What’s Wrong With the World – Emotionalism

Related Book: Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles by Peter Kreeft

A problem facing Western society today is that, as a people, we tend to be more emotional in our responses and thinking than we are rational. Though there’s nothing wrong with emotions or being emotional at times, when our thinking and actions center on our emotions, we run into many problems.

Before going further, I should note that I am not against reacting emotionally to certain instances. Even Jesus was overcome with emotion at the death of Lazarus, even though He knew He would raise Lazarus from the dead. When a man sees a woman being robbed, the rational thing is to call the police; the emotional response might be to protect the woman before calling the police. In these situations and others, an emotional response is completely justified.

Instead, I am talking about emotionalism, or constantly using our emotions in our thinking and our rhetoric. Rather than thinking deeply about an issue, we instead go with our gut reaction. Rather than evaluating the merits of a statement, we instead jump on our prima facie understanding of what was said and, regardless of further clarifications, continue with our original understanding.

What is Emotionalism?

Emotionalism is the excessive use of emotions or a tendency to display or respond with undue emotion. I would take it further to say that it is a devaluation of logical thinking and rather choosing to react with our emotions.

Emotionalism is what makes us sensitive as a nation. For instance, if atheists were to have a “National Day of Skepticism,” many Christians would be offended and decry such a day, demanding that no public office observe it, without realizing that atheists do have such a right. Alternatively, atheists get bent out of shape and respond emotionally when a private citizen gives thanks to God at a high school graduation – because they are offended, they think their rights have been violated. Under emotionalism, offended sentiments somehow count as rights.

Emotionalism also leads to a lack of deep thinking on issues. A perfect example is the Arizona immigration bill. Rather than reading the bill, opponents have lashed out emotionally against the bill, that is, before thinking logically about the bill and seeing if there might be some merit, they instead just lash out.

On the deeper issues in life, what used to be the big questions of “Why am I here,” “Who am I,” and “Where am I going” have been replaced with, “What should I wear,” “How should I be entertained,” and “I wonder what Paris Hilton is doing.” We think emotionally and therefore avoid the big questions, because these can sometimes upset our emotions. They can leave us depressed or angry even, so because we value the emotion of happy, we choose to ignore these questions. Likewise, emotions live in the moment, whereas the big questions in life require years of study in order to find the answers.

We try to justify our lack of answers by saying, ‘The journey is more important than the destination,” or “the answers should only lead to more questions.” Such sentimentality is almost accepted as gospel, but it’s pure emotional hype. While we’ll never have all our questions answered and there will always be room for doubt, logically if a question exists, there must be an answer to that question. But when we live in the emotional moment, we can’t see that answer or don’t want to see that answer, because the answer could mean we’re wrong and no one likes to be wrong.

Another problem with emotionalism is it often leads to a refusal to listen to other points of view. Though everyone likes to pride themselves on being open-minded, few people are generally open-minded. Try to talk to a homosexual about how homosexual actions are wrong and you’ll immediately be labeled a bigot. Try to tell a Christian that if evidence shows the Bible is wrong then we must reject the Bible and you’ll be called a heretic. In either case, the person did not take the time to understand the alternative point of view. Rather, they heard something they disagreed with and immediately used an emotionally charged term to sum up their viewpoint of that view.

This is why we see so many knee-jerk responses in the world today. We hear something that sounds like something we disagree with, respond emotionally, that is, immediately, and based upon our initial feelings without actually evaluating what was said.

What is worse is in our emotional responses we tend to offer up illogical statements. For instance, an opponent to homosexuality could say, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” But such an argument is illogical – just because God made man and woman and put them together, it doesn’t mean He disallows homosexuality. For instance, God didn’t make Adam, Eve, and Sarah, but later on in the Bible He allows polygamy to occur.[1] Alternatively, consider someone who says, “I’m against abortion, but I don’t want to make it illegal.” This is a shallow, under developed thought. Why are they against abortion? If it’s because they believe the fetus to be a human being, then they support murder. If they don’t believe the fetus is a human being, then why be against abortion?

Our emotional responses tend to be highly illogical. In fact, if we were to look at some of the catch-phrases of the political left and political right, we’d find that most of those catch-phrases invoke emotions rather than intellectual thinking.

