Rational feelings: a crucial disambiguation

byAcademian9y13th Mar 201025 comments

16


Ever wonder something like, "I know it's bad for me that I lost my job, but I actually feel happy about it... is that rational?"

What could a question like that mean? There is a divisive ambiguity here that really messes people up. A feeling as an experience is neither rational nor irrational. It's like asking how ethical a shade of purple is. The point is that a feeling must be framed as a behavior or a statement to ask whether it is rational, and which one matters heaps and loads to the answer.

If you think of the happiness as a behavior, something that you're doing, then the question is secretly asking about instrumental rationality: whether you're applying your beliefs correctly to attain your values. In our opening example, the question becomes "Does feeling happy serve my values?", or simply "Do I value feeling happy?". If you're almost anyone, the answer is probably "yes".

If you think of the happiness as a statement or instruction that says "Your values are being served", which can be true/false and justified/unjustified, then the question is really about epistemic rationality, and asks: "Am I justified to believe my values are being served?". If "it's bad for me" means "no", then "no".

Because of this ambiguity, although it can make sense to say "I'm happy" to indicate "my values are being served", I propose that in the interest of epistemic hygiene it's worth being more specific. Conflating feelings-as-behaviors with feelings-as-statements inflicts a great deal of pondering and confusion about whether feelings are rational (also precipitated by Hollywood), and to make matters worse, each of these similes has only limited validity:

1) A feeling is a behavior only insofar as you have control over it. This is something perhaps to strive for, but which certainly varies in feasibility. If someone carefully injects you with dopamine at a funeral, you might feel happy. That doesn't mean you've made an instrumentally irrational choice. 2) A feeling is a statement only insofar as it has a given interpretation. In my opening example, the happiness might rather signify "There's nothing you can do about this so you can relax and move on." This might be clarified on reflection, and if the statement isn't a rational one, you might consider retraining your feeling to offer more rational suggestions. But then, as with any statement, your epistemic rationality hinges on whether you believe it, not on how you feel. On the other hand, it is conceivable that even after introspection reveals the mechanism of a feeling, it still does not present itself as a statement. So sometimes the question "Is this feeling rational?" just isn't applicable, but greater self control/awareness makes your feelings more often like behaviors/statements to be assessed as "rational." For the ticklement of your visual cortex, the following table displays 15 scenario types (all of which can really happen), and what the scenario means for your instrumental/epistemic rationality (which is sometimes nothing: "--"). If you like, try thinking of an example scenario for the plausibility of each cell:

Your instrumental/epistemic rationality with respect to a feeling:

You haven't interpreted the feeling as a statement

You've interpreted the feeling as a statement

The statement is justified

The statement is unjustified

You believe it

You don't believe it

You believe it

You don't believe it

You can't (yet) control the feeling

--/yes

--/no

--/no

--/yes

You can control the feeling

You like (value) the feeling

yes/--

yes/yes

yes/no

yes/no

yes/yes

You dislike (devalue) the feeling

no/--

no/yes

no/no

no/no

no/yes


What's the point? Understanding your feelings means you can put them to better use. For one thing, you don't have to turn off a good feeling just because it makes a bad suggestion, as long as you can ignore the suggestion: if you lose your job, go ahead and be happy about it, just make sure you behave appropriately and keep looking for a new one. Likewise, you're not obliged to feel a "smart" feeling that you don't like, as long as you're smart enough to remember what good advice it might have given you: if you're worried about failing your exams, say "Thanks Worry, good idea, I'll go study. Okay, I'm studying now, you've done your part, you can leave me alone for a while!" Don't forget, in addition to communicating with the unconscious about epistemic issues, your feelings can be used for all sorts of other things, like energetic motivation, health benefits, and watching Avatar. And failing just one of these purposes doesn't entirely preclude the others, as long as you can keep them effectively separate... feeling like blue people are real can be highly advisable at times.