What Are Emotions?
I interview Ronald de Sousa about philosophy of emotion—I ask him about hyperthymia, rationality, and emotional self-regulation.
Ronald de Sousa is a philosopher best known for his work in philosophy of emotion—he’s a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Everyone should take a look at the excellent 2018 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article that de Sousa co-wrote with Andrea Scarantino, who’s a professor of both philosophy and neuroscience at Georgia State University. The article gives a great overview of the various issues in philosophy of emotion.
And people should also check out the following four articles:
These are fascinating articles. The first article—from Nature Human Behaviour—provides some great visuals showing that the number of articles about emotion has increased dramatically. The second—which de Sousa wrote—discusses how philosophy contributes to emotion science. The third—which Scarantino wrote—puts forward a new theory of emotion. And the fourth—which Scarantino also wrote—discusses the concept of emotion, the concept of self-control, how emotions can harm self-control, and how emotions can help self-control.
I also want to share some interesting paintings from the Canadian painter Konstantino “Tino” Milanopulus—his art causes me to reflect on human emotion:
Milanopulus writes that his “aim is to capture intensity, alienation and the metaphysical self that humans hide behind in society”—people can check out his Instagram to see more of his dark and thought-provoking art.
I was honored and thrilled to be able to ask de Sousa about philosophy of emotion—see below my interview with de Sousa that I edited for flow, organized by topic, and added hyperlinks to.
Philosophy of Emotion
1) What are the most exciting projects that you’re currently working on? And the most exciting projects that you know of that others are working on?
I’m working on a project about how language affects our emotions. For this project, I’m basing my general perspective on the “dual processing” hypothesis—that there are two systems, one intuitive and one analytic—that was popularized in Daniel Kahneman’s very famous and wonderful 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. I’m interested in how this dual system affects our emotions, which then translates into the question of how our emotions are elaborated when we talk about them—someone who values rationality might think that the analytic system should be trusted over the intuitive one, but our brains can only do a very limited amount of conscious reasoning, which means that you essentially have to rely on the intuitive system for the most part.
I’m also writing a book—Why It’s Okay to Be Amoral—that’s based on a 2021 article that I wrote about morality. I argue in the book that philosophers are basically wasting their time in trying to justify the principles that they peddle as fundamental moral principles—my view is that such efforts are useless when people have different moral foundations and each one is at the very rock bottom of understanding and explanation, which makes rational discourse impossible.
In terms of other people’s projects, there’s so much going on in philosophy and in the general intellectual world. But I’d recommend Joseph Henrich’s 2020 book The WEIRDest People in the World, which argues that the Christian Church’s decree that nobody was to marry their close kin created a radically different psychological profile that’s yielded all sorts of political and economic and other consequences—it’s a bold thesis that tries to explain all sorts of things based on this historical quirk.
I also find very interesting David Amodio’s research into what exactly happens in the brain when people form biased or prejudiced attitudes—how are these attitudes learned, which modes of memory are involved in forming these attitudes, how does implicit bias get formed, and how do implicit bias and its manifestations differ from explicit racism? It’s fascinating what we can see in the brain regarding the mechanisms that get these attitudes going.
2) What’s philosophy of emotion all about?
It’s about everything—feelings, morality, metaphysics, culture, evolution.
That’s why I got into philosophy of emotion—I don’t have to be limited to certain specific topics.
3) Would you say that philosophy of emotion is exciting and lively right now?
Nature Human Behaviour published a 10 June 2021 article called “The rise of affectivism” that I and 63 other people signed—the article asks whether the “increasingly recognized impact of affective phenomena” has “ushered in a new era, the era of affectivism”. And the article provides graphs showing that in various areas—memory, perception, attention, decision-making—the number of articles about emotion has just shot up over the past four decades.
4) What are some counterintuitive things from philosophy of emotion that might really surprise people? I’m not sure if this counts as philosophy of emotion, but there’s an interesting video where you say that sex “can aspire to be pure in a way that love can’t”—people might find that view counterintuitive, since people might view love as more pure than sex.
Sex has the potential to be very uncomplicated—it can be about power and so on, but it can also just be about pleasure, enjoying the experience of it, and freedom from constantly thinking about consequences and implications.
On the other hand, love is inescapably ambivalent—it involves the whole personality and brings in the feelings in the back of your head that interfere with what’s in the front of your mind and your present preoccupation.
As for counterintuitive things about philosophy of emotion, I think that it might surprise people that emotions aren’t merely feelings—feelings aren’t necessarily object-directed and include things like feeling hot or cold or nauseated. So emotions and feelings aren’t the same thing.
