Feelings: NOT What Make Us Human

A lot of times, people are looking for a “quick fix” to their problems, particularly emotional/behavioral or relationship problems.

The common response is, “You can’t always have a quick fix. Life is a process, and problem-solving can take time.”

This is true enough. But it doesn’t get to the core of the error in those who seek the quick fix.

Usually, those seeking a quick fix are operating on a standard (or non-standard, to be more precise) of emotion. Instead of rationally, concretely and objectively defining what they wish to happen in a certain situation, they base their success or failure in a given context exclusively on emotion. Instead of was “x” or “y” accomplished in some context, the usually stated standard is, “How do I feel?”

The main problem or error here is that emotions, by themselves, don’t really tell you anything — other than the fact that you’re feeling something.

If you decide a certain endeavor or activity was successful based on how you feel, it can be terribly misleading. For example, perhaps you ask someone for advice, or for their perspective on something. Maybe they tell you what you want to hear; or maybe they don’t. If they tell you what you wanted to hear, then you feel good. If they don’t tell you what you want to hear, then you feel upset, disappointed or angry. Do the upset feelings prove the advice or perspective you received was wrong, while the happy feelings tell you it was right? Not necessarily. It obviously depends on the facts of the situation, including whether what you wanted to hear was rationally correct or not; or whether the person telling you what you wanted to hear was giving a sincere and objective opinion, or merely trying not to upset you.

It’s often claimed that feelings and emotions are what make us human. It’s not true. While feelings and emotions are part of what make us human, they are not our distinctively human feature. Lower animals have feelings too. Anyone with a cat or dog can plainly see that the cat or dog reacts sometimes with certain kinds of basic emotions such as happiness, anxiety, pleasure or pain.

What makes humans distinctively human is our conceptual capacity, i.e. our ability to form concepts and think beyond the range of our feelings. This gives us the ability not only to feel emotions, but to process those emotions and think about their validity/tenability or lack thereof.

I’m always suspicious of someone who insists that emotions are what make us human. This suggests that either a person does not want you to think, or wants to whitewash the fact that he or she chooses not to think (other than the minimal necessary).

Someone who insists that thinking is what makes you human isn’t afraid, angered or upset by your intellectual independence. Nor is such a person upset, threatened or angered by his or her own autonomy and mental independence. People who want you to think for yourself are the people you can trust.

Those who claim that conflict, even war, are caused by people being “too rational” and not enough in touch with their emotions of brotherhood, compassion and empathy have it all wrong. All emotions, including empathy and compassion, imply certain value judgments about people and situations. That’s why it makes logical sense to feel compassion for someone you know and love who’s suffering a hardship not of his or her own making; while it makes no logical sense to feel empathy for a Nazi sending people into concentration camps, or empathy for some neighborhood, household or office bully.

Emotions, to be accepted and acted upon, require rational thinking and conclusions to back them up. Humans, unlike non-rational animals, possess this capacity–along with a responsibility, out of self-preservation, to make the best use of this capacity.

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