This week, I have been contemplating an emotional phenomenon that I have seen in people of my generation: the justification of one’s actions based upon an idea of positive emotion as self-justifying. The principle would be something like this:
Positive Emotions are a) indicators of happiness i.e. they arise from contact with people/places/things that will make me happy, b) not under my control i.e. they cannot or ought not be suppressed and c) exempt me from any culpability I have for taking actions in accord with them.
The presumption here is manifold. Firstly, it presumes that happiness arises from people/places/things. Secondly, it presumes that happiness consists, at least in part, of positive emotion. Thirdly, it presumes that positive emotions arise only from things that will make me happy. Fourthly, it presumes that there is no control to speak of over our emotions. Finally, it presumes that these facts together amount to a lack of culpability for my actions in pursuit of positive emotion/happiness/people/places/things. Let us examine each in turn.
First, it is clear that happiness does not arise from people/places/things, for it is not in all of these taken alone that we come to perfect (as action, not as adjective) human virtue. Virtue instead perfects our nature through the motion from potency to act of our human operation which, inevitably, will deal with people, places, and things. So, properly speaking, happiness does not arise from people/places/things, but only insofar as they allow us to perfect our nature through the practice of virtue.
Second, it presumes that happiness consists in part of positive emotion, the other part of which would be the previously disproven people/places/things. Now it is clear that positive emotion, while necessarily connected with perfected human nature i.e. when the virtuous man experiences positive emotion in doing what he ought, is not necessarily connected with happiness in those who have yet to acquire virtue. It is possible that a pre-virtuous man to experience positive emotion in doing what he ought not, or, conversely, to experience negative emotion in doing what he ought. So it is clear that positive emotion alone is not sufficient for the determination of what gives one happiness, but rather something added to it i.e. a reason given. For example, it is not for the sake of the positive emotion I receive for completing my studies that I work towards that completion, but for the reason that study is my task as this man at this time. If this task is rightly chosen i.e. contributes to my end as a human being through the cultivation of virtue, then my study is justified. If not, not. Positive or negative emotion could follow upon my study, but it is the reason which justifies. From this it is clear that happiness does not consist in, but may merely coincide with, positive emotion.
The third consideration is adequately treated by what has been said above.
Fourth, it is clear that there is some degree of control of our emotions. Further, there is sufficient control, through good habit, for the aligning of positive emotion with that which produces virtue. If reason dictates that an action produces virtue, and I do not receive positive emotions in the performance of the action, the action is to be repeated until it is a good habit which, if we are blessed, will be accompanied by positive emotion. In this way our emotions can be trained to be in accord with that which produces virtue, rather than contrary to it. For example, if a person enters into a relationship for the sake of discerning marriage, and at some point receives positive emotion regarding a person other than the one they are discerning with in a contrary way, the answer is not to doubt the discerning relationship on the basis of the contrary positive emotion alone. It is to be judged on the basis of the reason added to it i.e. whether the ends of marriage can be served in the relationship with the first individual. This reason cannot be discerned if the necessary self-restraint is not applied to the contrary positive emotion. From this it is clear that emotion can be controlled and is, in fact, one of those things which must be trained to be in accord with virtue.
Finally, it is clear from what has been laid down that we are culpable, at least in part, for that which we undertake in pursuit of positive emotion. For all reasons to sever our culpability from our actions on the basis of positive emotion have been disproven. While it remains that the presence of strong emotions may cloud the mind in the individual case, this is not to be taken as an excuse for all actions pertaining to positive emotion. It is the thing added to positive emotion, our reasons given, which guides our discernment of action as in accord with virtue. Since justice is a virtue, it is clear that positive emotion is not self-justifying.
Let the above suffice for the refutation of emotion as self-justifying.