One last thing emotionalism does is make us feel like we’ve accomplished something when we’ve actually done nothing. I point to the example of Sudan where many people wear “Save Darfur” t-shirts or want to raise awareness on the crisis in Sudan or other parts of the world, but have done little to nothing to actually help out.

There are many groups out there that attempt to “raise awareness” for whatever cause, but all raising awareness accomplishes is providing an emotional boost to those who are aware. “I’m aware that breast cancer is killing women.” Excellent, but what have you done about it? “I’m aware that only 1 out of 5 children raised in the inner-city graduate high school…I’m aware of this.” That is good, but what have you done to fix the solution?

Because we’re so focused on our emotions, however, we get a sense of pride when we’re aware of an issue. That pride grows when we make other aware. But in the end, little to nothing is actually accomplished.

Why are we emotional?

One of the biggest reasons we’ve bought into emotionalism as a culture is that students in school aren’t taught logic or philosophy. All throughout my high school education, I was never once given a course on Aristotelian logic, even though such logic is innately known by all humans and needs to be practiced in order to be an autonomous thinker. The closest I came was when I took debate and forensics, where both teachers taught me how to think for myself. If not for debate and forensics, I fear where I might be.

In school, we’re taught ‘facts’ more than how to think for ourselves. We’re told what we need to know rather than discovering it or questioning what we’re taught. This type of education in public schools makes for great slaves, but horrible citizens.

What is worse is that schools aren’t even interested in teaching logic to their students. I remember speaking with one superintendent of one of the more respected school districts in Kansas and he said they would never teach philosophy or logic at their school because neither was required for a state exam. And therein lies the problem; we teach ‘facts’ so students can regurgitate information, but we don’t teach them how to think.

These students are like well-trained beasts that we have given information to. When they encounter a situation where their facts come in handy, they don’t respond emotionally, but rather think the issue through based on prior facts. But when they encounter a foreign situation or a situation that challenges the facts they have learned, rather than think for themselves to evaluate the situation, they lash out like animals, responding in emotion.

The other reason we’re emotional is that we value our feelings more than our minds. I was once involved in a discussion over the issue of abortion where after logically laying out the case against abortion, the person’s response was, “Well what about how a woman’s feelings? Why aren’t you considering those?” My short answer was that because due to the evidence that the fetus was human, the woman’s feelings didn’t matter in determining if abortion should be legal or illegal. At that point, the person was done discussing the matter with me because I was insensitive.

To the person, truth didn’t matter as much as feelings mattered. To our modern society, in some cases even if one thing is truthful, if that one thing hurts our feelings, then we hide the one thing and abhor it. In reality, Islam was founded in violence, but if we say that out loud then we might hurt people’s feelings, therefore we shouldn’t say it out loud.

This comes down to a desire to be happy rather than to face honesty. We’d rather be happy in the moment than have someone tell us that our actions or beliefs will lead to destruction later on in life. Telling me that I’m wrong will hurt my feelings, so no matter how truthful a statement might be, I don’t want to hear it if it will hurt my feelings.

This all goes back to selfishness. Because we have such a heightened view of ourselves, we think that having our feelings hurt is somehow the worst thing that can happen to us. Because we are selfish, we don’t want to hear that we’re wrong.

Finally, one of the reasons we buy into emotionalism is that it allows us to sympathize with people and even feel moral outrage without ever doing anything. Don’t like an immigration law? Excellent, rather than engage in civil discourse or try to find out why such a law was passed (and subsequently pass a more human law), we instead choose to protest, wear t-shirts, and throw a temper-tantrum on a national stage. What is accomplished in the end? Not much.

Or, one of the more prevalent things people do, is they try to raise awareness, as though raising awareness is the end goal. They create Facebook groups and pass around petitions and will lecture for hours on end concerning  whatever particular topic they’re interested in, but when it comes to their time and money and actually helping to bring an end to the problem they’re exposing, they do little to nothing.

