Could it be regarded as either right or wrong from being tied to either positive or negative connotations?

See: On “Positive” and “Negative” Emotions by Robert C. Solomon and Lori D. Stone

  • 1
    "People really struggle with the question of whether their feelings are right or wrong. Wrong question! Feelings are neither — they just are". Psychology Today.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 8:32
  • Emotion Can be described by Changing Consciousness. We have two types of emotion: Conscious Emotion and Unconscios Emotion. But if you assume , Emotion is relative!, then the meaning of positive Emotion can be much complicated . So you need to solve the problem of "positivity" of relative emotion in vertical and horizontal direction. Relative emotion can be described by the problem of Changing in Relative Concept of Consciousness.
    – user47436
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 10:29
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    – J D
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 22:32
  • I think my sources - Hume, Brentano, and Bernard Williams - count as reputable.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Oct 26, 2020 at 10:49

7 Answers 7


Short Answer

But can emotions be “right” or “wrong”?

Yes, depending on one's metaphysics.

Long Answer

In Catholic theology, the venial and mortal sins specifically list emotions that are both wrong and forbidden. Indeed, a case can be made that 'lust' is arguably the most religiously regulated emotional impulse. While not recognized as emotions in the same way a behaviorist might define them, nonetheless they were considered "evil thoughts" by theologians and still are addressed in Catholic confessional. From WP:

Gula (gluttony)
Luxuria/Fornicatio (lust, fornication)
Avaritia (avarice/greed)
Tristitia (sorrow/despair/despondency)
Ira (wrath)
Acedia (sloth)
Vanagloria (vainglory)
Superbia (pride, hubris)

Indeed, coveting thy neighbor's wife is one of the prohibitions given under Mosaic law.

As an athiest, of course, my personal metaphysical presuppositions align nicely with emotions from a perspective of cognitive science where using a much lesser judgmental lingo, behaviors are seen in the context of functionality in society granting wide-latitude in interpretation of cultural context. A very prominent of example of this language is embodied by the necessary and sufficient criteria of having a personality disorder as addressed by the DSM-5. Conifold's quotation above:

"People really struggle with the question of whether their feelings are right or wrong. Wrong question! Feelings are neither — they just are". Psychology Today. – Conifold Oct 15 at 8:32

reflects this sort of value-neutralized stance towards emotion that are often used to build a patient-therpaist relationship, although therapists of all stripes conform to general legal, ethical, and moral norms in their society.

To close, whether or not emotions can be right or wrong is derived from your metaphysical value-theoretic orientation.


As a mere psychological occurrence, an emotion cannot be right or wrong. Hume caught this point when he observed that as 'original existences', mere psychological states or happenings, emotions (or 'passions' as he called them) are not 'representative' - reportive or descriptive - of any state of affairs and therefore cannot be true or false, right or wrong. However, there are three further angles on emotions.

  1. Under an identifying description, such as 'envy' or 'jealousy' or 'pity', an emotion can be right or wrong in the sense of being ethically correct or incorrect, morally appropriate or inapppropriate, something which it right or wrong (morally desirable or morally undesirable) for us to have or at least to act on.

  2. An emotion can be wrong, morally wrong, if it is misdirected. If I am angry with X and extend my anger to Y, who has no connection with the situation, then anger is a wrong emotion to direct at Y.

  3. We are defective as moral agents if we do not experience certain emotions in particular situations. For instance, pity and anger are the right emotions to have and to act on if we see people torturing someone else. In context such emotions are ethically correct, hence right.


F. Brentano, The True and the Evident, London: Routledge, 1966 (1st ed., German, 1889): 21-2, 147, 151-2, 182 on the 'correctness' of emotions.

D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford: 1978 (originally 1739-40): II.3.3 & III.I.1: 415, 458.

Bernard Williams, 'Morality and the Emotions', Problems of the Self, Cambridge: CUP, ch. 13: 207-229.

  • I like number 3.
    – user42828
    Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 21:13
  • @ Aleksandr A. Adamov : Thanks for comment, much appreciated - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Oct 26, 2020 at 14:35

The problem is the final goal. Good and bad (right and wrong) depend on the goal. If I want to die, poison is good. If I want to continue living, poison is bad.

In case of considering that our ultimate goal is survival (not only existence, this instant, but also persistence in the long term, that is, to exist forever) (some consider it debatable), any good is such because it tends to improve the survival probabilities. So, any emotion that leads to an increment of the probability of survival (even if infinitesimal) would be good.

As an example, let's take anger. The emotion is good on the short term because it allows catharsis, liberates tensions, etc. But it could affect destructively social relationships and perhaps self integrity, which implies isolation and possibly death. So, on the long term, it is bad.

So, under this view, bad, wrong, negative or destructive are equivalent, and conversely.

Remark that assessing the change of probability of survival due to the outcome of an emotion is an extremely complex problem. But that is out of the scope of the question. The answer focuses only on the apparent relationship between emotions and good.

