Emotion is not a measure of truth and morality

If we are to make wise decisions, we must beware of a tendency to move with our feelings


Maya Angelou (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for AWRT)

July 10, 2024 09:52

The American poet and civil rights leader Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” For better or worse, this is true. We tend to make decisions about people based on what we feel about them as opposed to what they say or do. It is a tricky problem because emotions are not the best measure of truth and morality. We fall into moral confusion when, for example, we do not recognise that nice people and good people are not the same.

Last Shabbat we read the story of Korach’s attempted coup against his cousin, Aaron the High Priest. Korach insisted that there was no need for the priesthood, as “the entire nation was holy with God in their midst”. Although Korach’s rebellion was ostensibly the assertion of a rival political philosophy, it was nonetheless evident to Moses and Aaron that what was driving him was jealousy.

Moses exposes this by offering to discuss the issues with his group. But reasoned-based assessments were of no interest and they flatly declined the invitation. Despite the opportunities they had to properly present the moral merits of their approach, they instead chose silence. The result was fatal.

Lately, we have had to become more used to protests. People are upset with the world order and its leaders. This year, 50 countries will hold elections. While much of Europe is flirting with far-right candidates in a way we have not seen in recent years, the UK has voted for a Labour government. Perhaps what is motivating these changes is less a carefully-reasoned assessment of issues and more an emotionally-driven urge for change?

Upon what foundations do we base these decisions? Are we not acting on our fear, anger, sadness and anxiety? Perhaps. But while it would be wrong to argue that we should not pay attention to these feelings it is also wrong to make decisions – especially moral ones – solely based upon them.

Today there is an increasing tendency, particularly among the young, to consider “truth” more poetically, metaphorically and emotionally. One reason for this is because information is increasingly embedded in the decontextualised context of an Instagram or TikTok post. While these tell you what the circumstance means to “me”, they do not lend themselves to considering the moral or factual realities. The algorithms behind these platforms only exacerbate the issue by selecting other content that re-enforces what has just been watched.

Over-exposure to this ultimately leads to situations such as the anti-Israel encampments on university campuses where what is perceived to be right may never have been subject to any objective scrutiny, just the one-sided perspective repeatedly shown on social media.

What predominantly drives these protests is emotion, not fact-based thought. And when one’s emotions are negative, being surrounded by others who feel the same way only drives further negativity and lack of objectivity. Emotions are an important part of the human experience. But they are not fact. They may represent my truth or my reality; but they do not necessarily represent the truth or the reality.

Unless we understand our feelings and what drives them, we are bound to be influenced by them in decision-making. If I know I am angry, I can begin to consider why and carefully decide whether my anger is overly affecting my view on the most wise and moral path forward.

If Korach had paused to honestly and consciously identify the jealousy that he was feeling towards Aaron and consider where it was coming from, the story may have had a more positive ending. Instead, it drove him to his death. The Torah formally warns us: “Don’t be like Korach and his party.” One aspect of that is not to act predominantly out of emotion.

The responsibility for choice that has been placed in the hands of the citizens of modern democracies is laden with immense consequences. It assumes that placing the weight of decisions with the people is better than its alternative. But, as Benjamin Franklin said: “Only a virtuous people can be free.”

If we are to choose morally and wisely, we must be conscious of our tendency to base our decisions on how we feel. The most important decisions need to favour wisdom and thought over feelings. Great leaders like Moses knew this. We would do well to follow his example.

Rabbi Dweck is the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the UK

July 10, 2024 09:52

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