Try Living Without Emotion

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The hubbub over Judge Sotomayor centers as much on her mental processes as it does on her legal positions. Fueled by the remarks of the President stating that he was looking for Justices that could put themselves in the shoes of others and by his use of the word, empathy, a few earlier remarks of Sotomayor's has created a firestorm.

Credit David Brooks with writing his column arguing for a sensible way of understanding empathy and the role of emotion in the way we think and act. If you can put the immediate political context of this subject aside for a moment, let me try to connect what he has said to sustainability. Brooks' central argument is that emotion is that part of our cognitive machinery that reveals to us and others what we care about.

People without emotions cannot make sensible decisions because they don’t know how much anything is worth. People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.

Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world.

The standard argument against emotion has been developing for hundreds of years, beginning with the Enlightenment philosophers who were building the case for reason and rationality. For them, reason trumped emotion. Kant wrote, "To be subject to emotions and passions is probably always an illness of the mind because both emotion and passion exclude the sovereignty of reason." More recent research, using methods unavailable to Kant and others, finds reason and emotion coexisting, residing in different parts of the nervous system.

Excluding emotion as a legitimate basis for human action is part of the roots of unsustainability. Without emotion, we lose the central driver of caring, and see everything through a context-free set of senses. Further, every individual is presumed to have the same rationality circuitry wired in the brain. And even further, that circuitry is supposedly programmed to maximize the utility of everything we do. Our actions are guided by the facts of the world, and if we err it is because we have distorted these facts through an emotional lens. Ultimately, with this conceptual model, we become machinelike and see the world only as material to feed into our utilitarian calculus. That's why, in this much abbreviated argument, we become “havers”, not beings, and have created our hyper-consuming culture. We now see the effects of this culture on the world, and are turning to find sustainability.

Humberto Maturana, who I often draw upon, says that emotion is the most fundamental of human traits. It is what makes us distinctively human. We learn about caring from the moment of birth. We continue to add emotional content to our bodies as we encounter life and make choices and invent ways to cope. Maturana also argues that the most fundamental emotion of all is love, which he says is the complete acceptance of and caring for others for what they are, not because there is something you want from them. Love and the social nature of human consciousness are intimately intermingled. Without love there could be no social interaction with people or anything out there. It is from these interactions that we learn how to live. Most of our actions are based on this learning. It is only when we encounter an unfamiliar scene that we fall back on "reason."

Those who fault Sotomayor or anyone for acting in the context of empathy or out of emotion misses the point. The actions that underpin the competence of the actor have come from these sources. Emotion is what makes Sotomayor and others effective judges, according to standards that bear on real life. It's not that individual cases are decided on emotional grounds; it's that the basic care that always accompanies real competence springs from emotion, not reason. Those who argue for some completely objective process may end up with a result completely consistent with the body of laws, according to their "theory,” but largely divorced from life experience. Even in this case, their stance can be traced back to some emotional foundation, indicating more care for some abstraction called law, rather than for the people for whom the law is designed to serve. It is the same sort of technocratic behavior that has created much of the unsustainability appearing everywhere. Only when we begin to care again will we be able to work our way toward sustainability. Our leaders need to understand that both reason and emotion are critical in solving big and small problems. It’s only when one of these modes of being pushes the other completely out that we get into deep trouble.

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1 Comments

Burr Deming said:

In fairness, we should consider the arguments against the judge.