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Why do we have emotions?
And what should we do with them?
Why do we have emotions? Where do they come from? What function do they serve?
Start with simpler questions. Where do physical sensations come from? Why do we feel pain? Heat and cold? Fatigue and hunger?
The answers to these questions are pretty straightforward. Pain is a warning that's something is amiss and that whatever caused it should not be repeated. I touch a hot burner; it hurts, and I learn not to do it again. I eat fruit that has gone bad; I get a terrible stomach ache and conclude that next time I will pay more attention when picking fruit. I get caught out in the rain on a cold day and start shivering; my first priority becomes to find some place warm. I get hungry and realize I haven't eaten for several hours. I get sleepy and decide I need a nap.
Emotions are likely an extrapolation of these kind of warning signals. I feel fear at the strange or unknown because what I don't know might kill me. I feel guilty when I do something wrong because people might shun me for my bad behavior. I feel disgust when I encounter something grossly beyond acceptable social norms.
Emotions are not all negative, just as physical sensations are not all negative. The warm sun feels good on a cold day; I'm drawn to it as a way of avoiding hypothermia. A ripe strawberry tastes better than a blade of grass, because my body senses I'm getting more nutritive value out of the strawberry than the grass. If I were a cow, the sensations might be reversed. Most people like sex; it's how humans are enticed into procreating.
Happiness is an emotion that tells us to keep doing what we're doing. Love is an emotion that helps us form attachments, and attachments help us survive the challenges and vicissitudes of life. Pride is an emotion we feel when we have accomplished something worthwhile.
As this suggests, physical sensations are hardwired while emotions are at least partly learned. What should I be proud of? My society and culture let me know. Of what should I be disgusted? Same answer.
What should make me happy? What should I fear? These questions are often more complicated. They vary from person to person even within a single culture, and vary within a single person according to circumstance. Will money make me happy? Yes, if I don't have any. But probably no if I already have plenty. Should I fear people who are not like me? Maybe, if I live in a dangerous region of the world or at a dangerous time in history. Maybe not, if I'm safe and secure.
How should I feel about my emotions? Should I feel about them at all?
I wouldn’t think of judging myself for feeling cold if I fell into an icy lake or thirsty on a hike in Death Valley. Should I judge myself for feeling angry at an insult? For preferring the company of people like myself over that of strangers? From taking pleasure in the downfall of a rival?
Probably not. To the degree that emotions are innate, we aren’t responsible for them. To the degree that they are learned, they’re largely shaped by society around us.
But if we are not responsible for our emotions, we are responsible for the way we respond to them. My initial reaction when my child breaks something valuable might be anger; such a response is probably as hardwired as a reaction to a bee sting. But I don't act on that anger; instead I try to teach the kid to be more careful. I can't help feeling disappointed when I don't get the job I really wanted. But I can decide whether to give up or to write a better application next time.
We humans are emotional beings. But we are not only emotional beings. Somewhere along the line we also developed reason, which, among other things, allows us to override emotion. Reason enabled the emergence of civilized life. In any large group of people, at any given time emotions point in multiple directions; the only way to avert chaos is to rein in the emotions.
One example: Every society has to determine how it will respond to crimes like murder. Early in human evolution, when the social unit was the family or the tribe, murder could be treated personally and emotionally. Vengeance often set the tone. As societies got larger, vengeance typically took a back seat to deterrence, a more rational objective. This is why in criminal trials, the proceedings often begin with the announcement: "The people of State X against Defendant Y." It’s not the relatives of the murder victim who are in charge, but the people as a whole. And if one of the relatives kills the murderer, such an action might be thought understandable but is still a crime.
It is not too much to say that the march of history is the struggle of reason against emotion. In fact, I might say more about this in a future essay. But it’s also necessary to observe that reason doesn't always win. Physical sensation came first; emotion came next; reason is the Johnny-come-lately of the trio. And Johnny still has some catching up to do.