Emotional Responses and Selecting Values

In the last lecture, I talked about how intrinsic values can't be rationally compared, so you're left with just feeling your way to a solution. This is a pretty serious problem, and what we're going to focus on in this thread.

Remember that our emotions stem from our previous value-judgments. It's because we recognize something as good or bad that we emotionally react to it in a particular way. One major problem with deciding to adopt a more rational system of ethics is that your previous value-judgments still affect your emotions, and that includes the emotions you feel towards possible values. It takes time to work them out, and realize that some things you might have thought were valuable really aren't, or the reverse.

What if someone tried to rely on their emotions in order to make decisions? If he relies on his emotions, then the first thing he's doing is throwing out the option of rationally validating his value-judgments, past or future. Since the emotional responses are based on the value-judgments made in the past, he's accepting whatever value-judgments were made in his past, and deciding that he'll stick with those. A call for relying on your emotions is like trying to snap-shot your past decisions and sticking with them in an unthinking way, regardless of context or possible mistakes

The next thing to note is that it's circular. Since your emotional responses are based on previous value-judgments, they can't be used as a replacement for the value-judgments. You don't gain any new information by going through this intermediate step. If you weren't able to compare different choices before, the emotions doesn't help.

The important point here is that choosing between values based on how you feel about them is not a form of rational judgment. Say you accept to intrinsic values. The first is "all living things". The other is "science and knowledge". You may decide both of these are values in themselves, and you have certain emotional responses to them. Now, when it comes to deciding between them, like on the issue of scientific experiments using animals, which one wins?

The answer is that it doesn't matter. Since you don't have a rational basis for choosing one over the other, you can't rely on your emotions to make the "right" decision. They only have your value-judgments to go on. If you weren't able to choose between them cognitively, your emotions aren't going to be able to solve the problem for you. It's as useful as flipping a coin. The fact that you seem to be making a comparison only distracts you from the complete invalidity of the method. You're trying to comparing two incommensurable things.

This isn't to say that emotions don't play a useful role in ethics. In real life, you're not able to compare and contrast every possible option before making a decision. Emotions, like desire, can act as a short-cut to identifying which values are the most important to you. When your emotions align with your reasoning, this can allow for quick, accurate decisions. But you still have to double check with your reasoning. Emotions cannot act as a substitute for rational value-judgment.

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