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Monday, June 21, 2010

Morality and Emotions

Richard Brown, a CUNY Assistant Professor of Philosophy and author of the blog Philosophy Sucks!, recently shared some of his thoughts on the relationship between morality and emotions. I found it very stimulating and offered several observations and objections in the comments section. We'll see if any minds are changed.

I'm posting the (cosmetically modified) content of my comments below. They're out of context here, of course, but I think my points are understandable:

  1. I appreciate the response, Richard.

    I think your view is that there must be some particular moral emotion which grounds our moral judgments. Thus, regardless of what we call it, when we talk about moral condemnation, we are talking about some particular emotion. You say we can call it “condemnation” or “boo!”, or whatever we please. (Personally, I don’t think “boo!” is an attractive option, since it is a non-denoting expression.)

    Why should we think that moral judgments require a specific sort of emotion? I would agree that, generally speaking, moral condemnation involves some negative emotions. Happiness, love, and joy do not, of themselves, lead to condemnation. Conversely, approbation requires some positive emotions. However, I don’t see why we should want to isolate one specific emotion as “condemnation,” or isolate any set of emotions as uniquely moral. Is there a well-known argument motivating this move?

    Perhaps it’s just a clash of intuitions, but it seems obvious to me that condemnation is a judgment. It’s something we intend. As such, it cannot be an emotion.

    I’m not up on the literature here, but I think there is a distinction between emotions and actions. An action cannot be an emotion, and vice versa. Actions intrinsically involve intent and reflection on the meaning of the act. Emotions do not. When I am afraid, I am not intending to be afraid, and my fear does not intrinsically involve reflection on the meaning of my fear. I do not intend my fear (though I may intentionally make myself afraid, e.g., by watching a scary movie.) Yet, when I condemn a behavior, I am intending to do this, and this involves reflecting on what my condemnation means. That is, unless I condemn by mistake; however, I cannot accidentally condemn something without misunderstanding the meaning of my actions, just as I cannot accidentally get married without misunderstanding the role of my performance in the ceremony. This is why I find it impossible to think of condemnation as an emotion. Same for approbation.

    My reason for taking issue with your notion of “correct emotions” is similar. Unlike actions, emotions cannot be correct or incorrect. Only those behaviors which are intended can be either correct or incorrect. For example, a sunset cannot be correct or incorrect, unless we are talking about some action which intended that sunset or which accidentally caused the sunset by intending to do something else.

    As a counter to my view, you say that people can justify their emotional reactions, in part by referring to logical connections between emotions and consequences (e.g., fear and harm). Let’s say I see something that looks like a snake, and I momentarily panic. Then I realize it was just a garden hose. I might say, “I shouldn’t have been afraid, because it was only a garden hose.” But can I also say, “My fear was incorrect?” I don’t think that would make sense, because my fear was not intended.

    In terms of evolutionary biology, my fear of the garden hose was adaptive. It’s adaptive to be afraid when you see something that might be a snake. You might suggest that an error arises when fear persists even after we recognize that it’s a garden hose, and not a snake. But how could this be an error?

    Perhaps the fear is based on a faulty belief about garden hoses. But in that case, it is the belief that is wrong, not the emotional response. Or let’s say the fear is not a learned response, and not a matter of faulty beliefs; it’s just a behavior without any known evolutionary advantage. Is it therefore wrong? Perhaps, if “wrong” just means “not constructive.” But then we shouldn’t say the fear is incorrect. It’s not a mistake.

  2. Another objection to your view occurs to me.

    You say that moral judgments entail particular emotions and beliefs about those emotions. Yet, moral judgments seem most clearly to be directly about behaviors, and not about whatever emotions might be involved. For example, a person might not feel that slavery is wrong, but they come to believe it is wrong through logical arguments. Thus, they agree that slavery is wrong, even though they don’t associate this with any particular emotional response to slavery. If they say “slavery is wrong,” they do not mean “it is correct to feel that slavery is wrong.” They mean something quite different, and their meaning does not entail any beliefs about emotional responses to slavery.

    More generally, when we judge a person’s behavior as either moral or immoral, we are not judging their emotional reaction to their behavior. And, usually, when we try to be more moral, we don’t start by trying to have different emotional reactions. We start by changing our intentional behavior. And we judge ourselves as moral when our intentional behavior is modified, and not when our emotional reactions are different.

    Also, if your view is that moral statements are factual, then “slavery is wrong” should be comparable to “water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.” Yet, when we say that about water, we do not mean it is correct to feel that water boils at 212 degrees. We don’t require any particular feeling at all. So why should a particular feeling be required in the case of moral judgments?

  3. One more argument which might be worth considering . . .

    If you are correct, then justifying a moral sentiment is tantamount to justifying the claim that a particular emotional response to a particular stimulus is correct. E.g., justifying the moral sentiment that slavery is wrong requires showing that some negative moral emotion is the correct emotional response to slavery. The problem is, you have to show that slavery is wrong in order to justify the emotional reaction. What demonstrates the wrongness of slavery cannot be the emotion itself, for if that were the case, then no justification would be necessary. The answer to “why is slavery wrong?” would just be, “because it causes me to feel that it is wrong.” That is obviously not acceptable. What makes slavery wrong is not the moral emotion, but what justifies that emotion. I think this means that justifying a moral position cannot equate to justifying a moral emotion.