And it might surprise people that emotions are—unlike feelings—actually subject to rational consideration. For example, re-gestalting is a technique where you control and modify your emotions through seeing things from a different perspective that redescribes a given situation. Arlie Hochschild’s 1983 book The Managed Heart was partly about how flight attendants went to workshops to learn how to handle irate and out-of-control passengers and were taught to see these passengers as babies having tantrums—these passengers are grown adults, but the mechanisms controlling what these passengers do are precisely the mechanisms that control the baby having a tantrum, so re-gestalting these passengers as babies having tantrums helps you not take anything personally.
It might also surprise people that it’s misleading to classify love as an emotion—you might say that tenderness is an emotion, but not love. We define each emotion based on a certain type of story. Consider anger—we define it based on a story where someone responds aggressively to an action that offends them, so the response is only intelligible as anger if you can explain it in light of the action that offended the person.
But in the case of love, there isn’t a single type of situation that elicits love. And when people love, they exhibit specific emotions that can range from the most terrible negative emotions to the most blissful positive emotions—these emotions can be absolutely anything depending on the situation. And no matter what situation the lovers happen to be in, the fact of love differentiates whatever lovers do from what non-lovers do.
The reason that every story from the beginning of time is about love is that love gives you an opportunity to talk about every conceivable emotion in whatever detail you want—name any emotion you like and you could tell a story in which the named emotion is part of the love story.
And it might also surprise people that the theory of constructed emotion is increasingly influential among philosophers and other emotion researchers. Lisa Feldman Barrett and others argue—based on the view that no actual emotions are built into us and that only certain very simple dispositions are—that the only things that all emotions really have in common are a disposition to be aroused and a disposition to be negatively or positively motivated. The idea is that we learn how to label and conceptualize our affective states, learn that others understand these affective states in terms of emotional labels and concepts, learn that we can understand others’ affective states in terms of emotional labels and concepts, and learn the rules of which emotions we are and aren’t entitled to.
Emotion researchers themselves have found it surprising that the evidence pushes against the view that Paul Ekman put forward—on the basis of his studies of emotional expressions—and toward the conclusion that human beings don’t have a universal repertoire of cross-cultural emotions.
I’d recommend Batja Mesquita’s 2022 book Between Us where she argues that the reason for the lack of universal cross-cultural emotions is that each culture construes the world in a way that makes the reality of emotions—let alone the words used to describe them—only approximately equivalent from one cultural context to the next.
There’s an 8 August 2022 New Yorker review—of her 2022 book—that has a pretty good initial exposition of her views. But the review becomes confused once you get to the reviewer’s following comment: “It’s just that constructionists like Mesquita, captive to their own theory, may be offering the wrong diagnosis—and the wrong course of treatment.” The reviewer fails to understand that Mesquita is a cultural relativist who objects to passing judgment against any particular culture; that she would totally agree that “it hardly follows that we cannot understand each other without first learning the other’s language”; that her central point is that understanding the way that language works in connection with emotion requires us to first understand the ways that a certain situation is understood—and comes about—within a certain culture; that you don’t in any way undermine her central point when you observe that it’s possible to explain how things are different between cultures; and that her book approaches things holistically and not atomistically.
This lack of universal cross-cultural emotions accords with the view that there are no innate emotions and that emotions are—in some way or another—constructed in the context of people’s experience and education. This process of construction occurs as people learn ways of reacting to situations and learn which reactions are expected and not expected—we learn paradigm scenarios early on, but experience then shapes and refines and amends what we’ve learned.
I myself like to think that there’s such a thing as temperament, that temperament is the “raw material” of personality, and that you can see in a newborn some of what’s going to become the person’s personality dimensions. And if individual temperament varies, people who live in the same culture will construe situations somewhat differently and have different emotional repertoires.
And I think that the biggest thought about emotion that might surprise people is that ideology significantly influences people’s emotions. Biology and temperament condition people’s emotions, but so does ideology in the specific sense of the beliefs that people have about what’s natural—almost nothing is genuinely natural, so these beliefs are almost always completely false. For example, someone’s belief that monogamy is natural will condition one’s emotions and sense of entitlement.
For another example, people will frown on relationships that don’t fit into the arbitrary and restrictive categories that people think that it’s natural for relationships to be sortable into. There are of course infinitely many ways for humans to form relationships—there’s nothing at all natural about having a small number of possible classifications.
5) What are the big debates in philosophy of emotion?
We just touched on one of them, namely whether emotions are innate forms of behavior and response that correspond to stock situations.
