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Chapter 5: Seeking Moral Truth: Moral Judgment and Problem Solving

Question G: When and How Should Emotions That Bear on Choices Be Criticized?

Emotions here refers to motives at the sensory level which are generically common to humans and other animals. Among them are desire, aversion, fear, anger, and the tendency to rest, which can be called “tiredness.”31 Emotions motivate behavior insofar as it is guided by sensory cognition, including awareness of the present situation, memories of past situations or elements of them, and imagination of possible situations. Usually, people are not conscious of their emotional motives. For example, in scratching one is moved by a desire to relieve an itch, but often one is unaware even of the itch and the scratching, much less of the desire; in driving an automobile, fear often makes one step on the brakes, but the fear is noticed only if the danger is unusual.

In general, there is nothing wrong with emotions, and while in themselves they are not rational, neither are they irrational. Every option considered in deliberation, including the possibility of not acting, is supported by some emotional motive making it at least somewhat appealing and bringing it to attention. No act, bad or good, can occur without some emotional motive, and good acts which succeed normally result in emotional gratification. However, as everyone knows, emotions can deflect practical thinking and moral judgment, with the bad result that one judges wrongly about what is and is not to be done. Thus, examining emotions often can lead to insight into the motives supporting options under consideration in deliberation, and so can help one reach moral truth.

Sometimes troublesome emotional factors involve partiality in favor of oneself and those near and dear (question H will deal with such cases). At other times, the problem has to do with something other than partiality. The present question deals with cases of this latter kind.

1. One Should Deliberate Rationally Despite Emotional Obstacles

Emotional motivations can and often do interfere directly with the quest for moral truth by blocking consideration of some rational elements of the situation. Once these latter are considered, however, it becomes clear that a choice in line with those emotions would be simply unreasonable, that is, not in accord with any reason whatsoever.

a) One should not be overly attached to existing situations. Emotion often biases people in favor of the advantages of the status quo, so that they fail to consider an alternative, supported by reasons, involving something new. For example, Joe’s job does not use his talents fully and certainly never will, but he ignores other employment opportunities, because the prospect of going to work in a new situation makes him anxious. Again, Jane is used to doing a job with familiar tools. A friend tells her the same job could be done more easily and effectively with a new tool which will quickly pay for itself. Comfortable with the familiar way of doing things, however, Jane does not find changing to a new way emotionally appealing, and so is inclined to ignore the advice. Her attitude is unreasonable: she should be openminded enough to check out what her friend is saying. If the evidence indicates that using the new tool really would serve her purpose better, emotional motives plainly should be set aside, inasmuch as choosing to act in accord with them would serve no rational interest whatsoever.

b) One should not be overly attached to projects one has undertaken. Commitments to basic goods and persons are one thing, the particular projects undertaken to fulfill them another. Commitments call for faithfulness, and a person’s emotional investment in them supports fidelity. Projects should be rationally evaluated on the basis of their effectiveness, but a person’s emotional investment in them can lead to unreasonable persistence. For example, Bishop Jones has devoted much time and many diocesan resources to a program for pastoral renewal. Once it is underway, it soon becomes clear that the program is not working well, and the Bishop wishes he had never undertaken it. However, he cannot bring himself to admit a mistake whose costly results should be written off. So, he ignores all bad news about the program and carries on with it. In general, people should consider reasons for revising or terminating projects rather than persist without a reason to do so.

c) Longterm benefits and harms should not be ignored. In relation to sensory cognition, what is more proximate is more real, and so emotion can fasten on short-term advantages and disadvantages and lead a person to ignore rational considerations about future prospects. For example, George is advised to undergo a dangerous operation but finds the prospect frightening, while the idea of delaying or forgoing it is not nearly so frightening; and so he is inclined to procrastinate. In such a case, it is necessary to evaluate the reasonableness of acting on the emotion —in George’s case, fear—by asking about the risks and burdens of accepting the side effect. If the evidence is that it is riskier to put off the surgery than have it, George should consent to it even if the more remote risks of delaying or forgoing surgery remain emotionally less repugnant. Similarly, people often are so fascinated by the prospect of immediate satisfaction in a sexual relationship, experimentation with drugs, or something of the sort, that they thoughtlessly risk bringing lifelong misery on themselves and others.

d) Excessive concentration on a single goal should be avoided. Reason always requires giving appropriate attention to other matters besides those immediately at hand. However, emotion can lead to such great fascination with a particular goal that other responsibilities are slighted. Pursuing the objective takes concentration, which can reinforce emotion, leading to more intense concentration, and so on. For instance, Phyllis, having a good job and being eager to advance in it, becomes absorbed in its requirements and neglects her husband’s needs, her own health, and even her religious duties, although aware that all these are at least as important to her as her work. In general, people should regularly take stock of their lives to make certain they are meeting all their responsibilities rather than becoming absorbed in one matter and slighting or overlooking others.

