Love, hate, fear, envy. We all feel emotions. We've all experienced them. We know what they are and how they affect us. The primary questions in philosophy is what causes them, and how can they be used. The first answers the second.

Emotions are caused by one's thoughts. They are both triggered by one's thoughts and programmed by one's thoughts. The triggering is straightforward to show. Hearing the words "rape", "murder", "death", or "genocide", etc., one experiences an emotion. Hearing the same words in an unknown language, the words would be meaningless. One wouldn't be able to make the mental connection between the sounds and the meaning of the words. The emotions that one normally feels with respect to these words would not be present. Only understanding can trigger an emotion.

A further example is that of a gunman. If someone burst into a room with a gun, the people present would probably feel fear. However, if one didn't know what a gun was, you wouldn't make the connection, and wouldn't experience the fear. The emotion is only triggered when understanding of the situation is present.

We know that understanding triggers the emotion. This doesn't explain the particular emotion, though. Why do we feel fear when we see the gunman, but joy when we see a baby walk for the first time? The answer is the same as why understanding is required to trigger the emotion. The emotion is a response to our understanding of the situation. Emotions are triggered by particular beliefs. Fear is based on a belief that one's life is in danger. Pleasure is experienced when one believes a value has been achieved. Each emotion is a particular response to a certain kind of judgment.

Emotions are automated responses. When one sees the gunman, one doesn't need to follow the full chain of thought to the judgment that causes the emotion. The emotion occurs almost immediately after the gunman is seen. This is because of an automatized judgment: the judgment that life is worth living and death is to be feared. The gunman triggers this emotion when one realized that one's life is threatened. The evaluation of whether life is good isn't made at that time. It was made before.

Since emotions are automatic responses to previous value judgments, it is possible that the response is not proper. If the original judgment was faulty, the emotion will be faulty as well. For instance, one may hate a stepfather because one believes him to be trying to steal one's mother. Later in life, the emotion may still be triggered when one sees the stepfather, even if one no longer believes the cause to be true anymore. Similarly, if the original judgment no longer applies, neither does the emotion. Finally, it is possible to trigger an emotion out of the original context. One may properly hate a man for his actions, but another man with similarities may improperly trigger that same emotion.

Because emotions are automatic responses and thus fallible, they should not be taken at face value. They should be compared to one's reasoned thoughts and if a conflict occurs, one should attempt to resolve why the conflict exists. One should try to understand why the emotion is being triggered and whether it is correct. It is possible that the emotion is correct, and the reasoning false, due to an oversight. But the two should be resolved carefully, and if the emotion is incorrect, one should attempt to change one's automatic response.

With a proper understanding of how emotions are formed, it can be seen that they serve a purpose for lightning fast value judgments which enable faster responses to time-critical situations and, as automatic responses, they can give useful insights to complicated problems. But emotions should never be taken at face value. They need to be validated with reason to insure that they are proper.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Landauer and Joseph Rowlands