XIV. The Social Emotions

The social emotions are those tendencies of feeling that are concerned with the welfare of other people and one's relationship to them. We have certain perspectives toward our family, neighbors, community, and nation that derive from our existence as social creatures.

It is not entirely correct to refer to these motions as being altruistic: we have certain social emotions toward those other people who are meaningful or useful to us, in terms of supporting our interests and our survival. We have other social emotions toward other people who are foreign and potentially harmful to ourselves and to the people whom we value - whether we show fear or hatred of them depends on an assessment of their strength. While the object may be another person, our first concern is for our own welfare rather than theirs.

Social emotions are in a broad range, but generally relate to showing sympathy toward others as well as balancing the social contract: we are benign and helpful to others on the assumption they will be benign and helpful to us. Those whom we do not expect to be helpful are not regarded with sympathy, but antipathy and suspicion.

Social emotions are often closely allied with the tenets of morality or religion, and in many instances they are practically identical - but morality and religion are the products of a culture. They are learned values that are supported by and supportive of social emotions. Then notion of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" was a common practice backed by emotions long before the words were written down.

It is also important to make a distinction between people who are guided by their emotions and those who are guided by morality or religion. They may both perform the same actions and profess the same values, but a person guided by emotions does these things because he feels them to be right, whereas a person guided by morality does things because they are expected of him by others. His emotions are unengaged, except perhaps for hope of reward or fear of punishment that will be visited upon him by others. This is the difference between a person who is genuinely good-natured and another who merely acts that way when he is being observed.

Theology explains the moral feelings as being imposed upon man by an external force. Science, meanwhile, shuns the notion of a supernatural origin and considers social emotions to be entirely natural and functional. Our "conscience" is a compound of emotional and intellectual states that combine emotional and learned behaviors.

Our social feelings are not an infallible guide to action - which his the reason that morality does not come naturally - and we are at all times conflicted between serving our personal needs and supporting the needs of the people who support us. Moreover, morality is a product of culture: what is acceptable to one culture is unacceptable to another - and even some things that were considered proper a century ago are now considered to be improper. Morality reflects the social conventions of a code that is specific to a place and time.

He also mentions that a great deal of culture deals with power relationships, demanding that some defer to and serve others who are not required to return their deference or service. Institutions such as slavery, practiced for millennia, are considered abominable to the modern world - but there is still the notion that some people belong to a privileged class and to which others must subordinate themselves- and this practice may itself be considered distasteful to future generations.

But back to the social emotions - they are the soil in which morality is planted, and there seem to be a number of social emotions that are more or less universal: the care given between parent and child, being peaceable toward other members of the family, helping others who are in trouble, and defending friends against enemies seem to be common components of virtually every culture.