13 February 2020

The emotional value of things

The emotional value of things

Emotions are a key subject in philosophy, and how philosophers have accounted for emotions reflects the sort of thinking and mind sets at a given time or period in history. What has not changed about emotions is that they are motivators for actions.

“Things”, to distinguish from people, are a class of objects that we can direct our emotions and a cause for our emotions-based actions. To make our subject more manageable I shall only discuss the topic within the context of material things or objects. Even though ideology and beliefs affect us more emotionally and we attach more emotions to them than chattels and trinkets.

The class of material things is also wide and large. We have things that we inherit from those dear to us, presents and gifts, things we find in the streets, souvenirs, things we collected over the years, things we buy, and so on. The most important aspect of the emotions we link with these things is that the emotional value is not measured in terms of money even though the thing itself might have a monetary valuable. And the second thing about the emotional value we place on a thing is a subjective value. How I feel about some object is not a feeling others are expected to have or suppose to have.

More importantly, how I feel about something does not have to conform to some rational or reasonable criteria. And this is a problem when considering some theory of value which is an important issue in economics. In a way, an emotional value of a thing is a twofold criterion. The first is that we attach subjective criteria which in all probability others cannot have the same experience. How we react to the loss (or gain) of something is purely subjective even if two people demonstrate the same behaviour towards a thing. The other subjective criteria are the reasons and psychological process for attaching some emotional value to a thing.

The consequence of this is that it is difficult to attach an objective monetary value to an object and secondly any attempt to give a monetary value to an object with an emotional value attached to it is bound to fail. Consider a case of two car thefts except one car is a company car and the second car was a gift from a parent before the parent died. Surely we expect that a person who lost the gift would attach more emotional value to the car than they would to the company car.

Indeed, a loss of a thing we attach some emotional value has more than just a mourning value of a loss, more importantly we feel violated especially if it is something that was stolen from us.

This has two consequences in real life. The first is that emotions can be manipulated to attach a false emotion to a product as part of a marketing ploy. In such cases companies use a range of tool to evoke the right emotions, images, language and music. The objective is to emphasise the emotional content they want consumers to attach to a product hoping that they will buy the product. The emotional language can include such concepts as status symbol, exclusive, intelligence, health, simple, easy, cheap, excellence, German engineering, choice, children, family, and, in some cases, a very high price might itself be used to evoke emotions of status and exclusivity. This wouldn’t be so bad if what we are talking about are cars, perfume and dresses.

However, this is the very technique some companies use and have used to push cigarettes, drinks with high levels of sugar, unhealthy additives in fast foods and high level of salts in snacks. This suggests that our emotions are also vulnerable to external manipulation; the irony is that it seems that our vulnerability is due to the limits of our rational reasoning. The very same problem philosopher and other have complained about emotions all these centuries.

The second consequence is that, as I have argued, when we attach an emotional value to an object we give it a “property” this it is difficult for others to quantify. In the case of the stolen gift car we cannot say that we received full restitution even if the insurance pays us the full value of a new car and the offender jailed by the authorities. It seems that when we endow an emotional value to an object we are giving it a value on a par with what economists call an “intrinsic value” but a value enjoyed by one person i.e. us. An intrinsic value is a value of the object itself, a gold ring would have an intrinsic value of the gold. And in a way justice is also denied to us because once the object has been violated there is no restitution of the full “value” of the object. The courts can restore a monetary value but how can they restore an emotional value?

Our issue, therefore, is first and foremost how do we attach an emotional value to some things or objects but not others? The second issue is how can we restore an emotional value to an object when that value is purely subjective and exclusive to us?

Best Lawrence

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From Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: The emotional value of things

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