I worked with a brilliant young philosopher named Andrea Scarantino to write the 2018 edition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Emotion”. I’d written the previous edition, but I decided that there was so much going on that I needed help from somebody who knew more about the psychology and neuroscience, so I recruited Scarantino to work with me—he did an absolutely fantastic job.
It gets difficult to distinguish philosophy of emotion from psychology of emotion. But in the article, Scarantino and I look at the different approaches to the two fields based on which components of emotion—if any—are regarded as the central features to look for.
You can emphasize emotion’s cognitive elements—if you’re afraid of something, you believe that that thing is dangerous. Or you can emphasize the physiological aspect that has to do with what emotion does to your guts and so on. Or you can emphasize the expressive aspect—how do you express emotion in your face and otherwise? Or you can emphasize the qualitative character, which includes whether a given emotion is positive or negative—what is the phenomenology of an emotional state?
But I think more and more people are coming around to Nico Frijda’s view that “action preparation” is the key component in most or all of the standard emotions like fear, sadness, and anger—people also call this component “action readiness” or “action tendency”. This view says that the nonstandard emotions—like awe and nostalgia—might be an exception. Scarantino holds this view—he uses the term “motivation” and has a 2014 paper called “The Motivational Theory of Emotions”.
So emotion researchers differ on the question of which aspects of emotion are the central ones that enable you to understand all the others.
6) How can we understand emotion in the context of evolution?
All organisms respond to their environment. And there are different categories of response: plants and bacteria exhibit tropisms; other organisms exhibit simple reflexes where there’s a single preprogrammed response to a specific stimulus; and still other organisms have emotions that don’t dictate any stereotyped response but instead set a goal to pursue.
Emotions contrast with reflexes. You respond to fear not with the same preprogrammed action every time but instead with something that’s appropriate to the goal of getting out of the danger—depending on the circumstances, fear could motivate you to freeze, hide, or even fight.
People have supposed that evolution has given us preprogrammed instant assessments of the appropriate goals for different situations. That preprogramming would allow us to suddenly be ready to act in a goal-specific way—we wouldn’t have to think or calculate, which would be an advantage.
But like I said, there’s an increasingly popular view among emotion researchers that most emotions aren’t evolutionarily preprogrammed. And that evolution has—apart from very primitive responses, maybe—only preprogrammed us with the capacity to very rapidly learn how to evaluate certain situations as requiring a particular kind of response.
The idea is that only elements of emotion are preprogrammed—the valence element tells you whether something is pleasant or unpleasant, while the arousal element tells you how intensely to respond, how much to mobilize your brain, and how much to mobilize your body. And the idea is then that our learning process actually fills in all of the specifics of human emotion, which don’t follow any preprogrammed evolutionary plan.
An infant will give spontaneous responses—of distress, pleasure, and need—that amount to “proto-emotions” and can’t really be classified in a very subtle way. But the infant’s caretaker will say “You’re feeling upset” or “You’re feeling angry” or “You want this” as the infant encounters more and more complex situations over time, so you gradually learn to understand your emotions based on the way in which other people understand your emotions.
I think that the jury’s still out on the extent to which we can talk about evolutionarily favored patterns of conceptually elaborated emotions, which are different. Consider the difference between fearing a loud noise and fearing a stock-market crash—the latter is conceptually elaborated.
And we should remember that “learning” is a contentious notion. Evolution has certainly preprogrammed us to learn some things more easily than others—for example, it’s well known that it’s easy to teach people to fear snakes but difficult to teach people to fear flowers.
7) How does your brain produce the experience of the color yellow? How does your brain produce the experience of the emotion of fear? Are these two mysteries equivalently mysterious?
Both are mysteries.
But emotions are a lot more complicated than the experience of color—I just raised various issues that come up in the study of emotion that you don’t have to think about when you study color.
Emotion and Mood
1) What do you think about people who experience way less negative emotion than the typical person does? I personally feel like the people who’ve been blessed with hyperthymia are like gods walking among us—I hope to interview people who have this condition as well as scientists who research this condition. A 2002 article says the following about hyperthymic people: “Cheerful despite life’s misfortunes, energetic and productive, they are often the envy of all who know them because they don’t even have to work at it.” And then there’s the famous patient S.M.—the Wikipedia article about her says that she’s experienced “great adversity in her life” and that she nevertheless “appears to experience relatively little negative emotion” and a “relatively high degree of positive affect”.
Good for them! I’m not someone who thinks that you have to experience the bad in order to enjoy the good—I think that that’s nonsense. I think that it’d be great if everyone were cheerful all the time.
A little bad goes a long way. And you might think that somebody won’t have much basis for making choices if they haven’t ever experienced anything as being negative, but I don’t see what’s wrong with choices about which thing is better as opposed to choices about which thing is less bad.
