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Ethics of Emotions

Emotions have often been considered a threat to morality and rationality; in the Romantic tradition, passions were placed at the center of both human individuality and moral life. This ambivalence has led to an ambiguity between the terms of emotions for vices and virtues. (Williams 1976) Epicureans and Stoics have argued that emotions are irrational. The Stoics believed that virtue is nothing but knowledge, and emotions are essentially irrational beliefs. Skeptics believed that beliefs were responsible for pain, recommending rejection of opinions of any kind. These schools emphasized the general value of “ataraxia“, the absence of mental disturbance, the philosophy being regarded as therapy for the cleansing of the emotions in the soul. (Nussbaum 2009)

Max Scheler was the first to suggest that emotions are perceptions of the “tertiary qualities” that have survived, (Scheler 1954) a view taken by Tappolet. (C. Tappolet 2000) D’Arms and Jacobson believe that emotions may have intrinsic criteria of appropriateness that may conflict with ethical norms, and therefore emotions are not necessarily moral. (D’Arms și Jacobson 2000)

Andrea Scarantino and Ronald de Sousa, in Emotion (Scarantino și de Sousa 2018) point out that constitutive theories (dominant in philosophy) state that emotions are particular cognitions or evaluations, while causal theories (dominant in psychology) state that emotions are caused by particular cognitions or evaluations. C. D. Broad, (Cheney 2014) Errol Bedford (Bedford 1956) and Anthony Kenny (Kenny 2003) have argued the constitutive approach in the sense that, to realize their intentionality, emotions must be cognitive evaluations of a different kind than feelings. Robert Solomon, (Solomon 2003) Jerome Neu (Neu 2002) and Martha Nussbaum (Nussbaum 2003) support cognitive assessments, proposing that emotion be a judgment according to which the formal object of the emotion is instantiated by a particular object (judgmentalism). But judgmentalism does not explain how emotions can motivate (it can be judged without being motivated to act on it), it does not explain the phenomenology of emotions (it lacks the bodily dimensions, the valence and the excitement that typically characterize the experience of emotion), it fails to take into account the emotions of animals and children, and does not explain “recalcitrance to reason”. (D’Arms și Jacobson 2003)

There are several strategies (the “protective belt” in Imre Lakatos’ methodology (Lakatos 1978)) adopted by the proponents of cognitivism against counterexamples: reinterpreting the judgmental character of emotions, (Solomon, Solomon, și Press 2004, 105–6) (Nussbaum 2003, 45) the strategy of judicial completion, (Goldie 2002) which consists in explicitly adding judgments to other components of emotions rather than incorporating them into judgments through elastic strategy, (Gordon 1990) proposing that emotions be combinations of judgments, desires and feelings, (Lyons și Lyons 1985) the strategy of alternative cognitions (replacing the notion of judgment with other types of cognitive assessments), etc.

Emotional assessment theories are accounts of the structure of processes that extract meaning from stimuli and differentiate emotions from one another. Evaluation is an iterative process that monitors internal and environmental changes, appropriately modeling emotions.

Evaluation theories do not clarify what emotions are, except when they recognize that evaluations play an essential role in differentiating emotions. Lazarus (Lazarus 1994) introduced a cognitive-relational-motivational theory with six structural dimensions of evaluation, criticized by Moors. (Moors 2013) Scherer et al. (K. Scherer, Schorr, și Johnstone 2001) considered sixteen evaluation dimensions, stimulus assessment checks, grouped into four classes. (K. R. Scherer 2016, 697) A variant of evaluation theories is the theory of belief and the desire for emotions, developed by Reisenzein, which argues that emotions are caused by a combination of cognitive evaluations (beliefs) and conative motivations (desires). (Reisenzein 2009) According to this theory, emotions are triggered by connected mechanisms that compare newly acquired beliefs with existing ones by updating the belief-desire system.

The gradual convergence between evaluative traditions and feelings, respectively between evaluative perceptions and evaluative feelings, has led to the development of theories in the philosophy of emotions qualified as hybrids. Prinz’s neo-Jamesian theory is a strong perceptual theory. (Prinz 2004) Influenced by Damasio’s neuroscientific works, (A. Damasio 2003) (A. R. Damasio 2005) Prinz suggests that emotions are perceptions of bodily changes, in addition having distinct functions. Basically, the subjects actually perceive bodily changes (nominal content) and indirectly perceive the formal object (real content) due to bodily changes. Roberts argues that “emotions are a kind of perception” in the form of constructs based on concerns. (Roberts 2003, 87) Tappolet suggests that emotions are perceptual experiences of evaluative properties (values).(Christine Tappolet 2016) Critics of perceptual theories of emotions (e.g. (Dokic și Lemaire 2013)) argue with their inability to consider emotional recalcitrance.

