What Do We Mean by ‘Destructive’ Emotions? (Part One)

What Do We Mean by ‘Destructive’ Emotions? (Part One)


This philosophical dialogue between Western and Buddhist perspectives examines when negative emotions become ‘destructive’ -that is, do harm. The discussion should surface implicit cultural differences-and points of agreements-in the most basic assumptions underlying our exploration. The philosophical perspective will serve as a counter-point to the scientific presentations throughout the week. The discussion from the Western perspective will touch on at least two traditions. First there is Western moral philosophy, long concerned with the destructive potential of emotions, as well as with the betterment of these human traits. In the Christian tradition of St. Augustine and St. Ignatius, for example, this manifests as spiritual exercises for moral improvement. In the later secular tradition, ethicists have addressed the issue in terms of ethical training based on rationality, democracy, and education. The second Western philosophical dimension deals with the biological underpinnings of emotion, as studied by scientists in fields such as psychology, neuroscience and ethology. From these perspectives, emotions are complex, raising issues that range from their chemical basis to their social determinants. Recent work in philosophy has dealt with issues such as the rationality of emotions, and the emotionality of reasoning (in other words, seeing emotion not as the coloring of thought, but an inseparable unity with it). However, philosophers of mind have dealt little with the issue at hand: the destructive potential of emotions.

The Buddhist treatment of emotions is almost entirely phenomenological in nature, focusing on first-hand experience rather than on the biological underpinnings of emotions. The Buddhist term that corresponds most closely to II destructive emotion” is “Klesha/’ which is commonly translated as “mental affliction.” Kleshas are not simply distressful emotions, but are disturbances of the mind’s equilibrium that stem from ignorance. The fundamental mental affliction is delusion, whereby one reifies one’s own personal identity as absolutely separate from others. The emotions aroused on the basis of such reification are not all afflictive, let alone destructive; some can be positive. While Buddhist psychology includes a detailed analysis of a wide range of primary and secondary mental afflictions, they all stem from the “three poisons” of delusion, craving, and hostility, which are the source of all personal misery and interpersonal conflict. The most obviously destructive of these three mental impulses is hostility-but in their own way, so are craving and delusion. Buddhism holds a remarkable hypothesis: none of the afflictions are intrinsic to the mind, but are obscurations that can be irreversibly eliminated in lasting freedom, or Nirvana. Thus the Buddhist view of destructive emotions is set within a broader psychological and philosophical framework.

  • Dialogue 8
    11 sessions
  • March 20, 2000
    Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India
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Owen Flanagan

Owen Flannagan is James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Chair, Professor of Psychology-Experimental, and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University. In 1999-2000, Dr. Flanagan held the Romanell Phi Beta Kappa Professorship awarded by the national Phi Beta Kappa office to an American philosopher for distinguished contributions to philosophy and to the public understanding of philosophy. Dr. Flanagan works primarily on the mind-body problem, moral psychology, and the conflict between the scientific and the humanistic image of persons.