2. Emotions Should Be Questioned in Three Kinds of Cases

Sometimes an option for choice passes the test of rational reflection by application of sound moral norms, yet something still indicates that it might be a mistake to choose it. (When examining conscience, a person also often has occasion to question the role of emotions in choices recognized as sinful. But for simplicity’s sake, the cases treated here will not be cast in terms of examination of conscience.) Three kinds of indications should lead anyone seeking moral truth to engage in further reflection, even though an option under consideration has passed every normative test suggested by previous questions.

a) Emotions should be questioned when one notices a sign of trouble. There are several common signs of trouble: a person feels uneasy with the alternative without seeing why, or someone else suggests that the prospective choice would be wrong but the individual fails to see any reason (or further reason) for thinking it so, or the choice does not seem to be the sort of thing a role model (a mature and holy person) would do.

b) Intense emotions and those inclining to partiality are suspect. Sometimes a person is aware that the option under consideration belongs to a class whose emotional motives often lack integration with reason. One should bear in mind that there are such classes of options and should be suspicious whenever a prospective option would be of such a kind. For instance, if a possibility has an unusually strong emotional appeal, the emotion should be examined. Again, if the option would have both benefits and harms, with the former accruing to oneself and those one loves, and the latter to others, one’s emotional motives should be examined to see whether partiality is at work (such cases will be considered in question H).

c) When the matter is important, one’s emotions should be examined. Sometimes there is neither a general reason for suspicion nor a sign calling for closer examination of emotional factors, yet because the choice is a major one—for example, a vocational commitment, a major project to implement such a commitment, an action which might lead to someone’s death—one’s emotional motives should not be regarded uncritically but carefully examined.

3. Examples Show How Emotional Motives Can Fruitfully Be Examined

When one option is supported only by emotions and the other by rational grounds as well, there is no need to examine one’s emotions, since the modes of responsibility exclude acting on emotions against reasons. But sometimes both options are, or at least initially seem to be, supported by reasons which appear consistent with all relevant moral norms. Then it is necessary to examine the emotional motives which make each option emotionally repugnant or appealing, in an effort to try to discover how well those emotional factors harmonize with the reasons for and against each option.

Probably there is no way to provide systematic directions for reflection of this sort. However, examples can illustrate the process and show how, with its help, moral truth can be reached despite the influence of emotional factors.

a) A case of purifying motives for a vocational commitment. A man asks a young woman to marry him and she sees no reason not to; but, rightly, she does want to be sure. Although she loves the man, she asks herself what it is about him and her prospective life with him that makes marriage appealing. She realizes she was first attracted to him because she enjoys his company at entertainments and parties, and marriage appeals to her partly because she is unhappy living with her parents but cannot afford a place of her own. Being serious about her faith, she also realizes that marriage is a lifelong commitment, which probably will entail responsibilities toward children. Reflecting on this, she begins to wonder what sort of father the man will be, and even feels a certain distaste at the prospect of having him as her children’s father. She now rightly judges: I ought to call off the wedding.

Similarly, a young man about to be ordained to the transitional diaconate should ask himself what makes the priesthood appealing to him. If he finds that it is the status priests enjoy in the Church rather than the opportunity to serve people by the ministry of the word and sacraments, he should not accept ordination on so unsound a basis. Indeed, if he cannot purify his motives, he should not seek ordination.

b) A case of sorting out negative emotions. A youth who has been acting arrogantly toward his parents calls home to announce that he is being held on a drug charge and asks his dad to bail him out. The father wonders what to do and talks the problem over with his business partner, who has done some drug counseling. This friend thinks it might be best not to post the bond: the jail in which the boy is lodged is not a bad one, and spending a few days there could bring him to face reality. The father is pleased with the advice: he has resented his son’s arrogance and is angry with him for causing the family the trouble and embarrassment that will follow from the criminal charge. But the boy’s mother is anxious about her son’s being in jail and urges her husband to post bond at once.

