Surprisingly, you may not be the best judge of your own emotions

It’s beginning to look like I have another (admittedly, self-appointed) job: to counter the opinions of new public philosophy columnist Agnes Callard, who has recently started writing for The point magazine. You may recall that last month I responded to Callard’s first column, where she was loudly wondering whether public philosophy is really a good thing. My short answer was a resounding yes. You can check the more nuanced version here.

Callard’s second column rails against what she calls “the emotion police.” As usual, she does have some good points, but I think her basic position is highly problematic, and has substantial (negative, if adopted) practical implications, so let’s take a closer look.

At the onset of the piece, Callard says that nobody can tell her to “calm down,” or to “be reasonable,” or that she is “overreacting.” “When waves of anger or love or grief wash over me, that emotion feels like life itself,” she says, “Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot feel?!”

Granted that — as a psychological tactic — to tell someone to calm down when she is upset is among the least effective interventions ever devised by humanity, there goes a first, crucial mistake: the people she is targeting (we’ll discover who they are in a moment) are not actually telling her (or anyone else) that she can’t have a particular emotion, like anger, but that she shouldn’t, for her own sake. There is a huge difference there. That’s why the very title of her column, “The emotion police” is misleading. It should have been a far less click-baiting “The emotion advice people.”

Who are these people who dare give ethically prescriptive advice to the rest of us about our emotions? “Philosophers, that’s who! Philosophers have been legislating emotional life since the time of the Stoics.” Groan, I’m beginning to feel an emotion that I shouldn’t indulge, so if you don’t mind I’ll disengage for a few minutes, go take a walk, then return to this piece.

Okay, I’m back, calm and relaxed. Callard provides us with four specific examples of the kind of emotion policing she objects to. I disagree with her take on three of those four, and I’d like to point out two things, just because I’m a stickler for details: none of the four she mentions, as far as I know, is a Stoic. And one is not even a philosopher. Still, let’s look at the actual charges.

First up is “Rüdiger Bittner, a philosopher at Bielefeld University in Germany, arguing for the wholesale elimination of regret.” Bittner — very reasonably in my mind — contends that of course we should pause and reflect on our past actions, learn from other mistakes, and make amends whenever possible. But regret is a useless indulgence that wastes emotional resources in the pursuit of self-flagellation. As Seneca puts it:

“What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy?” (Letters LXXVIII.14)

Callard does not actually put forth an argument to address Bittner’s position, or any of the other three that we’ll look at in a moment. Her sole point seems to be that it is simply outrageous that someone has the arrogance to tell us that perhaps we shouldn’t allow ourselves to wallow in certain emotions. How dare they question my own self-righteousness! (She makes one exception, though, a case in which she agrees with the emotion police. We’ll get to that near the end).

The second hostile witness is none other than Callard’s University of Chicago colleague, “Martha Nussbaum, the philosopher and public intellectual, attacks anger — and not only the irrational, unjustified, vengeful kind. … Anger, she writes, is ‘always normatively problematic’ in that it disposes one to seek payback, or to raise one’s status relative to the wrongdoer.”

And Nussbaum (with whom I occasionally do disagree) is absolutely right, I think. Seneca, of course, wrote a whole book on anger, in which he argued, in response to Aristotle, that even when anger springs from a righteous cause (and it not always does, far from it), it is more likely to lead us to irrational actions that we’ll later regret:

“Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. That you may know that they whom anger possesses are not sane, look at their appearance.” (On Anger, I.1)

Third up is “Stephen Wilkinson, a philosopher at Lancaster University in the U.K., [who] argues that the grief we feel at, for example, the death of a loved one fits the DSM-4 characterization of a mental disorder.” Well, here Callard is right. Setting aside that the DSM is increasingly seen as either downright pseudoscientific or at the very least proto-scientific and highly problematic, no, it makes no sense to classify a natural human emotion like grief (or anger, or hatred) as a mental disorder. It is simply not helpful. Indeed, although he wrote three letters of consolation in order to help others dispel their anger, Seneca himself treats it as a perfectly normal human condition:

“It is not human not to feel our sorrows, while it is unvirtuous not to bear them.” (Consolation to Polybius, XVII)


“‘But,’ say you, ‘sorrow for the loss of one’s own children is natural.’ Who denies it? Provided it be reasonable? For we cannot help feeling a pang, and the stoutest-hearted of us are cast down not only at the death of those dearest to us, but even when they leave us on a journey.” (Consolation to Marcia, VII)

In fact, Seneca is moved to write to his friends not because they are grieving (Marcia for the loss of one of her adult sons, Polybius for that of his brother), but only because their grief has now festered and become self-indulgent, getting in the way of their recovery of an active life, leading them to neglect their duties toward their other children, family members, and society at large.

