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Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Joshua Gert’s “A Fitting End to the Wrong Kind of Reason Problem,” with a critical précis by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson

6a00d83452b89569e201b8d1c673b1970cWelcome 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.

References

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.

19 Responses to Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Joshua Gert’s “A Fitting End to the Wrong Kind of Reason Problem,” with a critical précis by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson

  1. Joshua Gert says:

    First I want to express my enthusiastic gratitude to the people at PEA Soup who invited me to participate in this series of discussions: the invitation was like an unexpected gift in the mail. And I want to say how honored I am that Dan and Justin were willing to take the time to write the critical precis. I hope it is clear from the paper that I respect their work on these issues a great deal, and take it as a kind of model or standard.
    I am not at all surprised that the main focus of their criticism has to do with the normativity of emotion-linked terms. This worry is bound to arise, given the analogy I make with color terms. Moreover, I explicitly claim that the normativity of ‘shameful’ and ‘fearsome’ does not come from the normativity of the sense of fittingness at work in my account, so there is a worry about where it does come from.
    I provide a number of responses to the normativity objection in the paper, but Dan and Justin press it in a way that requires me to say more. Or, rather, it requires me to emphasize points that I left insufficiently clear in the paper. Here are the points that I want to emphasize:
    First, as Dan and Justin themselves note, the notion of fittingness or appropriateness at work in my account is not statistical; it is normative. By itself this does not answer the normativity objection, since – to repeat – this notion is normative in the case of ‘blue’ as well. But the normativity of the notion of fittingness here does mean that even if it were statistically normal for homosexuality (or, to give a similar example, premarital sex by women) to elicit shame in a certain society – or even in all societies – it would not thereby follow, on my account, that homosexuality (or premarital sex by women) was shameful. This should blunt the initial force of Dan and Justin’s primary putative counterexample, and I’ll have more to say about the counterexample in a moment. I certainly admit that if it turned out that my account entailed that homosexuality (or premarital sex by women) was shameful, something would be wrong with my account.
    Second, and relatedly, it is not merely human nature that determines the extensions of emotion-linked evaluative terms. Rather, it is also processes of ostensive teaching (p. 1026). These processes are sensitive to patterns in the set of things that elicit the emotion, since such teaching relies on a shared sense of what is relevantly similar. Some things that reliably elicit the emotion might nevertheless not get into the extension, because they have some salient dissimilarity from the other things that do. And some things that do not typically prompt the emotion might be regarded as saliently similar to such a degree that they get included in the extension despite this fact. In this way ostensive teaching “smooths out” the extensions of terms, even while those extensions resist description by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. I discuss this point a little in other work, but I didn’t make it very clear in the present paper.
    The two points I’ve just made allow me to say that the emotional responses to homosexuality in their example should be regarded as something analogous to visual illusions, even when they are, statistically, the norm. There are situations in which an object looks blue to almost everyone – that is, situations in which a statistically-normally-functioning visual system will yield a perception as of something blue – and yet the object is not blue. Analogously even a fitting-attitude theorist can regard widespread responses of shame and contempt at homosexuality as the result of something like an evaluative illusion.
    The contribution of ostensive teaching explains why I am not simply being redundant in the following sentence, which Dan and Justin quote when explaining my notion of fittingness: ‘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). This claim is not redundant because an emotion can be produced by an emotional mechanism that is functioning properly, and yet the object of that emotion might nevertheless lack the relevant markers. What counts as a relevant marker is to some degree dependent on the salient similarities on which language learning depends. When a properly functioning mechanism produces a response in the absence of the relevant markers what we have is a reliable illusion.
    The existence of reliable illusions means that Dan and Justin slightly – though understandably – misrepresent my view when they edit a passage of mine from page 1023, and claim that, according to me, ‘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’. Presented in this way, I looks like I am offering a sufficient condition for fittingness of response. But I would reject this condition as necessary or sufficient. My unedited claim concerns the relevance of the presence of the focus of the emotion, and is that ‘on occasion–our quick-and-dirty mechanisms can be functioning perfectly and get us ready to act in certain ways quite regardless of the presence or absence of [the focus of the relevant emotion]’. It is true that when this happens, I say that the emotion is fitting – but only once I’ve restricted attention to cases in which we have ‘a normal human being in (otherwise) normal circumstances’. By way of analogy, circumstances that produce reliable visual illusions do not count as normal. That is, there is something abnormal – in the relevant normative sense – in viewing a patch of light brown when it is embedded in a two-dimensional picture that represents a three-dimensional object in shadow: in such circumstances the brown patch will reliably look to be orange. So I do not take perfect functioning by itself to validate all resulting responses as fitting.
    I think that Dan and Justin take their primary difference with me to be that their notion of fittingness is more strongly normative than mine. Their notion includes an endorsement of the emotion. They may be right about the existence of this difference, but they exaggerate its size because they take me to equate ‘normal response’ with ‘fitting response’, which I don’t. They may well be right that my notion of fittingness is weaker, normatively, than theirs, in that I don’t think mine always includes an endorsement of the emotion that goes beyond what one might express by saying ‘yes, it really is embarrassing’. But it isn’t clear to me that in all cases there is a stronger form of endorsement. Now, in the case of shame, it may be that one of the salient similarities or family resemblances that help form the extension of ‘shameful’ is something normative. So I could agree with Dan and Justin not only in their conclusion, but also in their reasoning as to why a gay man shouldn’t feel shame even in the context they describe. But it seems an overgeneralization to say that all emotion-linked evaluative terms are like this. This may be one of the differences between the shameful and the embarrassing.