His wife’s pleas lead the father to realize the intensity of his anger and examine his emotional motivation more carefully. Is it the thought that his son may repent and reform which makes the idea of refusing to post bond appealing—or the prospect of his son’s distress and humiliation? The father admits to himself that much of his anger is misdirected, and his emotions subside. Considering the matter more calmly, however, it still appears a good idea to refuse to post bond, so that the boy will learn that he must begin to take responsibility for his life. So the father judges: I ought to refuse my son’s request to post bond, but I also must visit him in jail and do what I can to help him reform his life.32

c) A case of seeing through and overcoming tiredness. A mother is spending a quiet evening reading a long and difficult poem. Her small children have been tucked in bed, and she is relaxing with an after-dinner drink. Halfway through her reading, she realizes she has not heard the usual noises from the children’s rooms and thinks perhaps she should check on them. But that would interfere with her appreciation of the poem, and so she is inclined not to do it. Still, she feels uneasy. Is it real anxiety about the children? No, it is more like a slight feeling of guilt. Then she realizes that what is holding her back actually is not interest in the poem; it is not as good as the critics say, and interrupting her reading for a few minutes will not significantly reduce her appreciation of it. Rather, relaxing and sipping her drink, she has begun to feel comfortable and tired, and that is why she was not inclined to check on the children. But, being a conscientious mother, who regularly masters emotions of that sort in caring for her children, she judges: I ought to check on the children and make sure everything is all right.

d) A case of seeing through antipathy. A family has been counting on a week’s vacation at the beach. Just as they are about to leave, good neighbors down the hill are flooded out and appeal for help in cleaning up the mess. The family’s vacation has been well earned, but their neighbors’ need is urgent, since the disaster is so widespread that many people need help and little is available. The children are eager to go: they point out how pleasant it will be to relax on the beach, and how miserable the work at the neighbors’ house will be, especially in such hot and humid weather. Mother favors helping the neighbors: she points out that they have been good neighbors and stand to lose thousands of dollars if the flood damage is not cleaned up promptly; moreover, the family can do without their planned vacation, and they will get a good deal of exercise and a real change of pace by pitching in to help the neighbors. Father at first is reluctant to abandon the vacation, but he considers both sides. He has to admit to the children that he hates the prospect of the work, and, like them, would much rather spend the week lying on the beach. But in admitting that, he realizes that, except for their reluctance toward doing the work, he and the children would agree with mother and forgo the vacation. Knowing he should not allow his and the children’s aversion to work to override the good reasons for helping the neighbors, father says: We’re going to have to cancel the vacation.

e) A case of examining fear and finding it wanting. A young man is preparing to climb a mountain, when weather conditions turn bad. Veteran climbers begin calling off their plans to attempt the ascent. The young man knows the facts and understands their objective significance as well as the veterans do; but he is still inclined to go, although the risks of an accident are more than he anticipated. Let us assume that he has no family or other responsibilities to make it clear to him that taking the risk for the sake of the sport would be wrong. He asks himself: Does my boldness arise from my appreciation of the sport or from imagining myself bragging about making a climb veteran climbers were afraid to attempt? It seems to him that it is the former, not the latter.

Nevertheless, the young man ought to ask still another question: Am I inclined to attempt the climb because I am not sufficiently fearful of the risks? The answer will not be found by looking at his own emotions, since the fear he has provides no standard of its own adequacy. Rather, his best index to sufficient fear is that of the veteran climbers. Their fears of risks are well integrated with their appreciation of the values of the sport. The young man should judge: I ought not to attempt this climb today.

f) A case of emotions transformed by faith. A man fulfills his obligation to support his family by working as a guard, maintaining order in a striptease club, where he often is tempted to commit sins of impurity and sometimes has done so. He has not found another job that would enable him to support his family. His confessor suggests that the man should consider quitting his job at the club, but this advice seems unrealistic. The man obviously has a good reason for continuing to work at the club, but still he must ask himself exactly why he is inclined to continue in the job, while trying unsuccessfully to resist the temptations which are inevitable in that occasion of sin.

Like the young man in the mountain-climbing example, this man can inspect one of the two relevant emotional factors but not the other. For he can ask himself whether keeping the job appeals to him solely because of his emotions toward his family. Perhaps he actually rather enjoys the atmosphere of the club and is resisting detaching himself from it. Yet he finds that is not so: he really would be delighted to quit the club if he could find another job, even a harder one, adequate to support his family. However, the man cannot directly check another relevant factor: the adequacy of his repugnance to sin. Is this enough? He tries to judge that by looking to the example of saintly people, but, unlike the young mountain climber, he does not find a model with whom he identifies.