I think that it would be utopian to eliminate negative emotion. But there are certain circumstances where you’d have to be cautious—for example, you’d have to take precautions to make sure that venomous snakes and spiders don’t bite an Australian who can’t experience fear.
2) What about the distinction between moods and emotions? I have a constant sense that my current brain state is—in the context of my whole life—completely unique and unprecedented. But maybe I’m experiencing infinite unique mood states and not infinite unique emotions.
There’s quite a lot of literature on the distinction between moods and emotions—I’d recommend Carolyn Price’s 2006 paper “Affect Without Object”.
One key thing that people usually start with is that moods aren’t necessarily object-directed but are instead mere dispositions to have a certain type of attitude toward everything or anything. So that’s different from emotions insofar as emotions are thought of as being like stories.
There are only a limited number of stories that you can tell, right? Think about all of the stories that have ever been told in the history of fiction. You could even say that there’s only one story—one where Agent wants something and either gets it or doesn’t—and that the rest is just details.
I think that our emotions are built on the experiences that we’ve had and the interpersonal relations that we’ve had. And we can sort these experiences and interpersonal relations into a relatively small number of abstract categories—a person will experience a huge range of emotions in their life, but this sorting is still possible, since situations will only motivate a much more restricted range of goals.
Consider the named emotions, which are the ones for which you can immediately think of a situation that would illustrate the emotion in question—the longest list of these that I’ve found was in the hundreds. But you’d think that we’d have far more than 100 or 200—or 800—emotions. There are so many possibilities that there must be millions of emotions, right?
And on one basis, I actually calculated that there were roughly 640 billion emotions. There’s a particular view of emotions called appraisal theory where the idea is that you can appraise a situation along a number of different dimensions including how close a situation is to you, how it relates to your present goal, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, whether or not it’s urgent, and so on—based on the number of dimensions in appraisal theory and the extent to which those dimensions admit of degrees, I was able to create a space and calculate the number of points in that space, which turned out to be 640 billion unique and different points.
But recall Scarantino’s idea that emotions are about how to act—how to respond to a situation. You can see how it makes sense that you’d have very different situations—with their own unique appraisals—that resemble one another enough that it would be useful to have various points of attraction that suck in a lot of those points in the space. And those points of attraction would be your basic emotions like fear and so on.
On the other hand, mood is dispositional—moods don’t involve appraising any particular situation. One way to look at it is to say that your mood will have some sort of global effect on all 16 of those dimensions of appraisal that I mentioned, which will narrow the space and determine which emotions you can experience.
I tend to think that mood is absolutely everything in the sense that it completely conditions the way you see life and apprehend everything that happens—mood is a way of interpreting the whole world. So if you’re one of those hyperthymic people whose set point is way up there, then lucky you!
3) Regarding mood, what disagreements are there in philosophy of emotion?
People disagree about whether you should think of mood as: an everything-directed emotion; something that isn’t object-oriented and therefore isn’t an emotion at all; or a dispositional state that affects all of your emotions.
Disagreements become more and more scholastic and minute as a field develops. For example, there’s an issue about where the value is located when we say that an emotion is a perception of value—I might feel that something is dangerous or beautiful or amusing, but is the danger or the beauty or the amusement located in me or in the thing? And if it’s in me then why am I attributing it to the thing?
My General Curiosities
1) Do animals have emotions?
Emotion is about goal-directedness and action readiness. In order to talk about emotion, you have to talk not about a stimulus producing a response—which is what happens in the case of a reflex—but instead about a stimulus eliciting a goal that the organism can then pursue in whatever different ways happen to be available.
So there will be at least minimal emotion in any animal that forms goals—any animal that has some sort of teleological goal-seeking structure that determines its behavior.
Obviously all mammals have some sort of emotion—they form goals and pursue their goals in relatively diverse ways depending on whatever opportunities and routes are available to them. But it seems like insects—for example—don’t have goals so much as they respond directly to some sort of stimulation.
2) Do fish have emotions?
Fish are more difficult. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that fish probably experience pain—pain isn’t merely reflexive and actually affects people’s goal-forming systems, so the ability to feel pain is a step toward emotion.
Octopuses have an incredibly sophisticated mental life and might be able to form relationships—if you can form relationships, that suggests to me that you have something like emotions.
3) How emotionless can a human being be? Are there any examples of people who experience no emotion at all?
Emotion researchers study people who have psychopathy and study people who have alexithymia, but I don’t know much about the research on these fronts.
