Emotions: Appropriate or True?

One of the major debates in the philosophy of emotions is whether they ought to be treated as propositional attitudes and judgments capable of truth-tracking or simply as moods that can be appropriate or inappropriate to a context, but not falsifiable or verifiable. The question is whether emotions are a kind of intentional cognition or not. In this way it is tied to many other debates about intentional states and cognition in ethics, theology, and language in general: the idea that some or all of our attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors are not expressions of meaningful propositions and that to evaluate them as such is a mistake

The appeal of non-cognitivism about emotions is that it recognizes the complex details of emotional phenomena, especially the way that passions are embodied and pre-linguistic, and frequently non-deliberative. There are a couple of other reasons that some non-cognitivists adopt their position, the most important of which is that this position is connected to non-cognitivism about ethics in general. Non-cognitivism about ethics is the claim that ethical propositions are neither true nor false. I’ve discussed my objections to non-cognitivism in ethics under the heading of anti-realism and relativism before: basically, I reject the claim that ethical propositions must track some fact about the world (like the painting being level or crooked) in order to be truth-tracking. (Our minds are in the world, and our ethical sentences can track facts about our minds without becoming subjective, i.e. simply tracking an individuals’ preferences or desires.)

Non-cognitivists also sometimes enunciate reasons tied to first-person epistemic privilege: if an emotion can be true or false, cognitivism seems to suggest that I can be wrong when I am angry or sad or ashamed. I tend to think this is true, in the sense that we can misrecognize our own emotions. Experiments show that a person given adrenaline can be tricked into experiencing the the heightened state as either angry or euphoric, depending on how an actor in the room with them behaves. In this sense, we can literally mislabel our emotions, or else draw distinctions that do not actually exist in our emotional states. (Of course, it is also possible that subjects in the experiment actually did experience different emotions, as the behavior of the actor created reactions that changed the valence or admixture of neurochemical reactions to produce euphoria or anger.)

Another reason to adopt non-cognitivism is to undermine the hierarchy of reason and emotion: if all emotions are only imperfectly expressed propositions, then they can be “trumped” by coldly rational articulations of the reasons these emotions express. This is partly tied to first-person epistemic privilege, but non-cognitivists often want to claim a kind of exemption for the passions, since they express a set of moods and attitudes that might be damaged by overexposure to ratiocination. Like religious beliefs, a non-cognitivist about emotions might argue that the there is something improper about trying to constantly translate and interpret the moods and passions a person experiences into propositional logic or a sentential calculus.

One way this debate sometimes plays out is that defenders of non-cognitivism charge cognitivists with “intellectualizing” the emotions, and in so doing, of participating in the denigration of the emotions in favor of reason. Yet I think  this charge is exactly reversed: I think we have an obligation to acknowledge the ways that emotions figure in our reasoning and rationality, not simply as inputs translatable into preferences, but through a complicated interplay of attention and processing that is often impassioned or mostly at the “gut level.”

But this dynamic approach to embodied cognition does replicate the hierarchy between reason and passion in one way: it means that we must submit emotions to rational reflection. The role of emotions in cognition means that we cannot simply “leave the passions alone” or refrain from judging or inspecting them. In fact, it suggests that we ought to be especially wary of the emotional component of cognition, precisely because it’s constantly interacting with the purely propositional kind of reasoning, and yet it is far too easy to ignore this role. We can recognize this when the emotions in question are racist or sexist, but then only because of two centuries of patient work by feminists and anti-racists. Other kinds of systematic emotional biases are similarly fraught with ethical implications, but they are more difficult to remark upon because there is no built-in constituency for the in-group bias, or for my favorite example: the status emotions tied to the moral intuitions related to hierarchy and authority.

Second Opinions