Continuing to fall into sin, praying for strength and light, the man begins, for the first time in his life, to read the New Testament. He reaches the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and reads:

 You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Mt 5.27–29)
Believing that this passage is addressed to him, he judges: I ought to quit the club and trust in God to give me some other means of supporting my family.

4. In All Such Cases, the Harmony of Emotions with Reason Is Judged

The problem in all of the examples was to become clear about the real thrust of emotional motivation which could have made reason swerve from its goal of moral truth. Moral truth is found by unfettered reason, and emotions in harmony with reason would not tend to fetter it.

Still, emotional factors and reasons are entirely different kinds of motives. What, then, does it mean to speak of harmony between emotions and reason, and how can they harmonize more and less well? The answer is that, since sentient nature is part of complete human nature, some of the emotions inclining one to consider options bear on concrete aspects of the anticipated states of affairs which one would intend in choosing those options. Bearing on an aspect of the anticipated benefit or harm, which is the possible reason for acting, these emotions are in harmony with reason and so can serve as a standard for judging whether the same is true of any other emotional motive operative in the same deliberation.

This answer can be explained as follows.

a) The objects of reasons can include the objects of emotions. Rationally motivated human acts aim to realize basic human goods in human persons or to prevent harms to such goods. (For simplicity’s sake, preventing harms will not be mentioned in the remainder of this explanation, but it should be borne in mind as the alternative to realizing benefits.) The benefits at which acts aim are instantiations—that is, particular concrete realizations—of the goods. These instantiations perfect or fulfill persons, and so include both intelligible and sensible aspects. For example, health includes both an intelligible state of the organism and feeling well; friendship includes both an intelligible bond of communion and a sense of intimacy. The concrete, sensibly experienced aspects of benefits can be objects of the emotions necessary to motivate action to realize those benefits.

b) Some emotional motives are entirely in harmony with reason. Emotions respond to the whole complex reality of a concrete situation, and a situation in which a benefit is realized always includes much that is irrelevant to that benefit. Emotions of themselves, therefore, need not, and usually do not, focus exclusively on the sensible goods which contribute to the benefit supplying the reason to choose the action. For instance, John’s emotions in buying an automobile may have more to do with how others will react than with his need for transportation. But some emotions do focus precisely on the sensible goods belonging to the benefit. For instance, when Mary chooses not to drink too much because she is concerned about her health, her anxieties about hangovers and other painful consequences focus precisely on a sensible aspect of the intelligible good. These emotions, concerned with and proportioned to the concrete aspects of the benefit at which an action aims, are entirely in harmony with reason.

c) Such emotions are a standard for criticizing other emotions. Emotional motives entirely in harmony with reason provide a standard which can be used to criticize other emotions. If some other emotion inclines one to consider the act worth doing but is at odds with the emotions providing the standard of harmony, that other emotion is not in harmony with reason. Also, if an emotion other than those which provide the standard inclines one to consider the act worth doing, and if in its absence one would not be inclined to do the act, that emotion is not entirely in harmony with reason, for it is not integrated with reason even though it does not conflict with it.

5. This Account Is Verified by Reconsidering the Previous Examples

Applying this general account to the six examples, it becomes clearer how emotional factors not in harmony with reason would have prevented reflection from reaching moral truth.

a) The case of purifying motives for a vocational commitment. The young woman thinking of marrying realizes that her emotional motives for marriage are inconsistent with the emotions she would have if she were about to marry for the sake of the benefits proper to marriage. That is why she begins to feel distaste for the prospect when she starts to reflect on what married life and parenthood with her fiance would involve. If she tells friends with a sound understanding of marriage she is not going through with the wedding because she would be marrying to escape her unhappy home situation rather than out of hope of a happy marriage, they will agree that her judgment is correct. Similar comments can be made on the case of the seminarian.

b) The case of sorting out negative emotional motives. The father of the youth arrested on the drug charge realizes that his resentment and anger are incompatible with the fatherly affection he would have if the appropriate benefit, his son’s reformation, were the only motive inclining him to refuse his son’s plea for help. But once insight into those hostile emotions neutralizes them, he recognizes that letting the boy stay in jail is motivated by the prospective benefit of doing so and by emotions conducive to acting effectively for its sake. These emotions, of concern for the boy, help the father think out more adequately the precise benefit to be pursued. Thus, he judges that he not only should refuse to bail the boy out of jail, but should do whatever he can to help his son reform his life.

