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Can We Choose Our Emotions?

Philosophical Psychology

By Michelle L. Karl


“Jerry is the manager of a restaurant. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would always reply, "If I were any better, I would be twins!" . . .[O]ne day I went up to Jerry and asked him, "I don't get it! No one can be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?" Jerry replied, “ . . . [e]ach time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I always choose to learn from it . . . "But it's not always that easy," I protested, "Yes it is," Jerry said. "Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to situations. You choose how people will affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood.”[1]

Everyday of our lives we are all faced with the same question as Jerry – how should we react in a given situation? Jerry’s answer would be to look on the positive side; do not become angry, jealous, hurt, etc. However, this brings about an important question that has been debated throughout time by philosophers – can we choose our emotions?

This then begs the question of what it actually means to choose. The World Book Encyclopedia 2000 defines choose as to prefer and decide; think fit. By use of this definition, we can see that we cannot just decide to be angry, happy, anxious, sad, etc. However, I will argue that we should take a more liberal definition of the word choose so that if we have thoughts or take actions which in turn effect which emotions we experience, we are then indirectly choosing our emotions. The dictionary definition of choose limits us to accepting that there is some other force beside ourselves, be it physiological occurrences, genetics, or social learning,[2] acting to determine our emotions. However, I will show that this in not the case, and there are circumstances in which something we have done determines our emotion, not another force.

 

In discussing whether we can choose our emotions, we have to remember that the word can means to be able to[3]. This does not mean that in all situations we do choose our emotions, but rather that we are able to choose our emotions in certain situations. However, to say that we cannot choose our emotions limits us to saying that in all circumstances we are unable of choosing our emotions. It may be true that there are circumstances in which we cannot choose our emotions just as it may be true that we are genetically prone to experience certain emotions more strongly than others. However, that is not the purpose of my essay. The purpose of my essay is to convince you that there is indeed circumstances where the decisions that we make as thinking human beings determine what emotions we have, and thus we are capable of choosing our emotions.

 

First, we need to understand what an emotion is. Philosophers and psychologists have presented us with many definitions, but for the purpose of this essay, I will define an emotion as a set of feelings[4] that have an intentional object and a belief about that intentional object. In the above excerpt, Jerry actually refers to choosing our moods not emotions[5]. However, when “something bad happens” as Jerry refers to it, there is often a cause. When we believe that someone has done something to affect us and we experience feelings, we experience what can be termed as an emotion. A mood, however, will not have this intentional object – what we believe to be the cause of what we are feeling[6].

One of the major arguments against the idea that we can choose our emotions is that emotions are just feelings or physiological occurrences controlled by chemicals, and thus we cannot choose them. However, if emotions were just a set of feelings, we would not be able to distinguish between emotions, which may contain similar feelings. As Justin Oakley points out, envy and jealousy may contain the same psychic feelings but they are cognitively different emotions.[7] With jealousy we fear losing something whereas with envy we believe we lack something we want, however, both emotions may cause feelings of anxiety. Anger and fear may also cause similar feelings, such as an increase in heart rate, body temperature, etc. Thus in order for us to have an emotion we must have a belief about the intentional object.

Let’s take Sally for example. She is angry with her best friend, Jane, for lying to her. In this situation, Jane’s lying is the intentional object, what Sally believes to have caused her anger. I stated in the definition of emotion that there also has to be a belief about the emotion. Believing that Jane has lied is not enough to cause an emotion in Jane, Sally must believe that she has been wronged by Jane’s lying. Sally could believe that Jane had lied to her but not care, but she would therefore not be angry at Jane’s lying[8]. Thus, the belief about the intentional lying is that lying is wrong. In this situation, Sally is making a judgment about Jane’s lying; she has judged that it is wrong for Jane to have lied. We must make a judgment about the intentional object in order to have an emotion. Does it logically make sense that Sally would be angry if she did not believe there was anything wrong with lying? It follows then that there is a conscious thought in forming the emotion.

Let’s put this aside for a moment and now consider what would happen if Sally were to find out that Jane had not lied. Because the intentional object, Jane’s lying, no longer exists Sally no longer is angry. She does not believe that she has been wronged. If we find out that our intentional belief is wrong or that our intentional object no longer exists, we can no longer have the emotion. This does not mean that there may not be feelings that continue, however these feelings are not the emotion.[9] Sally may still have lingering feelings of anger but she can no longer logically say that she is angry with Jane for lying if she knows that Jane has not lied to her. It may be possible, as Robert Solomon states, that the feelings associated with anger may take longer to subside than the emotion of anger does.[10]

The idea that the feelings of anger subside when the thoughts about the intentional object are discovered not to exist or shortly thereafter answers the view that our emotions are physiological occurrences that we do not have control over. If our emotions are incapable of being chosen in that they are just physiological occurrences, it would be quite a coincidence that every time we changed our beliefs about an intentional object the feelings changed too.[11] Does it not seem odd that every time you discover that someone has not lied to you your feelings of anger slowly begin to subside? Or that if you were embarrassed that you were late to a business meeting and then found out that you weren’t, that your feelings of embarrassment begin to subside? It seems illogical then to claim that our thoughts about a situation are not part of the emotion, and that the emotion is just a feeling. Proponents of the idea that emotions are physiological occurrences might claim that this connection occurs because the thoughts about the emotion are a result of what we feel. However, in the case with Sally, she would have continued to be angry if she believed that Jane had lied. It was when she found out that Jane had not lied that the anger ceased. Does it make sense to say that Sally no longer felt feelings of anger, therefore, she no longer believed Jane lied to her or that Sally no longer believed that Jane lied to her, therefore, she no longer felt feelings of anger?