  2. James Dreier says:

    Great! Interesting topic.
    Like Dan and Justin I’m a little confused about the Normativity Objection. Josh, why is it that the objector is supposed to provide a full account of normatively according to which it turns out that your view fails to vindicate it? Is it because you are just agnostic about whether ‘shameful’ and the like are normative?
    Also: I would have thought, just without thinking about it too much, that a “fitting visual reaction” account of ‘blue’ would in fact make ‘blue’ normative. On that account, something’s being blue immediately entails that it is fitting to see it as blue, right? But you think that’s not sufficient to show that ‘blue’ is normative?

  3. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Jamie!
    Thanks for chiming in!
    Here’s a response to your first question.
    I think Dan and Justin were right that my attempt at wholesale burden-shifting was too quick. What I should have said was that no one knows what ‘normative’ means, and that I suspect that it does not have a unified meaning. As a result, the objector needs to tell me more about the specific way in which my account misses something important about the meaning of, say, ‘shameful’; something that someone might reasonably identify with the basis for its being a normative term.
    So I concede that point. But I do consider, on the behalf of the objector, a handful of suggestions as to what the “something important” is, that is distinctive of normative terms. And it looks to me like my account allows ‘shameful’ and other emotion-linked evaluative terms to have that something.
    Now let me think about your second question…

  4. Thanks for that reply, Josh. So you also want to be able to deny that it is shameful to be homosexual n a society like the one we imagined. So we agree on another point. I was not sure how you would approach that sort of case and thought you might be more inclined toward a relativistic understanding of ‘shameful.’
    I take your point about normalcy—your notion of fittingness is not statistical, so even a statistically normal tendency could be unfitting. So the fact that it is normal to be ashamed at something does not suffice to make it shameful. Some of what we said was a little too quick on this point.
    I think I do not understand quite how you want ostensive teaching to work, though. I guess that in the visual illusion case you describe, part of the basis for saying that the patch which our visual systems lead us to perceive as blue really isn’t blue even though the visual mechanisms are working well has to do with the way the term ‘blue’ is taught. Perhaps people are taught that a patch’s actual color is not affected by its neighboring patches (or something), and thus that something that looks blue in good light can still fail to be so due to the interfering effects of its neighbors (or something). But things seem different in the shame case.
    As we imagined the shame case, the culture in question was inculcating shame for homosexuality. So I was imagining that ostensive teaching is training people there to apply the term ‘shameful’ to homosexual behavior. When we said that his shame mechanism is “responding to markers that match the input conditions for which his environment calibrated it” I was thinking of that calibration as something that was effected by ostensive learning. And I was thinking that, if so, homosexuality is one of the ”relevant markers” in such an environment. Where was I going wrong in this line of thought? If the linguistic training were going in the way that I am supposing here, wouldn’t homosexuality be a relevant marker in your sense? If not, why not? I think that would help me understand the picture better.

