Feelings are not reality

On his appointment to the US Supreme Court in 1939 Justice William O. Douglas was told by the then Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes that:

‘You must remember one thing. At the constitutional level where we work, 90 percent of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reasons for supporting our predilections.’ 

New York Times 2 January 1983.

It is a challenging idea, perhaps even a shocking one. It is hard to imagine anyone in public life speaking with such honesty and wisdom in today’s angry, divisive polity, though it illuminates some of the Court’s recent decisions

But Hughes’ thought has more than judicial implications. Most court proceedings are concerned with determinations of fact but the constitutional level considers questions that are essentially philosophical: what is true, what is right, what is moral? Hughes recognises the importance of feelings, beliefs and values in how human beings interpret reality, and the relative weakness of reason in affecting those interpretations. That seems evident of those we call fanatics because their beliefs inspire actions that are not only horrific, but obviously (to us) unreasonable. We cannot accept that their actions might appear reasonable to them because their feelings, beliefs and values lead them to interpret reality differently.

Are human beings therefore destined to live always with division, conflict, incomprehension and violence? It’s hard to change the world, but we can change our minds—and when we do, everything else starts to change too. Understanding how our feelings shape our own ideas and actions would be a good start. That means paying attention to them as mental phenomena, rather than fixed truths about ourselves. Perhaps then we could use the ‘rational part of us’ to question rather than justify those feelings, and to see that we must engage with the feelings of those who oppose us, if we hope they might change too.

My photo above shows the Four Course in Dublin, home to the Supreme Court of Ireland

One comment

Comments are closed.