Several authors have proposed theories that endow feelings with intentionality. Goldie identifies the intentionality of the emotions with that of the feelings towards them. (Goldie 2002) Helm states that “emotions are intentional feelings of import”. (Helm 2009, 8) Many of these theories are inspired by the representativeness of the philosophy of the mind, according to which phenomenal properties are identifiable with the intentional properties or at least reducible to them. (Chalmers 2002)

Another recent approach is considering mechanisms that control salience. (de Sousa 1987) One variant is that the directional power that emotions exert on cognitions is in part a function of their essential dramatic or narrative structure. (Rorty 1987) De Sousa suggested that stories characteristic of different emotions are learned by associating with “paradigm scenarios” that involve a situation and a set of responses.

Another tradition identifies emotions with special types of motivational states (internal causes of behaviors aimed at satisfying a goal). The central problem would be to explain how emotions and actions are linked.

The basic emotion theory was developed by Silvan Tomkins, who stated that “the primary motivational system is the affective system”. (Tomkins 2008, 4) Later came the modern theory of basic emotions, (Ekman 2003) (Izard 2007) an approach to the evolutionary psychology of emotions understood as solutions to recurrent evolutionary problems. (Plutchik 1980) (Tooby și Cosmides 2008) An alternative to basic emotion theory is behavioral ecology, which replaces the idea of facial expression of emotion with that of display produced depending on audience, without a necessary connection to a given emotion. (Fridlund 2014, 130)

In the motivational tradition of emotions, the fundamental aspect of emotions is the motivation for action. The phenomenological version of the motivational tradition, developed by Deonna and Teroni considers that emotions are feelings of preparation for action. (Deonna și Teroni 2012) The non-phenomenological version of Scarantino identifies the emotions with the causes of the states of action preparation. (Scarantino 2015) Deonna and Teroni propose an attitudinal theory of emotions, in which their cognitive bases give their content their emotional attitudes.

Two enactivist themes are relevant to the theory of emotions: the focus on the active role played by the connoisseur in his relationship with the external world, (E. Thompson 2010) and the embodied, embedded and extended character of cognitive processes. (Wilson-Mendenhall et al. 2011)

Feelings, along with the appetite and emotions that provoke them, play a decisive role in social behavior that includes ethical behaviors. (Humphrey 1992) In addition to humans, other species can behave in an ethical manner. But human ethical behavior has a degree of elaboration and complexity that makes it distinct. Ethical behaviors originate in a period that includes all the unconscious, automated mechanisms that ensure metabolic regulation; impulses and motivations; emotions and feelings whose solutions include cooperation. People endowed with emotions that enabled cooperative strategies have survived over time. This materialized through a consistent presence of genes that helped to develop these strategies, promoting the construction of certain components of the brain and their functioning. Due to the specific habitats, fine tuning of these systems has appeared over time.

Beautiful emotions and altruism belong to a group. Feelings can inspire the creation of conditions in the physical and cultural environments that promote pain reduction and improve welfare for society.

“Human beings are as they are—living and equipped with appetites, emotions, and other self-preservation devices, including the capacity to know and to reason. Consciousness, in spite of its limitations, opens the way for knowledge and reason, which, in turn, allow individuals to discover what is good and evil. Again, good and evil are not revealed, they are discovered, individually or by agreement among social beings.” (A. Damasio 2003)

Spinoza states that ethical systems based on self-preservation also take into account social and cultural elements. (Spinoza 2017, part. V) Spinoza tells us that happiness is the power to be liberated from the tyranny of negative emotions. Happiness is not a reward for virtue: it is virtue itself.

The neural maps of the bodily state are critical to the governance of life, being a necessary basis for feelings. They offer limited assistance without conscious feelings, for problems with a certain limited degree of complexity; when problems get complicated, maps no longer help and feelings intervene.

Conscious feelings are prominent mental events that draw attention to the emotions that gave birth to them and to the objects that triggered those emotions. When one’s feelings are made aware, they improve and amplify the life management process based on biological corrections.

It turns out that feelings are necessary being a mental expression of emotions. At this level it is possible for emotions to create, through feelings, self-care.

In general, the memory of the situation felt favors the avoidance of the events associated with the negative feelings and promotes situations that can provoke positive feelings. (Curley 1988)


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Nicolae Sfetcu
Email: nicolae@sfetcu.com

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Sfetcu, Nicolae, “Ethics of Emotions”, SetThings (January 25, 2020), URL = https://www.telework.ro/en/ethics-of-emotions/

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