The reason is emotions allow us to feel connected to a situation, but they don’t allow us to solve a situation. Reason is needed in order to develop a workable solution whereas emotions, and especially emotionally based solutions, tend to go overboard. Emotions are good in that they connect us to a tragedy or problem, but they don’t help us find a solution. Yet, because we’re so focused on emotions and de-emphasize reasoning, it’s rare that anything gets done. For instance, the biggest problem facing Haiti right now is lack of supplies. The logistics are there to get supplies to the people and, according to the multiple Facebook groups out there, millions upon millions of people stand in solidarity with Haiti, but when push comes to shove hardly anyone is sending supplies. The reason is that the emotional desire for a solution is met when one clicks “like” to a group that says, “We pray for people in Haiti.”

What does emotionalism accomplish?

Ultimately, emotionalism feeds back into our desire to be selfish. First, being emotional makes us feel better about ourselves. Because we feel moral outrage, we feel that we’re not being bigoted. Because we’re “aware,” we feel that we have accomplished something in terms of helping the world.

Secondly, buying into emotionalism makes us think that our beliefs are solid, when in truth they are not. The stronger we feel about a specific issue emotionally, the more we feel we have a solid justification on that issue. I’ve watched multiple Christians, atheists, pro-choice, pro-life, and so on give some of the more logically absurd arguments, but think such argumentation was solid because they presented an emotional argument.

“Oh, you’d believe in a God that would order His followers to kill innocent babies? You’d worship a God that would let His followers wander the desert and the MURDER people?!” Logically, whether or not God ordered genocide against the Canaanites (He did not order genocide, as this is a loaded term) is quite irrelevant to whether or not we should believe in His existence. But because it’s emotional, people buy into it.

Thus, being emotional makes us feel like we have a case and, even more so, can sway public opinion in our favor. Currently, Israel is under international condemnation for attacking an aid flotilla to Gaza. Israel is being criticized for attacking (and killing) aid workers and for having a blockade on Gaza to begin with. Those who favor the flotilla and Gazan government are making emotional appeals. However, the facts of the situation are that rockets were being launched daily out of Gaza into Israel and Israel had to stop this. They put a blockade on Gaza, but still allowed humanitarian aid to get through after searching the ships. The flotilla refused to stop to let Israel inspect them and when Israel boarded the ships, the Israeli soldiers were shot at and thrown overboard, forcing them to respond with force.

Now, the facts of the situation paint a completely different picture than the emotions. But the emotionalism makes the case against Israel look solid and thus sways public opinion. When one appeals to emotions, it’s a sure sign that one lacks facts to support one’s case.

What’s wrong with Emotionalism?

Emotionalism might be popular, but it’s wrong for four reasons:

1)   Emotions are reactionary and not reasonable – Emotions can be a good thing, but when we use our emotions as a response to a serious situation, they tend to get in the way. Take political debates. Emotional responses often times breeds incivility and nasty rhetoric. While I am no fan of President Obama, some of the things said about him by his detractors are emotional responses and not reasonable statements. Alternatively, his supporters are just as bad, treating any and all criticism of President Obama’s policies as “radical,” “extremist,” and in some cases “racist.” The emotional responses on both sides have polarized our nation.

That’s what emotionalism accomplishes though. When we rely on our emotions rather than our reason, we end up with violent rhetoric because that’s what emotions do. Emotions are natural, but reason and self-control help us bring our emotions under control in the proper context. When we lose our reason or our self-control, then we become the equivalent of young teenagers lashing out at everything in this world. Anyone who has a young teenage kid understands that they’re not fun to live with. Unfortunately, emotionalism keeps people’s mentality stuck at that young age and never lets it develop to an age of reason where they can reasonable evaluate their arguments before just slamming a door.

2)   Emotionalism makes us stupid– When we buy into emotionally, we’re more concerned with our feelings and being happy than being right. One merely needs to look to our schools and see how some students who deserve to fail are not allowed to fail because it might hurt their feelings. For instance, here is a sentence from a college graduate that I recently came across:

“i nowe wat ur sayin! Your nvr goin to git ppl 2 lisn 2 u thow…”

I wish I could say that this person was just using internet shorthand (which is a problem in and of itself, but I digress), but I’ve seen this person’s papers. Though the spelling is better in such papers, the grammar and misuse of words remains the same. Such a person should have been held back in English at some point in his life, but he wasn’t. To help his self-esteem, he was passed on. Sadly, after grading multiple papers for freshmen in college, I saw more and more how kids are allowed to pass English courses in high school when in reality they should be held back. Grammatical mistakes happen (simply look through this article), but when there are multiple problems that actually prevent a paper from being understood, then there is a problem.