I assume that people who need to perform extremely dangerous and precise operations are chosen because their emotional response is very, very, very low in intensity compared to most people. And there’s actually an interesting scene in The Crown—in an episode called “Moondust”—that illustrates this point:
It’s an interesting scene. And the idea is that there are certain tasks where you perform better the more robotic you are—I’m not sure what research there is on people who work in areas where being emotionless is an asset, though.
Emotional Self-Regulation and Social Success
1) I know someone who has fantastic emotional self-regulation—you can scream insults in their face and they won’t visibly react except that their face will twitch slightly. I also know people who have terrible emotional self-regulation, which tragically translates into social impairment, since emotional self-regulation is crucial for social success.
I think that emotional self-regulation is hugely important—it has a lot to do with your individual “wiring”, but it might also be partly learned on the basis of how others regulate your emotions when you’re a small child.
There are some techniques that people can use to control their emotions better—I think that re-gestalting is the best one.
And let me recommend two excellent papers on self-regulation—James Gross’s 2014 paper “Emotion Regulation” and Scarantino’s 2020 paper “Exploring the Roles of Emotions in Self-Control”.
2) Why is it socially offensive to express too much raw and unmoderated emotion? Apparently children will be shunned if they’re too emotionally impulsive. And apparently you see this phenomenon—where emotionally impulsive people are shunned—in the adult world too.
There’s a baseline expected level of emotional expression.
Going way beyond that baseline will elicit in others a sense of uncertainty about how to proceed, what to do, and how to navigate things—people will find it uncomfortable, unpleasant, and exhausting to be around you.
And going beyond that baseline might also elicit in others a sense that you’re unpredictable, unstable, or dangerous. So people might even react to you with fear.
3) What is it about humans that they don’t like to be around that kid who’s emotionally unregulated? Or be around their uncle or aunt who’s crying and having a dramatic and hysterical tantrum? Or—to take the clinical extreme—be around someone who has borderline personality disorder who constantly threatens to kill themselves?
One reason is empathy—it’s unpleasant for us to be around someone who’s in an extremely distressed condition, since empathy makes us suffer along with them. Pain is hard to watch—it’s distressing to see someone suffer.
And such situations are exhausting when we don’t know what to do and—as a result—feel helpless.
Such situations also burden us with trying to figure out the extent to which we’re responsible for the person in question—we can very comfortably sit in a movie theater and watch actors expressing all sorts of emotions, since we know that we don’t have any responsibility for what we’re observing.
People talk up empathy as this wonderful thing that’s going to solve the problems of the world. But what you really want in these situations is a reduced—and like we have in the movie theater, aestheticized—form of empathy that lets you understand how they feel but doesn’t let their pain drive you to panic or distress. That’s the form of empathy that will actually allow us to function best and help the person best.
4) What do you think about Paul Bloom’s 2016 book Against Empathy? There’s an interesting 2017 interview where Bloom says that empathy “often leads us to make stupid and unethical decisions”.
I basically agree with the book.
Empathy has its place, but it’s no panacea.
5) What do you think about the notion that emotional expression puts demands on people?
I think that that’s exactly right.
Emotional expression puts demands on people—it’s about demands.
6) What’s the best way to avoid judging—and getting angry at—people when you know on an intellectual level that they’re not responsible for their actions?
Unfortunately, I can’t think of any advice to share on this particular front.
But anger and judgment are indeed inappropriate when a brain issue—like Tourette’s syndrome—makes it wrong to hold someone responsible for something they said or did.
De Sousa’s Books
1) What are the main ideas in your 2015 book Love: A Very Short Introduction? One summary says the following about the book:
Do we love someone for their virtue, their beauty, or their moral qualities? Are love’s characteristic desires altruistic or selfish? What do the sciences tell us about love? Many of the answers given to such questions are determined not so much by the facts of human nature as by the ideology of love. Love: A Very Short Introduction considers some of the many paradoxes raised by love, looking at the different kinds of love—affections, affiliation, philia, storge, agape—before focusing on eros, or ‘romantic’ love. It considers whether our conventional beliefs about love and sex are deeply irrational and argues that alternative conceptions of love and sex may be worth striving for.
That sounds like a really neat book that makes direct contact with people’s lives and relationships—there’s also an interesting Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Love”.
That’s a good summary.
The book discusses the way that ideology makes people think that they’re entitled to possess their sexual and emotional partner and be jealous about them. And the book’s last chapter discusses polyamory and argues in favor of it.
