Upheavals of Thought

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The emotions could use some better PR. They have been blamed for everything from each personal crisis to the insanity that is called this year’s election. We shrinks have mobilized the troops of rationality and have sharpened the swords of Stoicism, recast as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to do battle against these pesky, animalistic aliens called feelings.

“But wait!” calls out a professor of philosophy and the classics, stepping between the battle lines. “Emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment… Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning.”

Martha Nussbaum, the professor of philosophy and the classics, is brave, but if she’s going to be the PR person for emotions, she’s going to have to punch up her copy. Just kidding. She’s done a lot to argue their cause throughout her career, especially in her magnum opus, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.

The phrase, upheavals of thought, comes from Proust. It vividly describes the effect emotions have on what would be a flat landscape of our rationality. We assume that the hot lava that makes our lives uneven, uncertain, and prone to reversal are animal energies that have no connection to our thoughts. Not so, says Nussbaum, emotions are deep, deep thoughts, with a wisdom that should not be dismissed. To demonstrate how this is so, she begins by describing her own grief at the death of her mother. She goes on to do the same with guilt, love, and compassion. She devotes another book to my favorite: anger.

There is so much I could comment on, but to illustrate her point, I’ll summarize the argument for and against compassion.

If all you had to go on was the attitude of shrinks, ministers in the pulpit, Oprah, your Yoga teacher, and sentimental feel good articles in the newspaper, you might think that compassion is always a good thing; but, some say, that’s not the case. There’s a long philosophical tradition arguing against compassion and, once you become acquainted with it, as I was reading Nussbaum, you begin to recognize it in the statements of ordinary people. You might even agree with them, and argue against compassion, yourself.

Let’s say you encounter a homeless person, begging on the street. If you were to act out on your emotions, you might do various things. If you felt disgusted at the homeless person’s appearance, smell, or what you believed was in his character, you would curl your lip and walk away. If you felt angry at his intrusion, you would, more likely, chew him out, rather than give him money. If you were afraid of him, you’d cross the street to avoid him. If you were contemptuous, you might question what he would do with the money. If you felt compassion, you would open your wallet.

The philosopher, belonging to this long tradition of skepticism towards emotions, might open up his wallet, too, but he would not do it out of compassion. He would be suspicious of any emotion, including compassion, as a guide for his choices.

He would say that compassion, in this case, is based on a false belief that homelessness matters. It might matter a little, but, what’s really important is not accidents of fortune, the cards you are dealt; what’s important is how you play the cards. The most important thing is not whether a person has a roof over his head, but whether he is the best he can be, no matter the circumstances. There is no need to be a victim, one can be a survivor. Compassion insults the dignity of the person who suffers. The homeless person doesn’t want your pity.

The philosopher of the long tradition of skepticism towards emotions may very well give money to the homeless person, not because the homeless person needs it, but because the philosopher doesn’t. The philosopher of this tradition treats money, and any external good thing, as something that doesn’t matter.

Reading this argument against compassion, you may feel as I did, simultaneously intrigued and repelled. I’ve seen many people suffer misfortune, but retain their dignity and I admire them more that the ones who have never had misfortune. At the same time, there’s something inhuman, not to mention inhumane, about disregarding compassion. How does Nussbaum say we can show compassion to a homeless person and still respect his dignity?

It’s not necessary to make a choice, she would say. You can feel sorry for the homeless person’s bad luck at the same time that you admire him for how he handles it. Having respect for the humanity of others ought to include a concern for their material well being.

Furthermore, there are many setbacks and hardships that a person may endure that really do irreparably damage him. Poor nutrition, poor health, exposure to toxins, trauma, and genetic disorders, really do effect a person’s ability to think clearly and choose wisely. This is particularly the case when they occur early in development or are sufficiently prolonged. The philosopher would like us to believe that we are never victims, but the truth is we are often at the mercy of the world and its random vicissitudes. When the tsunami wave hits you, you’re going to shit your pants and cry for your mommy, and you’ll probably die; you deserve respect for trying to swim, but, if someone can save you, they should.

The philosophers of the long tradition of skepticism towards emotions are not done arguing. They have more points to make:

Compassion is narrow. If you give money to a homeless person because he crossed your path and you were moved to compassion, you would have so much less money to give to the homeless, and starving, person in Somalia, who is not likely to cross your path and never arouse your feelings, but may have a better claim on it.

Compassion is unreliable. Today, the homeless person may arouse your compassion, but tomorrow, if you’re in a bad mood, the same homeless person might arouse your anger, or disgust, or fear, or contempt.

Compassion is bigoted. You’re more likely to feel compassion towards people who resemble you in some way. People who look different or act different are more likely to arouse fear, anger, disgust, or contempt.

Compassion is cheap. Having a feeling of compassion towards a homeless person, without taking action based on that feeling, does nothing to put a roof over his head. The feeling itself is useless, or worse than useless, if you believe that feeling sorry for someone, by itself, helps them in any way.

Because compassion is so limited, it is better not to rely on it. If you’re going to give, it’s better, says the philosopher of this tradition, to execute an objective needs assessment and not privilege the cute, cuddly, close, and familiar over the ugly, strange, distant, and incomprehensible. Indeed, it may be the very people you are least likely to be compassionate about that deserve your help more than others.

Nussbaum argues back: If compassion is problematic because it’s limited, then the answer is not to overwrite compassion, but to develop it further; to extend your compassion outward, from the people near you, to foreigners, to other living things. Develop your compassion by taking action on it. Develop it by choosing compassion over anger, disgust, contempt and fear. Then, when you have developed your compassion to its utmost, then you have a better idea of how to fairly distribute your charity.

The philosophers of the long tradition of skepticism towards emotions have one more point to make. Compassion is closely allied with anger and resentment; they are all rooted in the same place: the belief that a person can be hurt by someone or some circumstance other than herself. If you hold this belief and you see someone else hurt, you will feel compassion. If you hold this belief and you are hurt, you will feel angry or resentful; you might even be moved to revenge. Anger and resentment and the endless need for revenge are so corrosive and so dangerous that we must question the beliefs that support them.

Nussbaum asserts that sometimes anger is not only justified, but called for, especially if it leads to positive change. Therefore, don’t get rid of anger or compassion; mix the two together and use your compassion to temper your anger.

The main point I believe Nussbaum makes throughout the book is that thinking and feeling are not opposed to one another, they are one and the same. Emotions are deep, primary thoughts; expressions of values; conclusions you have made that are so central to your well being that they have become the default setting. It is a good thing that compassion is a default setting. It may be the one fragile, fraying cord that binds us together.

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