When we rely on our emotions we don’t think issues through. We don’t sit and evaluate the truth of a matter. Instead, when challenged, we simply become more emotional rather than look to see if the objection has merit. When we rely on our emotions, we become stupid (stupid means to lack intelligence or common sense, so it is an accurate term in this sense).

3)   Emotionalism makes us lazy – When we buy into emotionalism, we become lazy on two accounts in our work ethic.

  1. We are lazy in our work ethic – the ideas of struggling and failing are not two ideas that bring about happy emotions. In fact, struggle can often times cause depression, which is sometimes a justifiable response to a struggle. But because struggle emits such a negative emotion, people often attempt to avoid struggles.

The best way to avoid struggle is to be lazy and find ways around struggling. Work ethics suffer because we gain a sense of entitlement. We believe we’re entitled to be happy immediately, thus we don’t scrub toilets for a job, work fast food for a job, or do other things that may make us emotionally unhappy. This creates a lazy generation.

  1. We become lazy learners – just as we’re lazy in our work ethic concerning work, our work ethic for learning is equally (if not more) lazy. Why learn about the world around us if it’s boring? How does learning history help me figure out who might win American Idol? We become ignorant to the world around us because we fail to see how learning about the world around us would make us happy or emit some other positive emotion.

4)   Emotionalism is logically fallacious – Though logic isn’t valued in an emotional society doesn’t mean logic isn’t useful. Logic helps us to determine the validity of an argument. The problem is, an appeal to emotions is fallacious. We can use an emotional appeal all day long, but it doesn’t make our arguments valid.

Politicians are famous for their use of emotional appeals. If they’re trying to pass health care legislation, they’ll fine two or three people and say, “The current health care policy harmed these people and didn’t help these people. If you hate these people, then fine, vote against our bill.”

The opposition is then left trying to explain how they can vote against the bill, but not hate the people. Never mind the fact that logically, we need to evaluate the merits of the bill. It could be that the current system does harm some people, but what if the bill harms even more people? Or, what if the bill shows that it provides the perfect solution to the problems in the status quo? Either way, there doesn’t need to be an emotional appeal.

The above should show us that emotional appeals do not show us the truth, but merely distract from the truth. If an argument is emotional by nature, very rarely can it also be logical.

What is the solution?

The solution is really more personal in that people must grow in self-control and in controlling their emotions. But there are some things we can do to help that growth.

The first thing we can do is to teach Aristotelian logic in our schools. At a young age, students should be trained on how to think independently. Liberty is found in the proper teaching of logic because logic teaches us how to think on our own. When we remove the teaching of logic in our schools, children learn to think according to what a textbook tells them and in all other things to think emotionally. They never truly learn to think for themselves until much later in life after bad habits have already been developed.

Secondly, whenever we face opposition to our beliefs, we should first seek to understand what our opponents are saying and why they are saying it. Attempt to summarize their argument back to them in your own words. If they say you’re missing the point, have them explain it to you. The point is, don’t criticize their argument until you can explain their argument back to them in their own words and you’ve honestly taken the time to evaluate the argument. This lessens the chances that you’ll have an emotional response.

Third, evaluate each viewpoint logically (including your own) to see if it has any fallacious errors. If it does, see if such an error is inherent to the system or simply exists because of how the viewpoint was explained. If we discover a viewpoint to be naturally fallacious, then even if the viewpoint makes us happy, we must abandon it.

Fourth, we need to understand that struggling in education and in work are good things, even if at the time we hate it. Reading a boring book may not make us happy, but it does make us smarter, which makes us more responsible, which ultimately does make us happier. Working a tough job may not make us happy, but it establishes a work ethic, a work ethic that may help us get into better jobs and perform better at those jobs.

Finally, being emotionally attached to an issue is good and important, but your solution needs to be rational. Simply being “aware” of a situation is hardly enough. Though there are times where being aware and letting others know about a situation is all we can do, if you can afford it, you should donate time and/or money to the issue.