2) What about the main ideas in your 2011 book Emotional Truth? I saw the following description of the book:
The word “truth” retains, in common use, traces of origins that link it to trust…and truce, connoting ideas of fidelity, loyalty, and authenticity. The word has become, in contemporary philosophy, encased in a web of technicalities, but we know that a true image is a faithful portrait; a true friend a loyal one. In a novel or a poem, too, we have a feel for what is emotionally true, though we are not concerned with the actuality of events and characters depicted. To have emotions is to care about certain things: we can wonder whether those things are really worth caring about. We can wonder whether our passions reflect who we are, and whether they constitute fitting responses to the vicissitudes of life. So there are two aspects to emotional truth: how well an emotion reflects the threats and promises of the world, and how well it reflects our own individual nature. That is the starting point of this book, which looks first at the analogies and disanalogies between strict propositional truth and a looser, “generic” sense of truth. As applied to emotions, generic truth is closer to those original meanings: as in a portrait’s fidelity or friend’s loyalty. Taken in this sense, the notion of emotional truth opens up large vistas on areas of life essential to our existence as social beings, and to our concerns with beauty, morality, love, death, sex, knowledge, desire, coherence, and happiness. Each of those topics illustrates some facet of the dominant theme of the book: the crucial but often ambivalent role of our emotions in grounding and yet also sometimes undermining our values. Emotions act, in holistic perspective, as ultimate arbiters of values where different and independently justified standards of value compete.
I like the idea that “the notion of emotional truth opens up large vistas on areas of life essential to our existence as social beings, and to our concerns with beauty, morality, love, death, sex, knowledge, desire, coherence, and happiness”.
The 2011 book discusses “emotional truth” in the sense of the extent to which an emotion is fitted to its formal object. This notion of formal object is crucial—just as truth is the formal object of belief and good is the formal object of desire, each emotion has its own formal object. For each emotion, you can decide—based on the criterion that’s built into the formal object—whether the emotion is appropriate.
Fear is appropriate to danger, surprise to novelty, and sorrow to loss. It’s not a moral appropriateness—it’s instead a unique emotional appropriateness that depends on the particular emotion under consideration.
The book also discusses: the relation between emotions and morality; how there’s no such thing as “being natural”; emotions in art and life; and whether it’s possible to say whether particular attitudes toward death are correct or incorrect.
3) Can attitudes be correct or incorrect?
They actually can be.
An attitude can be an emotion. And there’s generally a criterion of correctness built into an emotion’s formal object.
4) And the main ideas in your 1987 book The Rationality of Emotion? I saw the following description:
Ronald de Sousa disputes [in this book] the widespread notion that reason and emotion are natural antagonists. He argues that emotions are a kind of perception, that their roots in the paradigm scenarios in which they are learned give them an essentially dramatic structure, and that they have a crucial role to play in rational beliefs, desires, and decisions by breaking the deadlocks of pure reason.
The book’s twelve chapters take up the following topics: alternative models of mind and emotion; the relation between evolutionary, physiological, and social factors in emotions; a taxonomy of objects of emotions; assessments of emotions for correctness and rationality; the regulation by emotions of logical and practical reasoning; emotion and time; the mechanism of emotional self-deception; the ethics of laughter; and the roles of emotions in the conduct of life. There is also an illustrative interlude, in the form of a lively dialogue about the ideology of love, jealousy, and sexual exclusiveness.
It’s fascinating that the book challenges the “widespread notion that reason and emotion are natural antagonists”—that’s a very common notion.
The book discusses the ways that emotions play a role in activities that we all recognize as rational—for example, despair and curiosity prompt you to inquire into something.
But the book also discusses how we label some emotions as reasonable or unreasonable and how we therefore apply to emotions themselves judgments that are in the category or rationality and irrationality—it’s important to remember that the notion of humanity being rational means that we’re not arational and are instead either rational or irrational, so the fact that we do all kinds of irrational things doesn’t in any way contradict this notion. These judgments of rationality apply to emotions but not to feelings like feeling hot or cold or nauseated.
Emotion and Politics
1) Why do political discussions sometimes get so emotional? There are healthy political discussions where everyone’s blood pressure remains low and everyone feels like they’re working together to find the truth, but there are also unhealthy political discussions where everything deteriorates and becomes unpleasant—I think that the unhealthy political discussions occur when the participants (A) don’t share fundamental bedrock principles about how to find the truth and (B) don’t have adequate emotional self-regulation.
It’s a psychological question. And I think that we still need to develop a good theory about this—I don’t have one.
I think that it has something to do with identity and the way that people nowadays identify themselves with a certain group. Political topics have become so tribal, which means that people aren’t interested in hearing the other point of view, since it’s not even about what the facts happen to be—instead, it’s about tribal identity.
2) There are immediate things that materially impact our lives, but then there are political or religious or ideological things that are stratospherically divorced from our lives—why do some people get more emotional and angry about the latter than about the former? I myself get more emotional and angry about the latter than the former, though I know others who aren’t this way.