  5. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi again, Jamie,
    Your second question seems to presuppose a certain account of normativity; one according to which the presence of a term like ‘fitting’ in an account of some other term entails that that the second term is normative. I don’t have a general account of normativity – because I don’t think any such account is possible. But I don’t think the implicit account in your question is very plausible – or, better, very useful for that many purposes – given how I am understanding ‘fitting’.
    The sort of fittingness or appropriateness of response that I have in mind for ‘blue’ is one that I think simply comes along with the notion of representation: with the idea that chromatic visual responses can be accurate or inaccurate. These notions – representation, appropriateness, accuracy – become applicable for pragmatic reasons (the usefulness of asking for things by reference to their colors, for example) and depends also on there being sufficient uniformity in human responses. Since this sort of fittingness seems to me to underlie all referential language, it doesn’t seem very useful to say that it brings normativity with it. On the other hand, I could see some philosophical contexts, and purposes, for which one might use ‘normative’ in a stipulative sense that would entail the normativity of ‘blue’, and all other referential terms.

  6. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Justin,
    Thanks for pressing me on this. I think it is possible for ostensive teaching to use certain paradigms when teaching a term, and then for it to turn out that those paradigms weren’t after all in the extension of that term. Whales might be used in this way to teach the term ‘fish’. What ends up excluding whales from the extension of “fish” is an explicit theory, and explicit “smoothing out” of the extension, in line with principles like explanatory usefulness in the sciences. But there are implicit theories too, and other sorts of “smoothing out.” In claiming that the people in the society you are envisioning are making an error, I am assuming that the concept they are teaching ostensively is our concept “shameful” (otherwise I would simply say that they are using a defective term). And I am assuming that something explains why they are making the error they are making – something other than homosexual behavior actually having the relevant properties. By way of analogy, I think that there are a number of culture-wide moral illusions (many of which have to do with sex) that are explained by the fact that the church co-opted moral concepts to enforce a set of norms that in fact have nothing to do with morality. A clear view of the historical origins of these moral attitudes would, I think, function to debunk them.
    I might mention, at the risk of seeming (being?) self-promoting, that I provide a more complete answer to Jamie’s second question in Normative Bedrock, in section 3 of chapter 3. And I provide more discussion of evaluative illusions in section 4 of my paper “Colour, Emotion and Objectivity.”

  7. James Dreier says:

    I thought you chose ‘blue’ because lots of people think it is a response-dependent concept. No? Would ‘square’ do just as well? If all there is to fittingness in our perceptual reactions is accuracy, then ‘square’ should be just as good.
    I don’t have an account of what normativity is, but I think it’s pretty plausible that if a concept has, let’s say, a normative constituent, then it is itself normative. Do you disagree?
    On a slightly different topic:
    One thing I like about Justin and Dan’s view is that it promises to explain fittingness in terms of reasons. Other views (I recently heard Chris Howard give a paper like this) offer to explain reasons in terms of fittingness. But Josh’s view does neither of these things, as far as I can tell — is that right Josh?

  8. Brad Cokelet says:

    Interesting discussion! In their critique Justin and Dan write, “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,” and they then go on to criticize this alternative (i.e. the appeal to reasons for action).
    Perhaps there is another option here though?
    Gert could accept that shame is apt, for example in the homosexual case, but argue that the agent nonetheless has no reason to believe he is bad, unworthy of respect, etc. Often he will also have reason to criticize and try to reform the social practices that make shame apt even if his reasons to actively flout the standing norm are swamped (as in the cases Justin and Dan mention). But there is at least reason for belief.
    Interestingly, this looks close to the approach that Cheshire Calhoun advocates in “Apology for Moral Shame” (reprinted as chapter 2 of her recent book Moral Aims). She plausibly tells us that, “members of subordinate groups quite often reject substantial chunks of the evaluative commitments, styles of reasoning, and assumptions about group difference embedded in the dominant social practice of morality,” but that the, “dominant practice of morality generally continues to be one of the moral practices that members of subordinate groups share.” Because they share in these practices, members of subordinate groups remain vulnerable to feeling shame for things that they do not believe are bad. Although I’m not sure she speaks to the specific issue, Calhoun might well accept that in such cases the shame is fit but point out that the subjects of shame can and should also reject the related “chunks” of evaluative commitments, styles of reasoning, etc.

