Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Emotions Just Are

If we follow our train of thought, it soon becomes apparent that emotions are only moral to the extent that they reflect human intention.  I once heard someone put it this way, "Emotions are neither good nor bad.  They just are."  To the extent that emotions are a kind of automated response to what happens in the world--or even often caused by the chemistry of our bodies--they are not a matter of intention or choice.  Therefore, to that degree they cannot be evil.


Now, we need to be very careful here, because sometimes emotions do involve intent and thus come into the sphere of morality.  This is certainly the case when it comes to what we do with our emotions.  Ephesians 4:26 is an excellent picture of this truth: "In your anger, do not sin."  It is thus possible to be angry and yet not sin--that is, not wrong others or do wrong.  However, one can also "give way" to your anger and commit horrible crimes.

John Wesley (1703-91) also had a category for a kind of sin that happened in a moment of emotion.  You did not intend to lose your cool and yell at your children in a moment of uncontrolled anger, but you have been overworking and skipped lunch.  He called such sins, somewhat humorously, "sins of surprise."  We can wrong others in such emotional moments.  They are not pre-meditated actions, and so are less "moral" in nature than many other actions.

But they may involve choices we have made in the past.  Did we have to go into work at 5am this morning or did we have to stay up so late working?  Have we unnecessarily let work take too large a role in our lives?  Could we have chosen to eat more healthily or did we have to skip lunch?  These sorts of choices are not as heavily "moral" as some others because they do not involve significant intent to do wrong.  But because they involve our choices, they do come into the realm of the moral.  This is especially the case the more we know we have a problem in certain situations and yet continue to put ourselves in them.

Once again, our claim is that evil always involves intent to do wrong or to wrong others.  Morality is a matter of choices.  There is no such thing as unintentional or accidental evil.  Evil is a matter of moral choice.  Accordingly, emotions are not good or evil in themselves.  It is what we do with them that brings them into the  sphere of morality, as well as how our choices have led up to them.  If we know we lose our temper in certain situations, then to put ourselves in those situations is to do evil of varying intensity.

1 comment:

Mitch said...

Ken - I think I agree with one thing you say, and disagree with two others. I agree with the idea that emotions "just are."

That's true whether one thinks of sin or of salvation. To feel anger is not sin. Likewise, one not saved by having right or holy feelings.

But feeling anger is not the same as yelling at my children. Uncontrolled anger is not an emotion, but an action that has real consequences whether one consciously intended harm or not. And anger that lingers in rage harms me even if it harms no one else.

Evil - by which I mean harm done directly or indirectly to others or oneself - can occur with even the best of intentions. Our conscious intent is not always indicative of what is going on inside us unconsciously due to biological malfunction or limitation, social conditioning, psychic or physical stress, anxiety or threat, or even - as Scrooge suggests - having an undigested bit of beef stuck in our gullet.

Even the purest of actions can lead to accidental unintended consequences. And our actions are so inter-connected in this age that indirect evil consequences are not simply accidents, but almost woven into the fabric of our common life. And of course, sometimes I have to do harm to one to do good to another.

If God is going to deliver us from evil,he's going to have deliver us from the evil we didn't intend as well as the evil we do intend.That, I believe, will require a cosmic and simply a moral transformation.

If I am to love my neighbor as myself, I can't shrug off my unintended or consequential harm with, "I didn't mean it."