Conflicting emotions.

I’ve engaged in mini-debates related to this on Twitter and Facebook for the past two days now, and decided it was time to formulate my thoughts here a little more formally.

The actual question Luke asks is an interesting one, but it quickly descended into skepticism about the possibility of conflicting emotions, which is the issue I want to address here.

It seems clear, then, that one can experience a conflict of emotions and judgements. For instance, a mother may love her son despite believing that she ought not to because her son is a bad person. But that’s not a case of conflicting emotions. An emotional conflict would involve love being conjoined with an emotion like hate, which at least appears to be a contradiction.

Now, obviously you can love and hate some thing or person in relation to different properties. You can love your spouse’s laugh and hate her habit of biting her nails. But what I doubt is the possibility of loving and hating someone on a foundational level. That is, if we take all the different respects in which we love or hate someone and thereby arrive at an all things considered judgement of the form “I ___ this person, period”, I doubt that the gap can be filled with both the words love and hate.

It seems intuitions are split on this. My sister, for instance, reacted by saying it was perfectly possible. My mother didn’t. But I think after a little reflection on the meaning of an all things considered judgement, we can see that an emotional conflict on this level is not possible. And that’s because of what an all things considered judgement is. It means that a decisive conclusion has been reached which seems to preclude the possibility of a contradiction. To reach this stage is to pick which emotion ultimately outweighs the other. In that sense, being able to love and hate someone would be equivalent to concluding something is both good and bad. Again, something may be both of these things in respect to different properties. But to label something good, period, is to say the good aspects outweigh the bad. Similarly, to say simply that you love someone is to say that you do not hate them.


4 thoughts on “Conflicting emotions.

  1. Nice! I think we have similar intuitions about this. I wonder how whatever emotion prevails as your “overall” feeling about a particular person is determined. Would it be something like this: “I hate things about my spouse. For example, she bites her nails and listens to Justin Bieber, and I hate nail biting and Justin Bieber music. But I love so much about her that my love trumps the hate.”

    Does this sound right, and if so, is there a worry with adding up the features that one hates versus loves about a person to reach the overall feeling? This seems similar to how some philosophers like to determine the overall right action, and Shelly Kagan wrote a great paper called the “additive analysis” that raises worries with the adding features approach in the case of moral judgments. What of emotional judgments? Is love something that can be determined by weighing loveable features against hateable features?

    And just to address Gordon’s example: it doesn’t seem that anger and fear contradict each other in the way that love and hatred too. We certainly want to make sense of cases where a person is experiencing more than one emotion, and it is common that fear and anger accompany each other. I might be terrified that my boyfriend will break up with me, and so I will also become jealous when I feel threatened (i.e. fearful) when he is around other attractive women. But love and hate are opposites, we seem to think. So this seems to be where intuitions divide.

    • I do wonder how analysable and codifiable the process of weighing up reasons and arriving at ATC judgements really is. Reading Parfit at the moment probably has a lot to do with this hunch, but I imagine it’s impossible to probe that process too deeply, even though it’s totally understandable and real. *Obviously* hating someone’s nail-biting habit could never be a reason to hate someone simpliciter. But what is it about hatred and reasons that makes this the case? I’m not sure what there is to say!

  2. I find this really interesting – I think Philosophy and Psychiatry often see similar things from very different perspectives (and often I don’t really understand the Philosophy perspective on things).

    Assuming Love is an emotion … I’m not convinced it is the result of an entirely rational and conscious appraisal of another person. I suspect loving someone has as much to do with subconscious and irrational processes, such as looking or behaving in certain ways, or even of reminding someone of another person. I’m also not convinced it is either an all or nothing phenomenon, or dichotomous with hate.

    I was thinking about the love someone has as an adult for a parent, particularly when that parent has been less than perfect as a parent. Often, I think, the grown-up child will love the parent, but have feelings of hatred also. Feelings of loyalty, or other complex feelings can make thinking negative thoughts about the parent very difficult, but the person may not be able to unambiguously love the parent because of what they may have done. The child may love their parent, but also hate them. The conflicted feelings may be for specific things about that parent, but often not for easily identifiable aspects. Of course Klein had a lot to say about the ways a child might learn to integrate parents into an individual who has both good and bad features :o) Controversially, it’s been suggested people can entirely repress memories of bad experiences as a way to avoid conscious conflict.

    Coming back to the original question, this may be why conflicted emotions (if they exist) are experienced as negative, rather than it being about the existence of norms. Often they may result from unresolved and very difficult experiences about people for whom the emotional attachments are very strong, and about whom certain feelings are difficult to contemplate.

    Not sure if that makes sense?

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