  • 1
    For an interesting take on the nature of human emotions, see; the "Ethics" Part 3- On the Emotions" . Spinoza depicts their relative status as either good or bad, but his line of demarcation is between 'active' emotions which enhance our capability to understand our lives and the 'passive' emotions which detract from that ability to thrive and further more or less enslave us into a negative thought and behavior pattern which renders us helpless.
    – user37981
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 17:19

Yes, most definitely! As long as our actions can be characterized that way -- right or wrong, or in-between -- emotions must land somewhere on that spectrum, between right and wrong.

It becomes rather obvious, once we realize why we have emotions, what is their purpose? -- they are a rather crude way our subconsciousness, upon recognizing the circumstances we found ourselves in, suggests to us what our next move should be. That suggestion can be anywhere from right to wrong, and that's how the emotion gets its label (right = being appropriate in given circumstances).

One thing to remember here is that we have no immediate control over what emotion we feel (or don't) at any given moment. So, at times, every one of us ends up in an inappropriate emotional state -- and that's OK. There is nothing wrong with that, and I don't see much value in trying to fix it. What we should focus instead is on developing a better understanding of our surroundings, of what the people around us are going through -- sometimes by putting ourselves in their shoes to try and understand what would make us behave the way they do.

As we are getting better at understanding, we would develop an emotional connection as well -- we call it compassion. As an added benefit, it is through learning compassion for others (and especially to people we don't like, even our enemies) we would be developing compassion for ourselves (because we are our worst enemy ;) BTW, I'm talking the infamous self-love here (because when say self-love, they really mean self-compassion).

  • Laughing and crying are compensational emotions where the mediation between body and conscious self fails (see Plessner), there is no motivational aspect there. Also, you seem to contradict yourself when claiming that emotions are right or wrong corresponding to their appropriateness (appropriate to what? Social role? Self-expectation?Bible?), while you say in the following paragraph that there was nothing wrong with 'inappropriate' emotions. Now, what is it? It would help to build answers on philosophical texts instead of writing down whatever comes to one's mind reading the question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 9:22
  • @PhilipKlöcking -- laughing and crying is a state of being overwhelmed with emotions, they are not emotions themselves. What appears to you as a "contradiction" is, in fact, me talking about two separate phenomena. One is about being objectively right, the other is about being alright/doing well. Your emotional state might be inappropriate, but having it is not itself an issue. Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 22:51

A viewer, when looking from outside, may be interpreting emotions as positive or negative. But we cannot say that so. It might be for some balancing in the person's bodily functions. Sometimes it might be because the viewer's EQ is not so perfect.

The great men who sacrificed their lives for the society were not because they often had negative emotions (sympathy, empathy etc). Can't we consider that it was for balancing the emotions of the coming generation? If they had ego in them they would have said 'others have negative emotions' (... since we are pitiless in understanding the feelings of a downtrodden society). In the same way we cannot also say emotions as right or wrong.

When there are several emotions how can we differentiate and plot them on a single straight-line or on different straight-lines, plotting a zero? How can we define the zero (... for that purpose) and confirm that it is always fixed on that particular position in all cases? If that zero is deviating from its position in different cases, how can we confirm that an emotion is always positive or negative?


Every emotion is either right or wrong.

The reason, as noted elsewhere, is that right or wrong can only be designated within a purposeful framework. And emotions only and always occur within such purposeful frameworks.

So what you really mean is, can "purposeful frameworks" be reduced to single "universal" framework, in the manner of a natural law? This is doubtful. We can look to "The Good" in ancient philosophy or "The Kingdom of Ends" in Kantian terms, and many other absolutist schemes.

But since Hobbes and the rise of the modern "individual" to define such universal ends contradicts the freedom rational individuals are presumed to have in any moral scheme, any framework of right and wrong. Taken to an extreme, some versions of "emotivism" in analytical philosophy would say that any statement of right or wrong is nothing more than the expression of an emotion, with zero truth value.

A modern contradiction looms. Since the freedom to choose is presumed in all moral situations and "emotions" are presumed to not be freely chosen, the traditional advice is to moderate the emotions, most explicitly in Stoicism, Buddhism, or any form of asceticism. Is there any framework we can apply to all moral beings? Probably Kant comes the closest and, indeed, the "golden rule" seems to be about as universal as anything, associated with the emotions of empathy leading to kindness.

But even this would not be recognized as a virtue by the Ancients, and "empathy" itself is arguably not an emotion, just a contagion of emotions. So, all emotions are always right or wrong because they only exist in purposive frameworks. Is there a universal purposive framework? That, as Hegel might put it, is a work in progress.


No. Not in the general sense. They are only “good” or “bad” because of the situation.

“Bad” emotions can be “good” if you use them to better yourself. Examples:

  1. Jealousy is a bad feeling, but it is good to be jealous of someone with a better work ethic than you
  2. Hate of a bad feeling, but it’s good to hate a murderer (hitler, Stalin, etc)

“Good” emotions can be “bad” if you use them in the wrong situation. Examples:

  1. Loving hitler
  2. Being nice to an evil person (hitler, etc)

Emotions are “good” or “bad” when they are used in the wrong situation. As opposed to most things being “good” or “bad” in relation to the moral scale.

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