Ethical Values vs Emotional Desires

I was doing homework and came across this in my text. It’s what I learned the hard way and have been trying to explain to all the women in my life. It’s too good not to share!

Other than the most rigid people, most people will find themselves caught in a tug-of-war between their ethical standards and their emotional desires, or feelings, with the latter often leading to some breaking down of moral behavior at some point in their lives. I have a counseling practice, and I often tell my clients that feelings and emotions are like the interior design of a house–moving and poignant, even beautiful at times–but only truly useful if protected by the exterior and structure of the house–the walls and roof, which are the framework, like our ethical standards, values, and principles. Thus, although human beings are certainly emotional beings, individuals with high character are not driven to act solely on the basis of their desires and passions.

In fact, individuals who are motivated primarily by emotions are often emotionally unstable, not because their emotions are wrong, but because their values and principles are not well enough defined and/or developed to contain or regulate their emotions, oftentimes leading to the inability to control their impulses. For instance, an employee might become angry with his boss and feel like striking him, but the employee doesn’t because he values nonviolence. A person’s ethical values should then be the rudder of behavior, and although there are certainly times when people will be driven by passion, or will need to follow their hunches, emotions and desires serve people best when they aren’t chief in the decision-making process.

Another reason why it is important to understand the relationship between our ethical values and our emotions is because we often use our emotions to justify our unethical behavior. Cheating on a test is wrong, unless he test is too hard and we hate our teacher; adultery is wrong unless we’re in a loveless marriage, are extremely lonely, and fall hopelessly in love with someone else; lying is wrong, unless we need the day off and will only get paid if we say we’re sick, even though we’re not; violence is wrong, unless we’re provoked; and drinking too much alcohol is wrong, unless we’ve gone two weeks without and just had a very bad day. Thus, one of the primary functions of ethical values is to keep us on a good moral track, particularly when we find our ethical values at odds with our emotional desires and urges. Certainly there are times when emotions should lead, and we certainly do not want to become heartless in our application of rules. When someone is driven to act solely on the basis of their values or rules, they are often deemed rigid legalists. But when someone behaves in a manner that is solely driven by their feelings and desires, they are often deemed immature, volatile, and impulsive.

Martin, M.E. (2011). Introduction to Human Services: Through the Eyes of Practice Settings, (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


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