Now let’s return to the fact that Sally was able to make a judgment concerning Jane’s lying. The fact that Sally has the ability to make decision about the situation – whether she believes that Jane’s lying has wronged her – gives way to the idea that we can choose our emotions. If our emotion forms from what we believe or judge about the situation and we can choose what we believe, we then are indirectly choosing our emotion in the situation.

Some opponents of the idea that we can choose our emotions claim that this would not actually be choosing our emotions. Rather, our values and beliefs are socially taught to us, and therefore we have no choice in our emotions. Society teaches us to believe that lying is wrong, we do not make this decision upon our own. However, if we believe this, we then would have to believe that we have no choice in what we value. But we know that this is not true. I can be brought up in a society that frowns down upon African-Americans, yet I do not have to agree with the society or I could change my beliefs later on in life. To say that because society teaches prejudice I am incapable of deciding myself is to turn us all into products of society that are incapable of making decision for ourselves. It is possible for me to meet an African-American that befriends me. I now have the choice of changing my views about African-Americans or just viewing my friend as an exception. Because there are two options, either to continue being prejudice against African-Americans or not, I must make a choice. I cannot hold both values and be consistent. It is in situations such as this that we can see that we have the ability to choose our own beliefs. It may be true that it is difficult in some situations to create beliefs that are different from society but it does not mean that in all circumstances it is impossible.

How does this ability to choose our values affect our choice of emotion? Our emotions are representations of what we value and believe. We can expect someone who values honesty to be angrier when lied to than someone who does not value honesty. This is due to the fact that they will feel more strongly about being wronged than the person who does not value honesty. Someone who is prejudice against African-Americans may experience more disgust and hatred when in an African-American’s presence.

Let’s take one last look at Sally and Jane. Sally approaches Jane one day and expresses to Jane that she is a lesbian. Jane’s immediate emotion is disgust. Jane’s disgust is a representation of her beliefs about homosexuality. If she did not look unfavourably upon homosexuality, why would Jane feel disgust? However, Jane ponders her beliefs about homosexuality for the next couple of days. By the end of the week, Jane has re-evaluated her views about homosexuality and no longer experiences disgust toward Sally. Jane has been able to change her emotion by her ability to think freely and change her values. Jane’s initial emotion may have been created by society, but Jane was able to choose not to be disgusted by taking action to change her beliefs about homosexuality. It would seems illogical to think that because Jane had been brought up to not favour homosexuals that she would have to maintain this belief and continue to feel disgust, but at the same time there is no reason why Jane must change her views. It is her choice as to what she believes. Through this choice, she chooses whether she is disgusted or not.

If we are free thinkers, capable of deciding what we value as I have proposed, then we can see how choosing what we value cultivates our emotions. Cultivation of emotions does not always occur in retrospect as with Jane choosing to change her values. All of the values that we choose at any point in our life cultivate emotions at another point in time. It can be as simple as choosing to value someone’s opinion. For example, Joe, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, placed great importance on Professor Bear’s view of her writing. Because of this, she subjected herself to disappointment when he did not favour her work. Had she not chosen to value his opinion, she would not have been hurt so deeply by his criticisms.[12] Our values can also be deep-set values such as placing great value on honesty as we saw in our previous example with Sally and Jane. Sally’s previous decision to value honesty cultivated her emotion of anger when being lied to.

I have argued here that we are capable of choosing our emotions. There are too many coincidences between the change of thought and the change of feelings to claim that one can occur without the other. At the point in which we can experience an emotion based on a belief we hold, we are then capable of choosing our emotions. This can be done, as we have seen, by changing or cultivating our beliefs. It may be true that it is often the case that our values are created through experience and what society believes, but the idea that there is the indeed times in which we have to choose between two different values leads to times in which we are choosing between two different emotions.


[1] An excerpt from a forward received by email from Kelly Devine (4 April, 2000)

[2] William James contends that our emotions are just physiological occurrences. James, W. “What is an Emotion?” Mind 9, [Online] Available: http://attern.org/ethics1/#Papers,Artciles&Abstracts [9, April 2000]

[3] World Book Encyclopedia 2000 Dictionary (San Diego, CA: World Book Inc. 1999)

[4] It is possible to have an emotion without a feeling. For example if we hold a grudge against a friend for five years, we do not necessarily have feelings of anger for the whole five years. However, for the purpose of deciding if we can choose our emotions, we can just look at emotions that have feelings.

[5] I believe that Jerry may have meant that we can choose how people affect our emotions not moods.

[6] De Sousa, R. “Getting Philosophically Involved, The Rationality of Emotion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987) Pp. 2-20

[7] Oakley, J. “The Nature of Emotions” Morality and the Emotions (London and New York: Routledge, 1992) Pp. 1-37

[8] In order to experience anger, we have to believe we have been wronged in some way. See Solomon, R.C. ‘Emotion and Choice’. In: Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (ed.): Explaining Emotions. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.) Pp. 251-281

[9] Ibid. Pp. 251-281

[10] Ibid. Pp. 256

[11] Ibid. Pp. 251-281

[12] Ben-Ze’ev, A. “Emotions and Morality” The Journal of Value Inquiry31 (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997) Pp.199