I’ll admit it. I am distraught about guns killing children in this country. And that’s not a bad thing.
Some are saying that this isn’t the time to have a rational discussion about guns because people are too emotional right now. I disagree. Emotion is exactly what we need in this conversation.
Philosopher Mary Midgley points out the fallacy in thinking that emotions should play no part in discussions about important issues. As she says in her essay “Emotion, Emotiveness, and Sentimentality,” the assumption is that strong feelings are detrimental to ethics because they are not rational and thus compromise our thinking. Emotions are a luxury we can’t afford; they are biased and sensational.
But these assumptions are incorrect. Midgley counters that emotion is absolutely necessary for ethical discernment because feelings have a critical function. They are the powerhouse of ethics. “Strong feeling is fully appropriate to well-grounded belief on important subjects,” she explains. As a matter of fact, we cannot avoid emotions because “all belief involves feeling.”
For example, if you believe you have a right to own AR-15s and stockpile ammunition, you obviously have very strong feelings that fuel this belief. Similarly, my belief that the right to unfettered access to guns does not trump my right to life is also fueled by very strong feelings. What we need to do is understand the emotions that compel us to take our particular stances. Even more important is learning to discern if those feelings are being manipulated or used by those in power to maintain their control or push a certain agenda.
Propaganda, for instance, uses emotion to manipulative. The National Rifle Association — and the politicians who are paid by them —are masters at using propaganda. Their consistent messaging to gun owners is: “They want to take away your guns, your freedom, your ability to protect yourself and your family.” This plays on the fears of a certain segment of the population. This, in turn, compels those folks to act and vote in certain ways.
The end result is that the gun industry reaps enormous financial gains from people purchasing more guns. And the politicians (including the current resident in the Oval Office, whose campaign enjoyed a $30-million NRA investment) who block measures to regulate guns are rewarded and upheld in their positions of power.
The question is not whether emotion should inform our discussion, says Midgley. The question is this: is the use of emotion suitable? In other words, if an appeal to emotion is done for the wrong reasons or through questionable methods, then it is not appropriate.
When supporters of the gun industry and gun culture attempt to cast aspersions on those who want common-sense gun regulations (such as stricter background checks and bans on assault rifles) by playing the “too emotional” card, be suspicious — there may be an ulterior motive. The aim is to silence us, shame us, question our intelligence, and divert attention away from what’s really at stake the lives of children, women and men who are mercilessly gunned down every day in this country.
It’s a distraction from the real issue that we’re trying to address — the monstrous, immoral, unethical atrocity of the gun culture in this country that is killing thousands of people every year.
As Midgely reminds us: “Feeling is not going to take us out of the moral universe. It is not possible to keep two independent systems of values — one aesthetic or emotional and the other rational or moral — and prevent their ever meeting.” Rather, feeling is integral to determining what is right.
Feelings are not a luxury, they are a necessity for morality. So you can be sure when it comes to protecting those most vulnerable, including my own children, I will be emotional. Those feelings are exactly what we need to find our moral courage and take action for the common good.
Leah D. Schade is a professor at Lexington Theological Seminary and author of Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.