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.

Are Status Emotions Defensible as Character Judgments?

One major defense of status emotions like deference and disdain is that they count as judgments of a person’s character. We defer to experts because they have a history of being right; we disdain scoundrels because they have a history of cheating or misleading us. In this sense, status emotions are akin to other reactive attitudes like blame and praise, only generalized. Rather than blaming someone for the acts that have harmed me, I attribute that act to a set of character traits or habits that suggest that the person is likely to harm me in the future.

It seems that this view might contain the following assumptions:

  1. People have stable characters.
  2. Our judgments about that character have a good chance of predicting future actions.
  3. Our judgments about a person’s character will not be hindered or prejudiced by irrelevant information.

So stated, I do not believe that there is much justification for this view. For one thing, there is ample evidence that stable character traits are a fiction: under importantly varying circumstances, human beings are quite malleable. Context matters much more than history, and our belief to the contary is due to a “fundamental attribution error.” At best, we can make judgments about a person’s reactions only ceteris paribus, with the recognition that the ceteris will never be paribus when the correctness of my judgments matters most, i.e. when the situation is relevantly and importantly different and I am deprived of other kinds of verification.

Even if there is such a thing as stable character, there is ample evidence that we will tend to misjudge it. This is because we tend to assume that character traits will cluster together, and to confuse physical attractiveness with good character, and physical unattractiveness with bad character. This is definitely a component of own-race bias and the various species of gender biases, but it underlies much less commented-upon biases like the bias against obesity and the bias in favor of people with symmetrical facial features. If you catch yourself thinking that the people who you respect and to whom you defer are handsome or beautiful, then you ought to be worried.

This is why status emotions cannot be defended as character judgments based on generalized evaluations of a person’s historical actions.

Hanson on doubt and justifying beliefs using markets

Robin Hanson channels and extends Thomas Reid:

What can you do about serious skepticism, i.e., the possibility that you might be quite mistaken on a great many of your beliefs? For this, you might want to consider which of your beliefs are the most reliable, in order to try to lean more on those beliefs when fixing the rest of your beliefs. Continue reading Hanson on doubt and justifying beliefs using markets

Heuristics and Biases Bleg

I’m revamping my Critical Thinking syllabus, and I’m looking to ramp up the heuristics and biases section, perhaps to four or five weeks. Most of the material I’ve reviewed is either too technical or too simplistic, akin to the “memorize a list of fallacies” model. I’d like something a bit more in-depth, but I’m balking at simply assigning large swaths of Kahneman’s Judgment Under Uncertainty (even though that’s what I really want to do.)

I’m aware of Less Wrong’s Wiki on biases, and of Cass Sunstein’s paper “Moral Heuristics.” I want more, and it would be nice if that “more” were designed for undergraduates and included suggestions for exercises and evaluations.

Any other suggestions?

The Science Fiction Industry Needs Reviewers, Not Awards

I was just reading this interesting takedown of the shortlists for the 2009 Hugo awards. Apparently, most of the books on the list aren’t very good. I only know two of the nominees for best novel, and one of them, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, was actually read to my wife and I by the author himself. Anyway, Adam Roberts complains that the Hugo shortlists, nominated and voted by members and attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention, are not very good, and that the repeated lapses in taste are hurting his industry:

every time you vote a mediocre book onto a shortlist that exists to celebrate the very best in our genre you devalue not only the award but the genre too. Please don’t devalue my genre, fandom. I love my genre. Don’t vote mediocre books onto the Hugo novel shortlist; vote good books; and excellent books. There’s plenty of them about, you know.

Roberts here reveals himself as basically clueless about formal voting theory. He’s ignoring the law of large numbers: disparate readers will tend to read only a few books in common, and these will be popular. They will probably also be mediocre since they appeal to a plurality of tastes, or at best the product of  authors with previous commercial success.

Of course, Roberts does have good taste, and so the other issue here is that his anti-populism sits poorly with the fandom he addresses. He doesn’t want to give people what they want, but rather what they need. Unfortunately, the challenging books he wants us to read don’t have mass appeal, while marginalized-but-amazing books take a while to filter into the consciousness of voters through word-of-mouth: they may spell commercial success, but that’ll take longer than an awards cycle and so they won’t be showcased.

