Are Emotions Universal?

by Jennifer Hickey, Esq., Postdoctoral Fellow, Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative

polar bears cuddling
image via

A recently published essay, “United by Feelings,” explores the idea that the basic emotional structure of the mind is a biological fact universal to all mammals. The authors reject the “constructionist” view that human emotions are not innate and are merely contextual interpretations of bodily sensations. Constructionists theorize that our minds categorize feelings into emotions that appear instinctual because we do not have conscious access to this mental categorization. For example, if your stomach is churning while you are in a bakery, your brain may perceive this as hunger, while in a hospital waiting room, your brain may label the feeling as worry. The emotion is cognitively constructed based upon the circumstances. In this sense, constructionists believe that emotions are “learned” through cultural experience.

The essay’s authors are proponents of affective science, which offers a different view. They submit that deep emotions are not conceptually constructed. Rather, all mammals share seven primary emotions which evolved to aid survival: fear, lust, care, play, rage, seeking, and panic/grief. These emotions are then filtered through three levels of the mind, which produce subtle distinctions across cultures and individuals. The evolution of the mind is thus a story of how these layers developed and formed a “feedback loop” that is “not strictly a brain process, but an embodied, enactive, embedded, and sociocultural process.”

This affective/emotional approach allows us to fully consider the role and contribution of feelings in perception, thinking, decision-making, and social behavior. Rather than idealizing rational thought and portraying emotions as mere complications that disrupt or corrupt reason, we can begin to examine the true contributions that emotions have made to human achievement. Indeed, the authors point out that the advances of the complex tool industry and the evolution of human family structures could not have happened without parallel advances in the emotional life of man.

How should this idea of universal emotion influence law and policy? Vulnerability theory asks us to imagine a state responsive to the fact that, as embodied beings that are constantly susceptible to changes in our physical and social well-being, we are all universally vulnerable. This “vulnerable subject” stands in sharp contrast to the traditional legal subject, assumed to be an autonomous, independent, and self-sufficient actor. This autonomous liberal subject is also presumed completely rational.

Rationality is privileged in our legal and political systems as well as in our social and cultural institutions. The derogatory label of “emotional” is often placed upon individuals thought to be acting in a manner contrary to intellectual and social norms that idealize the rational actor. At the same time, scholars of the interdisciplinary field of Law and Emotions highlight that legal decision-making is permeated with implicit assumptions about emotions that are considered natural responses and are thus “rational” rather than “emotional.” This negative perception of emotions is rooted in neoliberal thought. If, as the essay suggests, emotions are a universally inherent aspect of our shared embodiment, akin to our bones and organs, are we destroying our concept of shared humanity by continuing to perpetuate the myth that making decisions based on emotion is undesirable?

What does it mean to say we are equally emotional on a biological level; that our emotions are not fundamentally a product of our cultural experiences? Assumptions are often made about the level of rationality of certain gender, ethnic and racial groups, leading to discrimination sometimes deemed impermissible by a legal system focused on identifying and segmenting humans into discrete populations. For example, pervasive stereotypes of women as inherently more “emotional” creatures have cast doubt on women’s abilities to fulfill leadership roles and make appropriate (i.e. “rational”) decisions on behalf of employers. Might an understanding of universal emotions enable a more holistic approach to ensuring substantive equality? Further, could this understanding help reduce the stigma associated with recognizing and compensating emotional injury and providing the emotional resources needed to achieve resilience?

          Approaching the legal subject as an emotional one raises interesting questions about how the law should apply to both children and animals as well. It has long been debated whether animals should be treated as “property” within the legal system. Similarly, children are offered limited legal protections and privilege is placed on the parent’s “ownership” of the child. Redefining our view of humanity as primarily based on our shared ancestral emotions provides us with an opportunity to view childhood as an inevitable developmental stage in the life of the vulnerable subject, rather than viewing children (or animals) as lesser beings due to their limited cognitive and linguistic abilities.

          As embodied beings, we are emotional beings. And if this essay’s theories are correct, we share a common set of emotions that unite us all.  Such insights provide an exciting opportunity to revisit our concept of shared humanity and envision a state responsive to our universal vulnerability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.