Emotion and Responsible Ethics

Ethics, Ten Commandments

The understanding of emotion has always been an integral part of the study of responsible ethics. Ethics tries to define how we should live and what is the “best” life to live. Therefore, it must consider how emotions, via our actions and thoughts, will affect our inner peace and our relationships with others — both friends and enemies.  And of course, the thorny issue of what is the right or wrong emotion. Emotions are judgments of our engagements with the world around us and inside of us. The right or wrong of these judgments is the concern of ethics too.  In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Character is higher than intellect. A great soul will be strong to live as well as think.

Are We Using Emotion, or Responsible Ethics, to Determine Right and Wrong?

Today, we often decide right and wrong by popularity vote. We defend taking such a pole by the argument that we are all free to determine our own standards of right and wrong. And therefore, in a society, we maintain that the majority vote is the only fair resolution of an ethical question. The emotions and arguments we choose to support our opinions, indeed, do decide the issue of right or wrong for us.  And then we use those right/wrong decisions as the justification of our emotions. But right or wrong that is rooted in our own judgments means there are as many rights and wrongs as there are people.  That destroys the concept of right and wrong altogether (a thought some welcome).

Do Our Emotions Always Act In Our Best Interest?

The “other side” would argue that our emotions or judgments are not always in our own best interests or that of society.  And therefore, we should fix standards for right and wrong based on some more just measure. They would point out that in society,  we do not decide road rules, for instance, by one’s emotions or popular vote.  We decide them by safety standards, which are a more objective measure of what is right or wrong. A popular vote would not stand up in a court of law when defending a violation of the road rules. The code of road rules is the standard for determining a violation. A jury must decide whether one has violated a code, not whether the code is right or not.

Does Religion Trump Emotion in Responsible Ethics?

Others refer to God as the arbiter of what is right or wrong.  Hence the introduction of religion into ethics and emotion. When doing so, they introduce absolute standards of right and wrong (like “Thou shalt not steal”).  These, then, guide both individual and societal standards. The measure of right or wrong is simply whether an act of stealing took place or not.

Emotion Can Lead to the Good Life or the Bad Life

Religions have explained the good life.  And the noblest religious ideas have emphasized that the word “good” means what is right or (to use a theological word) “righteous”. If you want to lead a right life (or you want your child to do so), then training yourself or your children to understand the right and appropriate use of emotion is fundamentally important to ethics. Emotion can lead to the good life or the bad life. One is intelligent and the other is not intelligent by ethical standards. Because we are assuming the need for intelligent actions that refrain from damaging ourselves and others, we are studying the need for intelligent emotions.

Responsible Ethics Require “Front Seat” Emotions

For those who believe in God, ethics is finding emotional empowerment from the “upward look.“ It is setting our minds on things above (meaning on God). Some see this commitment resulting in a “passionate inwardness,” as Soren Kierkegaard would have us find truth and God. Whether in the subjectivity of our own hearts and minds or in the outward commitment of a life to love, service, truth, and God — or both — the so-called “good life” reverences and thanks God for the gift of emotion.  And it builds an ethical life with the use of emotion’s powers. Ethics and spirituality are quests in which emotions cannot help but take front and center seats.

For those who do not include the idea of God in their ethics, the good life is living the best life for their own pleasure or success (narcissistic), or living a simple life (another description of the good life).  Or, yet again, spending one’s life in meditation, remote from the cares and demands of this life. Aristotle, the stoics, epicureans, and the existentialists offer their own definitions of ethics, to name just a few. For many, the good life is simply living to satisfy our own desires and interests.  Or more nobly, to be of service to others. The good life, however it is defined, always involves the management of emotions in one way or another.

Our Search for Intelligent Emotions Cannot Neglect Responsible Ethics

But emotions presuppose the need for responsible actions and choices, as we have already noted.  And ethics speaks often of this responsibility, too. All we do to teach ourselves self-mastery of our emotions is rooted in some form of responsibility that is concerned with the need to make wise choices. So the search for intelligent emotions cannot neglect ethics.

