Can Emotions Be Wrong?

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We can act wrongly: we may behave in ways that are unkind, inconsiderate, or selfish. Can our emotions be wrong too? Are there things that we shouldn’t feel?

Some claim that our feelings cannot be wrong—something can be wrong only if we have direct control over it. But we do not have direct control over our feelings; we cannot force ourselves to be happy when we are sad or calm when we are anxious.

Most who subscribe to this first view are, I think, inspired by their desire to understand and accept each other’s emotions. But though this goal is noble, I fear this position is untenable.

I argue by analogy. Our beliefs can be wrong, or unjustified—we may believe against the evidence, as we do if we maintain that the earth is flat. But, as William Clifford noted in his celebrated 1877 paper, it is always wrong to believe against the evidence.

However, we do not have direct control over our beliefs: I can no more force myself to change my views than I can my emotions. Thus we should not infer that, because we do not have direct control over our emotions, they cannot be wrong.

Still, we might insist that though the things we cannot control may be wrong epistemically, they cannot be wrong morally. Thus our feelings cannot be wrong in the same way that our actions are.

Perhaps this is so. But our feelings may still be wrong in an important normative sense. When we say that an emotion is wrong, we may mean only that is inappropriate or unfitting, as when we are amused at the suffering of the innocent. When our feelings are unfitting in this way, then we have reason to feel otherwise, if we can, or, if we cannot, to try to become the kind of person who responds with more kindness or understanding.

If this is what it means to say that our emotions are wrong, or unjustified, then it seems clear that our feelings may be wrong, even if we cannot directly control them.

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Of course, some accept that our emotions can be wrong, but claim they are wrong only when they are not useful. Thus we are told that we should not “cry over spilt milk” because this sadness isn’t helpful. Similarly, we are often told to forget past loves, to be calm about the evils we cannot change, and to otherwise “look on the bright side.”

I think this view should also be rejected. It may not be useful to feel sad about the suffering of others when we cannot alleviate it, but such sadness is still appropriate; we should, I think, feel badly about such states of affairs. Indeed, part of what it is to be a good friend, or a good partner, or a good citizen, is to be dismayed at the suffering of those we are related to, and take joy in their successes and pleasures—regardless of whether, in so doing, we bring about anything else of value.

Thus, the consequences of holding some emotion cannot determine whether it is justified. Instead, we must consider whether our emotions fit the circumstances. We have intuitive judgements about fittingness: when unjust suffering delights us, for example, our feelings don’t fit the circumstance. Similarly, our feelings are incorrect when we are angry about the deserved successes of our family and friends. But what grounds these intuitions?

In his 1889 work, On the Origin of our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Franz Brentano argued that it is correct, or fitting, to love what is good and to hate what is bad. His views have been widely adopted: many contemporary philosophers believe that it is fitting to hold a positive emotion towards a state of affairs just in case it is good. If this is correct, then our views about what is good will determine our views about what we should feel. I think that the innocent suffering of others is bad: it is fitting to be angry about. Similarly, I think the justified success of our loved ones is good: it is appropriate to take pleasure in their happiness.

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We should conclude that there is a connection between what we should feel and what is valuable: our emotions are wrong when we feel good about what is bad, or when we feel bad about what is good. In this way, we may claim that our feelings are correct when they correspond to the values of things in the world—just as our beliefs are true, or correct, when they correspond to what is the case.

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