Focus on Emotional Relevance

The structures that feel emotionally relevant to you can be very different from those that are factually relevant. Deal with the right relevance at the right time. Drop everything! Stop what you are doing! Okay, you should not have dropped that coffee. And you over there, you might want to pick up that baby. It was a figure of speech. Please excuse any inconvenience. (Don’t you just hate it when companies downplay the mess they made to “any inconvenience?”)

Anyway, we are talking about relevant structures here. We need to distinguish between two important kinds of relevance.

Factual Relevance

Your town’s water supply is very relevant to your health and wellbeing. Yet until things go wrong, most people do not feel the relevance of their water supply.

Emotional Relevance

In contrast, some movie star’s latest escapades, a dogmatic system of thought or a football team, each of these can feel highly relevant to you. Yet at least on a physical and biological level they really are not. Their relevance is emotional.

The Distinction

If something affects you even though you do not think or know about it, it is factually relevant. If on the other hand your life would not be changed (at least on the outside) by its sudden absence or presence, yet it still influences your thoughts and wellbeing, it is emotionally relevant. (The emotional relevance of a rock band, a political party or a religious system can become bottom-line-relevant to the rock band’s manager, the politician, respectively the priests. As you buy merchandise, vote or donate, your emotional relevance turns into their factual relevance.)

Photo by Mayur Gala

Photo by Mayur Gala

Naturally (also “naturally” in a literal sense) there are structures that both feel and are relevant. Take your family. You need them to survive, at least initially, and you feel emotionally connected to them too. Factual relevance and emotional relevance of the family are very high for the child, they are tested out in puberty, and they noticeably go down when it is time for the young person to move out. (Economic and social shifts can force people to stay at home, while the emotional relevance of family has decreased. This misalignment will lead to complications. Think about George Costanza moving back in with his parents in Seinfeld.)

You might assume that we here are interested in the factual, “real” relevance, leaving the emotional relevance to the artists and poets. The opposite is true.

When we speak about relevance, unless mentioned otherwise, we always mean emotional relevance. We leave factual and outwardly causal relevance to the city-planners and biologists. (Although we might use their insight when we form and correct ethical opinion, be it public ethical opinion or our own.)

Our aim is to understand–and from time to time also to influence–what people consider good or evil. For that we only deal with emotional relevance. What feels relevant to people is both our subject of inquiry and our raw material. To understand people’s ethics, safely ignore what is factually relevant to them, and zone in on what they feel as being relevant.

So, what structures feel relevant to you?