  9. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Jamie,
    Yes, I chose the analogy with blue because of its response-dependence. For me, blue counts as response-dependent because it is only because we humans have a certain uniformity in response that we have the concept of blue. On the other hand, one might expect other beings to come to have the concept of squareness: indeed, we might have come to it if we’d been only gifted with sight, or only gifted with touch. The many varied avenues to a concept of squareness or water mean that there are criteria for something counting as square or water that go beyond our response being appropriate – though it is also true that if something is square it’s appropriate to see it that way. In the case of response-dependent concepts, it is our responses, and our judgment that the response is appropriate, that does all the work. I want to say the same sort of thing about emotion-linked evaluative terms, so an analogy with ‘square’ wouldn’t have served my purpose.
    With regard to your claim that if a concept has a normative constituent, it is normative, I might agree. But I don’t think that the concept BLUE has appropriateness as a constituent. Indeed, I think it is a primitive, unanalyzable property. But I also think that something is blue if and only if normal people, in normal conditions, have “blue experiences” when viewing it. And I think that’s an informative claim, about the nature of blueness.
    With regard your last point, in fact I do provide an account of reasons in terms of fittingness. That’s the account of basic normative practical reasons I defend in Normative Bedrock. I take practical rationality to be a response-dependent property, and in that particular case I think that the extension turns out to allow us to talk about facts that make systematic contributions to it. These are reasons. But I think there are lots of other response-dependent properties that have extensions that are not determined systematically in this way. And in those cases, I don’t think we can provide an account of reasons in terms of fittingness.

  10. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Brad,
    Thanks for the suggestion; I’ll have to take a look at the Calhoun. In the particular case of the shameful, however, I am not strongly inclined to go that route. And I think that although Justin and Dan may be right that in some cases I would replace questions about reasons for emotions with questions about action, that’s not the way I deal with their particular example. Rather than saying ‘this person has no reason to act as shame prompts’ I agree with them that the person should not feel shame in the first place. Do you think there’s some advantage in coopting Calhoun to deal with this case?

  11. Daniel Jacobson says:

    Hi Josh,
    I see why you want to say that even in a culture where certain norms — those we do not accept — are inculcated, and people typically respond in accordance with them, they might nevertheless be mistaken. Hence these typical responses are not fitting, you can say. But I’m not sure I understand when you get to say that about any particular case. Such as ours.
    Do you agree that this is something your position does not allow: It does not allow you to wield an independent notion of what is an isn’t shameful (funny, fearsome, etc) and then declare these typical responses to be unfitting on the grounds that they do not accord with your independent conception of when shame (etc.) is fitting. That would be to undermine any claim that you’re really using a notion of normality, even one that is not statistical normality.
    Assuming we agree about that, my question then is: On what grounds do you get to say that shame at being gay or having premarital sex, or whatever, is unfitting; that these typical responses are like optical illusions in being predictable errors. Evaluative illusions, as it were.
    Is it that you owe an argument that coherence with other norms, or perhaps with other putatively shameful things, suffices to rule out these responses as unfitting? But perhaps you think such a coherence-based argument — one based on “salient similarities” as you put it — can be found for these and similar cases.
    Am we on the same page about how your argument would have to go, putting aside the question of whether any such argument can be made persuasively under these ground rules?

  12. Brad Cokelet says:

    Hi Josh,
    I can’t do justice to Calhoun’s very interesting arguments but one of her main points is that our moral identities or, I would say, characters are shaped by social-psychological practices that are largely independent of our attempts to think things through normatively. Shame is part of these social-psychological practices. When agents are embedded in practices that they only half-heartedly accept and that they don’t want to, or can’t, just leave behind these practices, then it makes sense for them to feel shame in the face of social pressure – even social pressure that they wish was not there. Saying that their shame is inapt or that they should not feel shame is problematic because it implies they should detach from the relevant practices (and perhaps that feeling the shame is their mistake rather than a reflection of the flaws in the practice). It is better to say that their shame is apt but that they have good normative views about why it would be better to live in a world with practices that made the shame inapt. Their shame does makes sense in their actual world though, given the flawed practices they quite sensibly inhabit (it might be the best of their actual options). This is my *attempt* to convey Calhoun’s position as I understand it now and why I find it tempting.
    Here is a cobbled together quote that might be of interest:
    “Morality is, in part, a critical, normative enterprise conducted by individuals who use their own best judgment to arrive at moral standards and practical conclusions…Shame, as I have characterized it, does not serve this dimension of the moral enterprise….While hypothetical moral worlds of ideally rational agents are heuristically useful in evaluating the justifiability of moral principles and norms, morality is only practiced in real social worlds. Even if particular social practices of morality seem flawed from the individual’s critical, normative perspective, the social practice of morality is the only moral game in town. It is only in real social worlds that I have a moral identity. Who I am, morally, is who I am interpretable and identifiable by others as being. That I fancy myself (even with what I take to be the best reasons) to be one kind of person rather than another does not give me an identity as that kind of person….As moral philosophers who have been trained to think of moral agents primarily as critically reflective, autonomous persons, it is tempting to conclude that the subordinated would be best served by becoming more thick-skinned and refusing to give others’ shaming criticisms practical weight. It is tempting, that is, to focus on altering the emotional responsiveness of the socially subordinate moral agent. This is a mistake, though. From both moral and political points of view, the social practice of morality needs to be taken more, rather than less, seriously. From a moral point of view, taking the social practice of morality seriously is central to taking morality seriously. Thus it is no error on the part of the subordinated that they feel the practical weight of their fellow participants’ moral criticisms. From a political point of view, taking the social practice of morality seriously is central to the pursuit of social justice.”