We can come up with some ideas about what lies behind this phenomenon.
But the basic idea is that human beings are able to talk and are therefore able—unlike animals, which only have conflicts—to have disagreements.
Another point is that people’s identity becomes bound up with a set of values such that people will feel personally attacked if those values are attacked or violated.
3) My blood pressure would increase if someone stole $100 from my wallet, but my blood pressure would increase to a much greater extent if someone made a political comment that I thought was irrational and ignorant—it’s interesting to me that the latter would materially impact my life to a lesser extent but would increase my blood pressure to a greater extent.
One possibility is that you’re having a defensive reaction.
The other person demonstrates a disregard for your conception of rationality—there appears to be no way for you to convince them that their view is absurd. So that causes you to wonder whether your standards of rationality are illusory and whether you yourself should also question those standards.
Rationality and Emotion
1) To what extent is it true that humans didn’t evolve to be reasonable and instead evolved in order to try to persuade and sway others? There’s a disturbing 19 February 2017 New Yorker article about this topic.
Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber make the case in their 2017 book The Enigma of Reason that argument isn’t—in itself—a tool for finding out what’s true. We do seek logically valid arguments that have true premises, but that pursuit can’t allow you to discover the truth, although it might make you aware of something that follows from beliefs that you already hold.
But suppose that argument is indeed designed to spin your own view and not to help you discover something true. I don’t think that that’s such a bad thing, since people can get together and engage in good-faith argumentation that allows participants to find new values and also to refine, criticize, and elaborate various arguments—it’s actually a terrifically good way to arrive at the truth when you have two people engaging in good-faith argumentation with each other.
2) I heard that it’s not useful or productive to show climate deniers data in order to try to support the argument that global heating is real—if that’s true then that’s one of the darkest condemnations of human rationality that I can imagine, since the suggestion is that it’s hopeless to try to appeal to people on the basis of evidence. But it’s important to remember that only a small number of people are unreachable on this issue—environmentalists don’t need to engage with these people and can just ignore them.
There’s a phenomenon called “backfiring” where people will dig in even further when you show them evidence that they’re wrong—there’s some controversy about whether the literature on this has been adequately replicated, but we all know from experience that this happens to at least some extent.
What this phenomenon shows is that we’ve got to learn about human psychology—we’ve learned about human psychology that you can only bring someone to believe something new on the basis of something they already believe, that what someone believes has a lot to do with who someone trusts, and that someone’s personality will play a role in how they respond to evidence that challenges their beliefs.
3) Hume makes—in his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature—the following famous comment: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Is Hume saying that rationality doesn’t exist? I get the sense that someone who takes an extremely irrational position on one or another matter could invoke this comment and say “Look! Hume is saying that it’s OK to be irrational!”.
Hume isn’t saying that. But I can see how people could take that comment out of context and say “Well, my passions are my passions!”.
I think that Hume’s core idea in that part of the book is that rationality is a process. He’s saying that reason—if understood as the instrument that gets you from one thing to another—has to start with some sort of statement if it’s going to get you to assent to some other statement. He views these raw statements—when they express values—as expressing “passions”.
A raw statement can be neither rational nor irrational—it can be true or false, but not rational or irrational, since rationality is about transitions.
4) Should people who prize rationality worry that neuroscience has revealed that our brain’s emotional circuits interpenetrate every part of our brain? And worry that there’s no island of rationality in our brain? I’m thinking of Joseph LeDoux’s 1998 book The Emotional Brain.
Anything is called an emotion if it involves caring—if you don’t care, there’s no emotion. But we only ever do things if we care.
People are researching epistemic emotions and their role in science and in our purely cognitive behavior—I’m talking about doubt, wonder, curiosity, interest, the emotion of knowing something, the emotion of understanding something, and so on.
There are actions involved in all of our rational activities—even modus ponens is actually an action that’s performed. And we wouldn’t ever perform these actions if we didn’t care.
5) What do you think about Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind? Take a look at the following excerpt from an interesting 23 March 2012 NYT review of Haidt’s book:
The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.
To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.
The idea is that reason defends “underlying moral intuitions”. I think that right-wingers are—often, at least—at a major disadvantage in the arena of rationality and evidence, so I worry that right-wingers will point to Haidt’s book and say “Look! Everyone just uses reason to support their own biases! Left-wingers and right-wingers are equally irrational!”.
It would be a misrepresentation if a right-winger pointed to the book and said that, since Haidt’s book lays a great stress on the way that conversation, discussion, and rational consideration can actually modify what you care about.
