Saturday, December 30, 2017

The "Morally Correct" Emotional Response

Rosalind Hursthouse devotes Chapter 5 of her book On Virtue Ethics to explaining how virtue ethics gives the best account of the moral importance of emotions.

A part of her defense rests on claiming that a particular emotional response is simply intrinsically good - or, more accurately, intrinsically correct given a particular state of affairs. A part of what it means to have a particular virtue is to be disposed to have that particular response.

We should note too that the claims in combination give some cash value to the view that the feeling of certain emotions on certain tain occasions has intrinsic moral value, rather than merely instrumental mental value or some other sort of intrinsic value. Feeling this emotion then could be said to have ‘intrinsic moral value’ simply in so far as it is the manifestation of virtue.

She further states that a particular emotional response is simply "right" or "correct". . . as in "The right answer to 'What is the capital of New Zealand?' is 'Wellington'."

So, to have a particular virtue is to have a particular emotional response to relevant states of affairs. To lack the appropriate emotional response means that one lacks the relevant virtue. There is, then, an intimate link between emotion and morality; one is not moral unless one has the "correct" moral response.

The first point that I will challenge is the claim that there is a "correct" moral response - such that those who do not respond in a particular way are "doing it wrong."

The emotions that we are disposed to have are, in part, the result of millions of years of evolution. Evolution, in selecting the emotional responses we would have, did not care about any type of intrinsic "correctness" - evolution favored reactions that produced evolutionary fitness. It is useful, in the biological evolutionary sense, for the antelope to be afraid of the lion. It is also useful for the antelope to grow anxious and alert when something happens - something it might not even have consciously noticed - that would indicate a lion in the area, such as some birds suddenly taking flight or a subtle scent in the air. A different creature - one not subject to being eaten by lions, perhaps because there are no lions, or who - because of the randomness of genetic mutation - simply never acquired such a disposition and could not have evolution select for it - would not have this reaction. They do not react "incorrectly" - just differently.

You can find a detailed account of this argument in: Street, Sharon (2005). A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value. Philosophical Studies 127 (1):109-166, and which I commented on previously here. While I think that Street presents a good argument, I think she presents her case in a seriously misleading way when she claims to have an objection against moral realism rather than simply intrinsic-value realism. Her theory leaves open the possibility that real moral properties exist, but not as the type of intrinsic properties that Hursthouse's "correct" emotional responses would require.

We also have the capacity to learn certain emotional responses. Hursthouse does not deny this - and goes into a long (and largely accurate) discussion of the nature of learning to be a racist and trying to unlearn racism. What she ignores is that the systems that allow us to learn and unlearn emotional responses have also been subject to evolutionary pressure, disposing us to adopt those attitudes that kept our ancestors alive and allowed them to have children. In the case of beliefs, truth is generally important, as we have reason to know whether there is a cliff ahead or whether there is a lion in the brush is true.

However, with respect to motivational force, there is no external "correctness" to latch onto. There is only that which will dispose us to act in ways that will lead to our evolutionary success.

However, if emotions are learned due to an interaction with one's environment, and each of us is a part of each others' environment, we have reasons to promote certain emotional responses in others. Insofar as each of us have an aversion to pain, we have reason to cause others to dislike - to emotionally recoil from the thought - of causing pain to others. We are, after all, the others that they would otherwise cause to be in pain. We have reason to use our power as a part of their environment to make it the case that the "correct" response to the thought of causing pain to others is revulsion.

This is not any type of intrinsic correctness. This is a correctness that comes precisely from our aversion to pain, giving each of us a reason to create an environment in which we are less likely to experience pain, which gives us reason to cause others to acquire an aversion to causing pain. We have this power to the degree that we can understand how environmental factors might cause others to acquire an aversion to causing pain (e.g., praise those who tend to avoid causing pain and condemning those who tend to cause pain). Ultimately, the value of an emotional response is found in the usefulness of promoting that response universally, not in any type of intrinsic correctness.

Having said this, we can use an agent's emotional reaction as evidence of whether or not an agent actually has a particularly useful desire or aversion. This means that we can use the presence or absence of a particular emotional response as reason to praise or condemn an agent. We can expect that if a person breaks an important promise because something more important comes up that the agent will feel some level of regret over having broken a promise to us. If they come to us and merely report that something more important came up - with total indifference to the fact that they broke a promise, that they do not have the aversion to breaking promises that people generally have reason to promote in others. This part of what Hursthouse argues for is defensible. What is not defensible is her claim that the "correctness" of a response is an intrinsic value property that we can, in some cases, learn by reason alone and is not concerned with useful ways of fulfilling certain desires.

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