All of which traces back to generic concerns about democracy as a formal preference sorting system rather than a substantive system for producing justice or enhancing the  good. No voting system is going to produce the best candidates if it draws preferences from voters who are literally ignorant, whether it be of a genre of fiction or the laws that govern them. And why not? Why must we be subject to great experiments in the genre that fail at execution, or ‘best policies’ that only the few, whose prejudices are legion, can recognize as best? I’d like a spoonful of sugar with my medicine, please, and I generally prefer legitimate procedures to philosopher-kings.

So Roberts’ claim that fans are ignorant is true, but as an author, he himself is partly to blame. Science fiction fans don’t have time to read everything that publishers produce any longer. There’s too much cruft, and we all grew up and got jobs. These days, I read maybe six new speculative fiction books a year. I have a lot of satisfying non-fiction and non-genre fiction vying for my time, but my roots are in sci-fi and I really do want to read more of it. The market’s just too crowded for a casual reader to be discriminating.  These shortlists and awards could be playing a major role in boosting the industry if they were more reliable, but they sure do seem to be hit-or-miss… mostly miss.

As it is, I get better results with my method: once a month or so I like to stalk the sci-fi/fantasy shelves at the big B&N, head cocked so as to read all the titles sideways. That means that I’m basically filtering the texts for authors I recognize, titles that pop, and good spine design (fonts, colors, textures, etc.) Then I do what you’re not supposed to do… I judge the book by its cover: the art and the précis on the back. I don’t even crack the book, usually: if it passes those tests I buy it.

Obviously, this is a pretty unscientific system: it skews towards established authors and books noted for mainstream appeal, because those are the authors whose publishers splurge on frills designed to grab casual folks like me. Sometimes, I get stuck on a challenging or long book. For instance, I’m chewing on Parker’s The Company right now: the writing and the feel for characters, especially women, is better than most in the genre, as is the author’s obvious fluency with the canon of island republic utopias, even though the ending that’s being foreshadowed is too tragic for my tastes. So I read a chapter a night, savoring and dreading simultaneously. On the other hand, I read Anathem in three days during my honeymoon in Costa Rica.

What science fiction needs is a culture of reviewers who all look up to (but occasionally quibble with) one or two recognized authorities. These folks shouldn’t be authors themselves, but they should read nearly everything the genre produces each year so that they can recommend books we’re likely to miss and argue with each other about which books were really better. To a certain extent, the awards system can serve as a flashpoint around which such reviews and recommendations take place. But it’s the reviewer system that needs work. What I’d really like is a discriminating review site. Not a hype site like io9, with dozens of posts a day, or an author’s blog where there are clear biases and lots of back-and-forth: what I’d like to see is maybe one good article a week, with must-read recommendations about once a month. I want science fiction to have a Siskel and Ebert.

Because the industry sees itself as a fringe or marginal one, it can’t accept this kind of aesthetic authority. Many authors don’t see much value in reviewers, especially reviewers who criticize without also producing their own work. Since so many speculative stories still depend on ‘hooks’ and ‘twists,’ a reviewer’s spoilers would in some cases hamper the reader’s enjoyment. Yet that’s a problem with any immature genre, and it’s about time for the industry to get it sorted.

The biggest objection is that empowering reviewers by granting them the aesthetic authority to judge good from bad (rather than accusing them of being shortsighted or too mainstream, as the genre does now) means that critical dismissals will destroy careers and ruin lives. Our hypothetical Siskel and Ebert will pan a few good books with all the bad ones, and those authors will feel that injustice has been done. That’s why we need a culture of non-authortative reviewers to keep them honest. From the perspective of individual authors, many of whom are just squeaking by, that seems like an unacceptable risk.

Yet twelve good recommendations a year would double my sci-fi consumption, and it seems silly to complain that these new purchases will be channeled away from mediocre art. Without trustworthy recommendations, I won’t buy that many books. As the industry changes to meet the demands of the shrinking economy, it seems like rewinning the trust and affection of casual, non-WorldCon-attending readers should be more of a priority.  Win our trust and our wallets will follow.