Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting discussion of Joshua Gert‘s “A Fitting End to the Wrong Kind of Reason Problem.” The paper is published in the most recent edition of Ethics and is available through open access here. Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson have kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!
Joshua Gert’s excellent article sets out to defend a view of certain paradigmatically emotion-linked values—such as shameful, funny, and fearsome—by appeal to the fittingness of their paired emotional responses. For something to be shameful is for it to be fitting to be ashamed of it; what is funny is what it is fitting to be amused by; and so on. This is a version of fitting attitude (FA) theory that is restricted to a specific range of values most closely tied to the emotions.
We share all those ambitions, and the theory Gert advances resembles ours in many ways while differing in other crucial respects. So he uses our theory, rational sentimentalism, as a foil to set out some of the distinctive features of his view. We are flattered by the attention and find his treatment of our view quite fair. We also find much to agree with in his ideas about the function of affect and about emotional regulation through regulation of action. But we will focus on the contrasts here as we briefly explicate some key elements of the view he sets forth, and then press a central point of disagreement.
Most contemporary philosophers who favor FA theories of value propose, as we do, to understand the normative character of fittingness in terms of reasons. In this view, to think shame fitting is to endorse shame as supported by reasons—but only reasons of a certain kind. This famously gives rise to the wrong kind of reason problem: roughly, how to distinguish reasons of fit from other considerations for or against shame (e.g.) that are irrelevant to whether its object is shameful. Gert offers a novel position that promises to circumvent this problem by denying that fittingness should be cashed out in terms of reasons at all.(1) His view of emotional fittingness thus differs from ours. And our main objection will be that it is inadequate to capture the evaluative character of the shameful, disgusting and so on.
Gert defends what he calls a “body-first” view of emotions, in the tradition of William James. Emotional feelings are conscious registrations of bodily changes that happen when emotional mechanisms cause the body to prepare for emotional behavior—feelings of fear are registrations of a bodily preparation to run. A feeling-first view, by contrast, would hold that emotional feelings cause emotional behavior—we feel fear, and that causes us to run. Though we have not yet said much about it in print, we hold a motivational theory of emotion, according to which natural emotions are syndromes whose central feature is a special and complex motivational role: a distinctive action tendency, for which the body is primed; a goal that constitutes satisfaction of the motivation; and what Nico Frijda (1986) calls control precedence, which focuses attention on the emotional goal.(2) It is not obvious to us that this theory takes either side of Gert’s distinction.(3)
In our view, reasons to be ashamed or afraid are reasons to be in special kind of motivational state—one that normally but not always feels some way. And we grant, indeed insist, that much of the importance of questions about whether fear or shame are fitting in our sense hangs on what (and how) these emotions motivate. Gert questions the need for this notion of reasons for emotion. “If what is wanted is a regulation of behavior, why not regulate it directly?” he asks (1031). He seems to think that the distinction between what there is reason to do and what emotion is fitting suffices to capture what needs to be explained. But we will suggest that there is an important difference between reasons of fit for being in an emotion, even understood as a distinctive motivational state, and reasons for action; and that both notions are required.
As we understand him, Gert holds that emotions are fitting when they are produced by a mechanism that is functioning properly, and that emotional mechanisms function properly when they produce the emotion in response to the inputs they are set up to be set off by.(4) Gert refers to these inputs as “external cues” or “obvious markers,” and he allows that some may be innate while others must be learned. People might be innately afraid of things that slither across the ground like snakes, but learn to fear tornados or missiles at the sound of warning sirens.(5) Gert’s notion of emotional fittingness tracks this conception of the function of an emotion. In this view, if one’s “quick–and-dirty mechanisms” of emotional response are “functioning perfectly and get us ready to act in certain [characteristic] ways,” then fear or disgust will be fitting even if there is in fact nothing dangerous or noxious present (1023).
