Emotional intelligence can superficially be defined as 'the ability to identify and manage one's own emotions and the emotions of others'.
An emotion is above all a felt attitude or stance towards an object or class of object. This felt attitude is automatic and often unconscious, and is appropriate or justified in so far as it reflects the relation between object and subject, which itself is a function of context and values.
For instance, my anger at my friend's minor misdemeanour is only intelligible in light of my memory of his betrayal, my notions of friendship, the importance that I ascribe to our particular friendship, and many other such factors.
An emotion can, therefore, give us privileged access to an evaluative stance, with the name of the emotion being shorthand for that stance.
However, in many cases, it can be difficult to put a name on an emotion or emotional experience, let alone to fully understand it. First, there are far more emotions than have been named in language. Second, emotions are often blended with other emotions or dominated by some other mental state—for instance, fear is often dominated by the desire or impulse to escape, and only fully felt, if at all, retrospectively. And third, certain emotions are simply too painful or unacceptable to dwell upon, not least because doing so could give rise to even more complicated or difficult emotions.
Our emotions not only reflect and reveal our values, but also enable us to refine them. It is possible to have an emotion about an emotion, or meta-emotion, such as guilt or shame about envy, and to revise the primary emotion according to the secondary emotion or emotions. Moreover, some of our emotions can feel clear or transparent, while others are more hazy or equivocal. For instance, our love for truth or justice is experienced as profound and authentic, whereas our resentment or disdain for a person of higher virtue or accomplishment lacks resonance and leaves us uneasy.
Unlike mere perceptions, emotions do more than merely represent the world. They also reflect our values, and if our values are distorted, so are our emotions, leading us to feel and act against our best or long-term interests. Indeed, a single stray emotion can lay waste to the best laid plans of half a lifetime.
It is in this sense that emotions are said to be 'irrational', but, of course, poor feeling is no more irrational than poor thinking. Indeed, poor thinking and poor feeling inexorably lead to each other, and it is, in fact, mostly feeling that drives this deathly dance—hence David Hume's aphorism that 'reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions'.
Poor feeling hijacks thinking for self-deception: to hide harsh truths, avoid action, evade responsibility, and, as the existentialists might put it, flee from freedom. Thus, poor feeling is a kind of moral failing, indeed, the deepest kind, and virtue principally consists in correcting and refining our emotions and the values that they reflect.
For to feel the right thing is to do the right thing, without any particular need for conscious thought or effort.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.