You might imagine that people often ask the question “what is an intelligent emotion in the coaching room. We can leave it to the client’s own convictions (which must, of course, be respected).  And we can, when asked, also give some guidance from the point of view of the effects of an emotion on us and others.

“Why was I castigated for expressing my emotions?” Rose asked. “I had a right to defend myself and how I feel.  And all I did was raise my voice a little.  And maybe I called him a few names I shouldn’t have.  But I have a right to what I think.” Her defense went on for a few minutes and it was soon evident that the “defense” had caused a serious breach in a relationship she treasured.

INTELLIGENT Emotions Require Responsible Ethics

What is unintelligent, at times, about defending our rights or expressing our anger? If we work from the premise that we are the only ones we can change and that we are responsible for what results from our actions, then there is an answer to this perplexing question.  It goes like this:

An intelligent (though not necessarily a right or wrong) use of our emotions will achieve the result we want. Did Rose want to damage her relationship with Caleb? She said she did not. Did she feel that there might have been a better way to engage him over her feelings? Her answer: “Perhaps, but I acted in the moment and didn’t give it any thought. I just followed the path of my hurt and anger.” That can lead to the use of unintelligent emotions because it opposes the goal she wanted to achieve. We should also add: intelligent emotions will lead us to consider a path that is good for us and for others.

What could Rose have done?

Well, the first path will take a little learning.  But it is well worth the effort. She could have used the skills of intelligent emotions.

Step one: When emotionally challenged, always call a “time out” to allow yourself to think. Halt the rampage of your emotions. Walk out of the room, if needed.  Or turn your back to think.

Step two: Ask yourself a simple question, “What is the best thing for me to do?” “Best” can include what achieves our goal and what is in line with our values or the right and wrong we believe in. We can challenge our emotions to be consistent with our standards.

When we pause and force ourselves to think, we cool (to a large extent) the emotion that is clambering for our action.  And we stop it from dominating our judgments. We also gain a measure of self-control.

This works once you have practiced it on all the little occasions when you are only slightly disturbed, gaining for yourself the feeling that you can do it. Sometimes you will fail.  But not to fail is only for perfect people.  And there are not many of them around. Emotion is not physical and, therefore, not easy to grasp. These two steps are a way to grasp it and stop its domination of us, giving us time to evaluate it.

What If  You Fail?

And what if Rose were to fail to seize the emotion and think? Ah! There is always a great alternative, a path still open to her, I suggested. It can be humbling.  But who does not benefit from that from time to time? Rose could ask for forgiveness (which is an honorable path) and seek, after failure, to pursue the intelligent goal of restoring her place in his mind as a person of integrity, even if not a perfect person.

What Is the Role of Responsible Ethics in Intelligent Emotions?

Ethics is concerned with goals and the means to those goals. Intelligence is in finding the best way to achieve our goals and the tools to those goals that, if we include ethics, do not damage others or us — in fact, benefits both. It is hard for me to conceive of intelligence without ethics to guide it. Those goals and the means to the goals must find a path through the maze of our emotions or they fail to achieve wisdom.

We cannot avoid the effect that emotion has on all ethical beliefs or philosophies. I bring my own presuppositions to the discussion.  Because of my Christian persuasions, I see the use of intelligent emotions as vital in the cause of bringing love, peace, and joy to our own hearts, to all our relationships, and to our world.  The question of what is right and what is wrong will always be an emotional as well as a rational and spiritual issue.


Intelligently Emotional Book CoverMy hope is that this book will lead you, as its content has led many others, to be intelligently emotional. If it helps you to develop the intelligent use of your emotions and a rewarding lifestyle, my labor will not have been in vain.  You can access it HERE.  If you are subscribed to our weekly updates, our next issue will provide a link to purchase it with a 15% discount and free shipping.





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