c) The case of seeing through and overcoming tiredness. The mother reading the poem at first thinks that is a good enough reason for not checking on the children. And, according to the facts of the example, it would be. But she realizes that her inclination not to check does not arise from any need to concentrate on the poetry but from her tiredness. Having already made her own a desire to care for her children which is inconsistent with being swayed by that sort of consideration, she sees there actually is no reason not to interrupt her reading and check on the children.

d) The case of seeing through antipathy. The family looking forward to their vacation at the beach is motivated initially not to give up their plan both by the expected pleasure of the vacation—a motive fully in harmony with the benefit it promises—and by distaste for the work involved in helping the neighbors. They also are motivated to change their plan and help the neighbors by emotions of sympathy and neighborly solidarity. Seeing the antipathy to doing the work to be irrelevant to any prospective benefit, and so excluded from consideration, the father accepts his wife’s application of the Golden Rule and judges the benefit to the neighbors more worth pursuing than the benefit to the family of taking the vacation. To go ahead with the vacation, he would have had to accept his and his children’s antipathy to the work as an adequate motive for not responding to the neighbors’ urgent need.

e) The case of examining fear and finding it wanting. The young mountain climber finds his desire to make the climb harmonious with his reason for doing so. But he cannot check his fear, or lack of it, against the fear that is normal in actions suited to realize the benefit of the sport of mountain climbing. The veteran climbers have developed that fear. They not only observe the weather conditions and consider the risks of having an accident, which being objective are the same for them as for the young man, but imagine themselves climbing under those conditions, attend to the fear they feel, compare it with the tension they normally experience as they set out for a climb, and recognize this fear is more than that involved in climbing for the sport of it. Thus, the example of the veteran climbers provides the young man with an indication of the sort of fear in harmony with reason. If he had the veteran climbers’ maturity, he would see that for it to be reasonable to attempt the climb under the existing conditions would require some reason more than that provided by the sport, for example, the need to rescue others who mistakenly had attempted the climb. Lacking any such reason, the young man, if he understands the significance of the veteran climbers’ reluctance to attempt the climb, will realize that his fear is not adequate to the actual danger.

f) The case of emotions transformed by faith. The man working at the striptease club, like the young mountain climber, finds nothing wrong with the element of his emotional motivation that he can check: his inclination not to quit his job is motivated by care for his family, not by the enjoyment of remaining in this occasion of sin. And, as the young mountain climber cannot check his fear, this man cannot check the adequacy of his repugnance to sin. However, insight into the gospel’s significance for him arouses a hatred of sin, and a fear of hell, greater than he previously had, and at the same time arouses a new emotion harmonious with hope in God’s help. If he were to remain in the club, his reason would have to be that care for his family required what hope now assures him is unnecessary.

31. Emotions here refers to what St. Thomas calls “passiones animae,” which he treats both in general (see S.t., 1–2, qq. 22–25) and in considerable specific detail (qq. 26–48). Sometimes passiones animae is translated passions of the soul and sometimes it is translated feelings, but the former expression has no other current use in English and the latter strongly suggests an object of consciousness. Emotions and emotional motives wrongly suggest intensity, and emotion often is used to refer to states of consciousness which are only contingently related to motivation: being joyful, sad, anxious, and so on. Moreover, St. Thomas does not identify tiredness as an emotion, because he assumes that the unmotivated state of an organism is to be at rest. However, healthy organisms which are awake need no motivation to engage in random movement as they constantly gather sensory information which specifies the emotions triggering functional behaviors, and so an emotion, specified by inner sensory awareness of the body’s condition of fatigue, is required to trigger the functional behavior of finding a suitable place to rest and settling down for sleep.

32. No doubt, the father’s rightly chosen course of action could lead to apparent disaster, and, if it does, he is likely to say to himself: “I wish I had posted the bond! I did the wrong thing.” But he should not say this, because he can know neither what would have happened had he posted the bond, nor all the effects of his actual choice, for some are hidden and others are still to unfold. Moreover, while understandable, the father’s regret has no practical point, since he cannot change what he did in the past. In this respect, his situation is very different from that of Bishop Jones (in G.1.b), who can change what he is doing, and so should be open to evidence regarding the program’s failure.