  13. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Daniel,
    First I’m going to take what I think I can get from you: that my account at least allows for cases in which typical responses are mistaken. The question then is about what argument I can offer that this is the right thing to say about what’s going on in your example. Your worry is that I am sort of in the position of someone who doesn’t want to count whales as fish, BEFORE any theorizing has happened that gives support to that claim. Or – even worse – that if my view is correct, I might well be in the position of someone who doesn’t want to count trout as fish, and is stipulating that there is some story that will make trout go the same way as whales.
    About the permissibility of my wielding an independent notion of what is and isn’t shameful, here’s my answer. I take ‘shameful’, like ‘blue’ and other response-dependent terms, to name properties that are not subject to analysis. What they get, instead, is a genealogy – an explanation of how they come to appear in the language and function as they do. So blueness is not to be analysed in terms of responses or fittingness; it is a primitive concept. The biconditional that relates blueness to normal people, normal conditions, and experiences of blue is something that results from how ‘blue’ gets taught (and ‘normal’ too). But we don’t have to figure out anything about how people see things in order to apply the concept BLUE to something once we’ve learned it. We just see things as blue, say ‘That’s blue’, and usually we are right. In the case of ‘shameful’, I want to say something similar. Even without anything like theory that unifies and rationalizes those responses (excluding some as unfitting, and classifying others as fitting even if I don’t actually experience them), I have competence with the concept SHAMEFUL, which does the same work.
    Of course, the members of the community in your example think they have the same competence, and make different judgment than I do. The result is a disagreement, and I think you think it’s a stalemate for me, and that I should retreat until I can find some argument. I don’t think that’s right. In the case of blueness, there are sometimes disagreements about when it applies. That we use the words ‘true’ and ‘false’ in connection with claims about the colors of things depends to a large degree on the fact that there are pretty effective ways of resolving the conflicts by pointing out certain things about the viewing circumstances of one of the disputants, and that there are practical benefits that flow from using truth-talk to get everyone to classify the same things as having the same colors. I think the same is true of shamefulness. So I think I am using the word ‘false’ in its normal sense when I claim that it is false that it is shameful to be gay. And my talk of falsity here brings with it a commitment to the idea that something is messing up the responses of the people who think it’s true.
    So I don’t think I would say that I “owe an argument that coherence with other norms, or perhaps with other putatively shameful things, suffices to rule out these responses as unfitting.” At least I would deny this if doing so involves offering something like a theory of shamefulness, justified on grounds of coherence. I think that response-dependent notions don’t yield to theorizing in that way. Of course, it is true that in some cases it is possible to offer some local consideration (local in the sense that it is relevant given the context, but doesn’t form the basis for sweeping generalizations) that should persuade people that a response is unfitting. Maybe that’s all you mean by ‘an argument’. For example, in the case of disgust, if we can tell a story about the coopting of the disgust mechanism in a community by a certain religion, which worked by explicitly associating members of other religions with genuinely disgusting things, then people might be expected to take their own disgust at members of that other religion as unfitting; or at least we, looking at things from outside, could be expected to do this. I could come up with an argument of this very weak sort; I would just mention some of the things that make it seem to me that being gay isn’t actually shameful. But I think you think I need to do more than this.
    Okay, it is late here. Let me see if sleep brings any more clarity. If so, I’ll share it in the morning.

  14. Daniel Jacobson says:

    Thanks for the response, Josh. This is very interesting.
    You write:
    I could come up with an argument of this very weak sort; I would just mention some of the things that make it seem to me that being gay isn’t actually shameful.
    That’s exactly what I want to say. And you’re right that I thought you needed to do more than that. Does the issue between us come down to whether you’ve really got a normality criterion here at all, rather than a correctness criterion?

