emotions are some mystical method of gaining knowledge. It's just another way of processing information. It's complex, and takes a bit of work to use them effectively, but emotions can and should play a significant and positive role in your life.