Let us follow Gert in using the word scary to refer to those things that bear the external cues to which it is fear’s function to respond, such as slithering movements, aggressive facial expressions, and (we are supposing) high-pitched sirens. We thus agree that some genuinely scary things (tarantulas and basking sharks) are not dangerous, and some dangerous things (carbon monoxide and certain tree frogs) are not scary. But we dispute the claim that all and only scary things merit fear. We hold a more strongly normative view of fittingness, on which it imports a kind of endorsement of the emotion that is not determined simply by whether the underlying mechanism is responding to cues it is set up to be set off by. In other words, we think that there is a crucial difference between the scary (what people are normally frightened of in virtue of its obvious markers) and the fearsome (stipulated to be whatever merits fear). Whether something is fearsome depends on whether there is reason to be afraid, which is determined by whether the object poses the sort of threat that justifies the syndrome of focused attention, action tendencies, and prioritized goal characteristic of fear.(6) But that question is importantly distinct from the question of whether actually to take an action that fear motivates.(7) So the question of whether an emotion is fitting, as we understand that notion, is both evaluatively significant and comes apart from the practical question of what to do.
We think that the notion of emotional fittingness that Gert employs is only tenuously normative, and his account of the emotion-linked properties or concepts is not an account of values. Being shameful or funny in his sense is not really a way of being good or bad. It is too much like a secondary quality. To be shameful or funny is to possess markers that match normal people’s shame or amusement triggers, in his view, which is similar to being such as to elicit shame or amusement. But the fact that something is disposed to elicit a response, however important this may be for certain purposes, is not the same thing as to merit that response.(8)
Gert anticipates this objection and argues that one “should not worry that my view of emotion-linked evaluative terms converts them into purely descriptive terms like ‘blue’ or ‘sour.’” (1039). He grants that blue and sour are not normative terms or concepts, even though—if we understand him correctly—he holds that blue things are fittingly seen as blue in the same sense that it is fitting to be ashamed of what is shameful. In his view, what makes shameful evaluative and blue (merely) descriptive is explained by something other than fittingness. As he (1038) puts it: “What is it that makes “shameful” normative and “blue” not?” It is important to see that it is the objector who needs to provide an answer to this question, to vindicate the charge that my account fails to make “shameful” normative.” We are unconvinced by this attempt at burden shifting, as it seems to us that if Gert accepts the distinction between evaluative concepts and descriptive ones—and locates shameful and blue on different sides of it—he needs to do more to explain why. But we will take up his challenge, since we think that we can vindicate the charge that his account does not succeed.
The fact that people are normally disposed to feel some emotion at an object with certain cues does not provide reason to respond that way. People often regret good decisions that turn out badly, but that psychological fact does not begin to justify the “bad outcome, therefore bad decision” fallacy. This motivates our sense of the sentimental value terms, which is not tied to normal response because the normal isn’t normative; one must be able to criticize even those responses granted to be normal responses to obvious cues. More specifically, it must be possible to criticize (and endorse) those responses not merely on prudential, moral, or aesthetic grounds but on grounds that speak to the specific way in which someone having the emotional response thereby takes its object to be good or bad. And this form of endorsement or criticism comes apart from evaluation of emotionally motivated action. An example will best illustrate these points.
Consider shame at homosexuality, in a social context where people’s emotional mechanisms have been trained up by social learning to elicit shame from homosexuals and contempt from others toward homosexual behavior. A gay man’s shame in such a context is wholly understandable, of course, and his shame mechanism is responding to markers that match the input conditions for which his environment calibrated it. Hence it is fitting in such a culture, in Gert’s sense (but not ours), since shame and contempt are normal responses. It follows that homosexuality is shameful in this context. But in the evaluative sense of shameful that we care about, homosexuality is not shameful even where it is normally contemned. It is not something that a gay man has reason of the right kind to be ashamed of, simply because it does not reflect badly on him. In our sense, being shameful is an evaluative property in this straightforward manner: it is a way of being bad. Whereas in Gert’s sense, it is at most instrumentally bad: it makes you the target of your own shame and the contempt of others.