Haidt’s book lays out certain values—care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. And he presupposes that calling these values “moral” gives them special status and overrides any non-“moral” reason that you might put forward in support of a position.
My disagreement with Haidt is that I don’t actually think that “morality” should be given this status in the first place—my view is that we should set aside the issue of what’s “moral” or not, talk about the individual problems in society, and worry about each issue as it comes up.
We can discuss societal issues on the basis of non-“moral” reasons—for example, we can point out that banning abortion won’t decrease the amount of abortion in society and will simply increase the rate at which poor women die from unsafe abortions.
And we can even ask which systems of “morality” are going to be more conducive to human thriving and happiness.
6) Is it better to use the term “values” or the term “underlying moral intuitions”?
Moral intuitions are different from values. And “underlying” moral intuitions are even more different.
Where do we get our values from? In the field of ethics, one point of view is that our values ultimately come from the particular way in which we work out our emotional responses to different things. But that process of working out our emotional responses includes conversation, so conversation will modify what you care about.
Conservation can only modify what you care about on the basis of other things that you already care about, since you’ll only change your mind about some position you have—which will always be based on some value you hold—if someone appeals to a different value you also hold. There’s just no way out of that.
7) Suppose that you’re arguing for universal health care—you’ll present facts and arguments, but won’t you ultimately end up invoking some bedrock unargued values?
Sure, but it doesn’t necessarily follow from that that we have a set of basic values that somehow can’t ever be modified.
You could ask someone who opposes universal health care: “In the domain of health care, why is the freedom to take risks more important than the value of protecting everyone in society against various random unexpected risks?” And indeed, maybe it won’t be possible to resolve that conflict of values if you ask a direct question like that.
But if people approach an issue with an open mind then it’s possible to draw out all kinds of implications—you can get people to confront not just the general principles but also some of the consequences. For example, someone who thinks that universal health care is an infringement on freedom won’t be happy if an illness causes them—or someone they love—to go bankrupt.
It’s true that our values ultimately arise from what we care about—from our emotional responses. But that doesn’t stop us from reasoning—Hume’s comment about reason being “the slave of the passions” means precisely that you can draw out all of the consequences of your values, see how these various consequences interact, discover that one value that you’re committed to is in conflict with another value that you’re committed to, and decide which of two values is more important to you.
And that’s the only solution when values conflict—there’s no way to resolve these things except to have reasonable and open-minded discussions.
8) Can I be rational even if I experience knee-jerk ideological emotion? I’d like to think that I’m able to be rational. But at the same time, I have to confess that my blood pressure will increase if someone says—for example—something right-wing about the environment.
I think that you can—why would an increase in blood pressure mean that you can’t draw the right conclusion about something?
Sometimes argument and evidence leads you to an uncomfortable conclusion—maybe you find out that you were wrong or maybe you find out that you hold two values that are incompatible. But that’s exactly why we have explicit argument—explicit argument’s whole purpose is to allow us to come together and confront different things that we care about.
So it’s true that it’s not always easy or comfortable or enjoyable to accept the conclusions that we arrive at through explicit argument, but that doesn’t somehow mean that we can’t do it.
9) Are the arguments that make you most uncomfortable the exact ones that you should prioritize investigating? Regarding the pursuit of truth, maybe discomfort is a good guide to what’s most worth your time—discomfort will sometimes indicate that you’ve detected a genuine real threat to your position, though not always.
I think that that’s a very useful rule of thumb.
Mercier and Sperber present a picture where the function of argument is precisely to defend positions that you already hold. And where arguments are always put forward on an adversarial basis in the same way that the legal system operates on an adversarial basis.
If that picture is correct, you can best find the truth through debate—it’s very difficult to imaginatively make the case for the opposite view when you’re alone, whereas it’s much easier for the truth to emerge when two people are each criticizing the other’s arguments and each putting forward their own arguments.
10) Suppose that Bob and Joe have a discussion in front of some rational observers—to use the legal metaphor, Bob and Joe are the lawyers and then the rational observers are the judge and jury. When we say that the truth will emerge, will it emerge for Bob and Joe or just for the rational observers?
If Bob and Joe are rational people, they’ll be able to recognize when their arguments have been shown to be flawed and defective.
This obviously presupposes that Bob and Joe are actually trying to get to the truth—the discussion won’t lead anywhere if that’s not a condition.
But that condition isn’t necessarily unrealistic, since getting to the truth is one of the things that we care about—caring about getting to the truth is one of the epistemic emotions that’s involved in rational thought.
It’s not impossible for people to conduct this adversarial process in a successful way. And for people to come to an agreement on which arguments have survived the filter of debate and which haven’t.