And now we come to culprit number four, the non-philosopher: “Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, has written a book against empathy. Yes, someone can be opposed to empathy.” I don’t know whether Callard has actually read Bloom’s book, but — despite the catchy and likely purposefully provocative title — Bloom does not counsel to do away with empathy. For one thing, because it’s impossible, since the ability to be empathic is ingrained in most of us (psychopaths are the exception), but also because it does play a positive role in personal human interactions. Bloom’s objection — again, correctly, in my mind — is to the fact that empathy is too easy to manipulate, and that it doesn’t scale up. We naturally feel empathy for the plight of people we know personally, or when we see a photo of a starving child in Africa. But we can’t deploy the same emotional response when it comes to hundreds of thousands, or millions of people. What then? We should try to train ourselves to cultivate sympathy rather than empathy: sympathy has a strong cognitive component that makes us realize that “millions of people” isn’t just a statistic, it’s the reflection of a horrible amount of suffering. Sympathy is far less easy to manipulate emotionally, and does scale up, precisely because of its cognitive aspect. (More here, if you are interested.)

Now, Callard does acknowledge that the “emotion police” has a point, as “negative emotions turn our lives upside down, make us miserable and divert us from pursuing what is good.” Exactly. But, she goes on arguing, feeling negative emotions is a bit like having a fever when you are sick: it is necessary, it’s part of the healing. That’s an interesting analogy, though substantially underdeveloped in her article. As a counter, let me offer that training ourselves to shift our emotional spectrum from negative to positive (say, away from anger and toward love) may then be thought of as akin to vaccinating ourselves. Sure, if you already got the flu, fever is unavoidable; but if you took the vaccine, as your doctor advised, you would not have developed the flu in the first place.

At the very end of her essay, Callard makes a qualified U-turn, though, and suggests that there are certain emotions that ought to be policed after all! She puts forth her preferred candidate: hatred. She says that “Hatred responds emotionally to badness as such, and we ought not to have any such response. Wallowing in badness — even by way of rejecting it — is a sickness of the soul.” She is beginning to sound like Seneca…

But of course Callard needs to make a sharp distinction between hatred and anger: “The contours of hatred are made clearer by contrast with anger, which, I contend, always ultimately springs from a place of love.” Not on planet Earth, it doesn’t. Anger may spring from a place of love, but far more often it is actually the result of wounded ego, misplaced self-righteousness, or, yes, hatred of some individual, group, or idea.

Nevertheless, I do wholeheartedly agree with Callard when she says: “Everybody has somebody they feel they can safely hate: if it’s not Republicans, it’s people who hate Republicans. Billionaires, tourists and politicians are popular targets. Or, safer yet: sexists, racists. Safest of all is to depersonalize one’s hatred: I don’t hate X, but rather what X did. … Why do Hitler-comparisons continue to flourish in political conversations? What other thought do they express but 'this person is so bad, we are allowed to hate him as we hate Hitler’? … Speaking both as the grandchild of four concentration camp survivors, and as a philosopher, I say: you cannot hate Hitler. Or Nazis. Or Nazism. Nor can you hate anyone you think is Hitler-like.”

Why, that sounds very much like the Stoic notion of amathia, the idea that nobody does evil on purpose, and that therefore — while we should certainly oppose anyone who acts unjustly — the proper emotional reaction to cultivate is pity, not hatred.

Callard’s U-turn at the end of her essay shows that she doesn’t disagree with the notion that some emotions are “normatively problematic,” as Nussbaum so delicately put it. She only disagree about which cases do or do not fall into that category. And we can certainly have a reasoned conversation about that. So long as nobody gets angry.

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