Negative Emotions

To have a virtue of character, according to Aristotle (see Book II, Chapter 6 of his Nicomachean Ethics), is to have an ingrained tendency to feel emotions and desires appropriately to the circumstances. On Aristotle’s view, having these virtues contributes to living a good life. This idea raises questions when we consider emotions that we regard as negative. Are negative emotions ever appropriate? How do these negative emotions contribute to good lives? Let’s consider some specific examples.

 

A. Fear

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

We’ll start with fear, since the positive value of this negative emotion is easy to identify (and since it’s Halloween!). When we are faced with danger, fear is often appropriate. The value of fear is that it primes us for action. There are physiological components of fear that prepare our flight-or-fight response. Our heart rate increases. We get a shot of adrenalin. Our pupils dilate.

These physiological components perhaps help explain why we sometimes (for instance, on Halloween!) use fear as entertainment. We watch horror movies. We sneak up behind friends and scare them. The adrenalin rush that comes along with fear may help us make sense of these common practices. We may even develop a more sophisticated account of how the arts allow us to wrestle with difficult fears in a more controlled setting.

Although we can be paralyzed by fear, although we can feel fear inappropriately, fear is pretty clearly a valuable survival mechanism. In a world with dangers, we would not want to get rid of our fear responses completely. In the “Virtue and the Warrior Spirit” FYI class that I am currently teaching with Dr. Bahr, we see various authors (including Aristotle) argue that courage should not be equated with fearlessness. Rather, it is best understood as proper management of one’s fear.

 

B. Hatred

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

Hatred is often presented as the opposite of love. If love is good, this would seem to make hatred bad and so something to be avoided. We can ratchet up this concern with hatred by considering a commandment to love, a moral obligation to love. This concern gets ratcheted up even more if we are supposed to love everyone, even our enemies. If we’re morally required to love everyone, can it ever be appropriate to hate anyone? What legitimate contribution might hatred make to the good life?’

Clearly, various strategies for answering with these questions are available. One could reject the commandment to love everyone. Loving one’s abusers simply sets one up for further abuse, it might be claimed. It might be noted that, although hatred is typically regarded as a negative emotion, it’s often an enjoyable emotion. We sometimes nurse our hatred. We relish our hatred-fueled thoughts of the gruesome things that might happen to the one we hate. Alternatively, one could reject the Aristotelian approach when it comes to hatred. Hatred is never appropriate and should always be replaced with love, it might be claimed. This replacement, this growth of love in our lives, will always make our lives better. Another possible strategy would be to say that love and hate can co-exist and that sometimes they should. Though it is always required to love others, it is sometimes appropriate to add some hatred to that love.

What do you think? Are there other possible ways of wrestling with these questions? Which approach do you favor?

 

C. Jealousy

Some see jealousy as connected with love.

jealousy

On this view, jealousy is an indicator of the strength of love. If someone feels no jealousy, we might wonder whether that person feels genuine love. Is it possible to feel deep, rich love without feeling jealousy? Or should we embrace a certain degree of jealousy as part of the heady brew of love?

Others question this connection between jealousy and love.

jealousy roche

On this view, if I am jealous that my loved one is made happy by someone else, I’m more focused on myself than on my loved one. Maybe there are related issues here about how selfless love should be, and whether our love is more tied up with selfishness than we would like to admit. Should we aim at ridding ourselves of this negative emotion as a way of deepening our love? Would our lives be better if jealousy never manifested itself in us? Would this be an indication that we had shed our insecurities, or would this be an indication that we had become too detached from those we profess to love?

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