We must move away from emotionalism or we will simply continue to become a dumber, meaner, more sensitive, lazy nation.

[1] I am not speaking in favor of homosexual actions, I’m merely pointing out an illogical argument used in arguing against homosexuality.


5 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With the World – Emotionalism

  1. Very good article. It challenged me to come to terms with the reality that too often I respond emotionally, with gut reaction, with the jerk of a knee, rather than trying to truly understand and learn. You’re right: too often we are concerned with being right or being happy, and when thinking threatens our sense of security, we retreat into an emotional bubble that will shield us from the hard realities of life. The part about being lazy is also poignant. Right now I am looking for a job, and I have to admit what I have kept at bay beneath the surface for a while: I am simply not trying hard enough to find work because there is some work that I just don’t want to do.

    But now that I am more aware, I can fall into the trap of just remaining aware but doing nothing. I think this is where courage comes in: strength to empower us to do what we know needs to be done, even if it is painful.

    When I first read the title of the article, I was a bit skeptical, but after reading the whole thing, I admire the balance that you brought to the issue. Distinguishing between emotion and emotionalism was on target, and you clarified them very well. Reason and emotion are both an integral part of the human existence, and they need to be integrated for us to find psychological well being. Ours is a society of disintegration and variegated narratives that have no convergence. What we need is integration; only when we integrate will we find wholeness and real, lasting happiness.

    American education is a difficult problem facing us, and it is an area that catches my attention and to which I would like to devote a lot of study. An entire educational revolution is necessary. Not only do curricula need to be reexamined and reformulated, but we need to return to the foundations: what is education? what is the aim of education? what are the best methods? what has educational psychology taught us and how can we utilize that knowledge? how can quality education be made available and affordable to everyone? There are many other questions that we need to ask and answer.

    In any case, your article was thought-provoking and challenging.

  2. Thank you for showing me that there are rational Christians out there. I’m pantheist, but that’s pretty beside the point. The important thing is the whole rationalism versus emotionalism thing that you really laid out well here. Emotions do have a good purpose; they’re what makes us feel happy, what motivates us to do things. All too often, the scale of emotionalism and rationalism slips over too far on the emotionalism side in the people I’ve met.

    A while back, I went from christianity to pantheism. It was a rational thing, and it’s fine if people disagree with my reasoning. As long as everyone’s reasoning through the whole thing. My parents, when I told them, both had a definite emotionalist response. My mother moreso than my Dad. My mother broke down in tears, and accused me of doing it because I was “mad at God”. Not so much. I just find some given qualities self-contradictory or unlikely, and in addition to that point, I don’t believe a being that powerful, worthy of praise, needs worship. Anyway, that did spark a running, fairly civil debate with Dad, who took a more rationalist approach to the whole thing. We had some good going back and forth, and both conceded points and picked up on the others.

    But towards the end, it slipped to the emotionalist response. The ending point of his end of the debate was “I think the only way it’s possible is if there’s a flaw in your reasoning I can’t spot. And even though I can’t spot it, I still think you’re wrong.” Which of course doesn’t preclude me from being wrong; it’s just an emotionalist response on his end to stop looking for answers at that point.

    Just a little story of myself. I have nothing against anyone, as long as they can be reasonable and rational. Thank you for another example of someone who can think more than they feel when it’s warranted.

    1. Not a problem. It should be added that it’s probably easier for parents to slip into an emotional response to the news that their child is a pantheist than it is for a stranger. For instance, I read you’re a pantheist and it elicits little emotional response, other than the emotion of sadness for you since I believe you’re missing out on a great relationship with the true Christ. However, I would still be able to have a rational discussion with you because there’s really no emotional connection between us.

      The same is not true for parents, especially when you go against their religion. Not that they’re wrong in doing that either; the emotional response is founded in a love and concern for you. I would say that it’s impossible for them to approach you in a purely rational way and that’s a good thing. While I call for people to be rational (which would include parents to a certain degree) sometimes it is simply impossible given the circumstances. Sometimes that’s not always wrong.

    2. I should add as a side note that I’ve been thinking about writing on pantheism and why it can’t work and what problems it runs up against. If you keep up with this site that post might come soon. Then again, I actually need to finish it first.

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