Gert’s strategy in analogous cases is to replace what he thinks are misguided questions about reasons for emotions with a different question, about what to do. Could our claim that there is no reason (of the right kind) to be ashamed, even in this context, be captured by saying that there is no reason to do what shame motivates: to conceal one’s sexual preference? It cannot. There are very good reasons to conceal one’s sexual preference in a society that punishes it. Perhaps there are countermanding reasons as well, though they will be swamped whenever the punishment is sufficiently severe and the chance of changing social norms sufficiently small. But the question of what to do is a different question than the question of whether there is reason of fit to be ashamed.
Our way of going has burdens. It requires a good way of distinguishing right from wrong kinds of reasons to be afraid or ashamed. And it requires earning the right to talk about reasons for emotions in spite of the fact that such states are at best imperfectly responsive to those reasons and to one’s beliefs about them. We have not said very much in our published work about these issues, and are continuing to work on them. In the meantime, we grant that avoiding such burdens is an advantage of Gert’s approach. But we have tried here to explain a disadvantage, which leaves us preferring to shoulder those burdens rather than to adopt his alternative proposal.
(1) Gert still wants to say that the notion of fittingness is normative in some sense, and not “simply descriptive and statistical,” because fittingness invokes a proper functioning or a lack of defect in ways to be explained shortly (1017). In this sense, he says, it is also fitting see the clear noonday sky as blue.
(2) Though we differ over the details, the view defended in Scarantino (2014) is quite congenial to ours.
(3) Gert reads us (1031) as holding that it is feeling itself that moves one to action. While his interpretation of the passage he quotes is not unreasonable, that is not our view. Feelings are neither necessary nor sufficient for emotion; and Gert may be right that, when they occur, feelings are registrations of bodily changes. Or perhaps the feelings and the bodily changes are caused by the same underlying motivational mechanisms. And perhaps feelings sometimes play a causal role in the way emotional behavior plays out. These things may differ among emotion types and among episodes.
(4) Thus, “fear is fitting in the relevant sense if it is produced by an emotional mechanism that is functioning properly and that produces fear because its object actually has the relevant markers” (1026). Cf. Prinz (2004) for a different functional view.
(5) We are unsure why Gert insists that a trained zookeeper who has learned to be afraid when handling a cute but deadly tree frog can’t be afraid of the frog itself, but is instead afraid of imminent painful death. (This seems more plausible about our siren case, where that signals danger but isn’t the dangerous object.) Why can’t one learn that these frogs are deadly through training—or even in one very salient episode? And why not allow that, once learned, one is then afraid of the tree frog? Why instead make the object imminent death? We will not pursue these questions.
(6) Thus, in a slogan, fear is fitting at what is dangerous. But this does not make the fearsome into something response-independent. In our view, dangerous is a response-dependent concept. And likewise for the other evaluative terms that can be used to capture generic conditions under which an emotion is fitting—such as “reflects badly on me” for shame. We make the relevant argument in the case of fear in an earlier PEA Soup entry and in D’Arms and Jacobson (forthcoming).
(7) Fear is justified if you encounter a pack of aggressive feral dogs, and fear involves the motivation to flee. But the best action available may be to stand tall and look powerful, not to perform the action that fear primes your body to perform. Indeed, the best way to meet the goal of fear (threat avoidance) might require overcoming fear in order to do it well, or at all.
(8) This point has been made famous by John McDowell (1986) among others. While we do not believe that standards of fit can be entirely autonomous from human psychology, we see the distinction above as crucial. This is not to deny, however, that psychological or sociological questions about normal responses are interesting and important for many purposes. The scary is a useful notion, even if it is not a value.
D’Arms, Justin and Daniel Jacobson (forthcoming). “Whither Sentimentalism? On Fear, the Fearsome and the Dangerous.” In Ethical Sentimentalism, Remy Debes and Karsten Stueber, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frijda, Nico (1986). The Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McDowell, John (1985). “Values and Secondary Qualities.” Reprinted in John McDowell, Mind and World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1996).
Prinz, Jesse (2004). Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scarantino, Andrea (2014). “The Motivational Theory of Emotions.” In Moral Psychology and Human Agency, Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson, eds. Oxford: Oxford Universty Press.
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