  15. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Brad,
    Thanks for that. It sounds more than interesting. My general take on normativity also very strongly emphasizes the social aspect of not only morality, but rationality and all other normative and evaluative domains. Still, I think I might resist Calhoun’s claim that shame is fitting for the agents you describe, at least in the sense of ‘fitting’ that makes it true that what is shameful is what is fitting to feel shame at doing. There are loads of other senses of ‘fitting’, of course, and the quote you put together suggests an important one. The reason I would resist your suggestion is that the way in which these agents might contest the particular standards could be by saying that it ISN’T shameful to X or Y. That claim is itself part of a social practice; the “talking about what is true and false” practice, which is also distorted when one fails to think of it as social. All of this is consistent with subordinated people still being – unless they are pathological – susceptible to a very understandable shame when people criticize them for having X-ed or Y-ed.

  16. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Dan,
    I don’t think the normality/correctness distinction is really the issue between us – or anyway not the really important one. I’ve been using ‘normal’ and ‘appropriate’ and ‘fitting’ somewhat interchangably, because participants in the discussion know what role the term is meant to play in a certain claim: that what is shameful is what it is fitting/appropriate/normal to feel shame at having done. But of course there are other senses. In your precis, ‘normal’ sometimes meant ‘statistically normal’. Still, sometimes it is a lot more apt to use ‘fitting’ or ‘correct’ than to use ‘normal’, and I’ve probably used ‘normal’ in some places in which it would have given a more accurate view of my position to have used ‘fitting’ or ‘appropriate’, since those terms connote something more like accuracy – which is my model, given the analogy with secondary qualities like color.
    I am beginning to think that the real issue between us has to do with the concept of a reason. For me, when reasons do philosophical work in determining a normative status – like ‘morally permitted’ or ‘irrational’ – they do this by making systematic contributions to those statuses. That is, any given basic reason has a set of normative capacities – essentially, strength values – that it keeps from context to context, and contributes. Unless this or something very similar is the case, I’ve argued elsewhere (as has Selim Berker, in “Particular Reasons”), it becomes impossible to talk about the strength(s) or weight(s) of the reason even in a fixed context, so that explanatory appeals to how the reasons determine the status in the given case are empty. That is, unless reasons make systematic contributions to what is shameful, it isn’t explanatory to identify shamefulness with what there is reason to feel ashamed of. And I don’t think there are any considerations that make systematic contributions to shamefulness. Part of the point of the paper was to make this plausible, by reference to the quick-and-dirty nature of the emotions, and the contingent and pragmatic ways in which language-learning combines with the emotions to yield the extensions of the emotion-linked evaluative terms.
    There is another sense of ‘reason’, which is perfectly fine, and which I think of as ‘something salient one might cite in trying to get someone to see things one’s way’. But the concept of this sort of reason cannot do much philosophical work. That is, if we think of reasons in this way, there isn’t a set of reasons of the relevant sort (shamefulness-relevant reasons, as it might be) that count in favor and against something’s being shameful. Rather, there is a practical skill – identifying something as shameful. And when two people exercise this skill in different ways, they can try to persuade each other to change their view by mentioning things that they found salient.
    I discuss this more in section V of “Color Constancy and the Color/Value Analogy.”

  17. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Dan and Justin,
    It seems like we are coming closer and closer. That’s nice. But here is what I take to be a significant difference between our views.
    As I understand your view, the reasons of fit are the ones that have to do with the focus of the emotion. And, as you say, ‘much of the importance of questions about whether fear or shame are fitting in our sense hangs on what (and how) these emotions motivate’. But then I think that for your reasons of fit are really a subset of reasons for action. The fact that an action is shameful means that there is a certain kind of prima facie case to be made for acting as shame prompts. This prima facie case can be overridden by other reasons. Or there might be no such prima facie case, even though a different sort of case could be made for the same behavior. The latter is what is going on in the case you describe, in which concern about punishment motivates hiding one’s sexual preference. My view differs from yours in that I think that for some emotion-linked evaluative terms, on some occasions, no prima facie case at all is available for acting as the emotion prompts, even though the emotion is fitting, and the emotion-linked term applies.
    I think you think the extensions of emotion-linked evaluative terms have simpler and more unified explanations that I do. I am happy to admit that the existence or non-existence of a prima facie case for acting as the emotion prompts, based in a conception of what the focus of the emotion is, will have some influence on the extension of the emotion-linked evaluative term. But I think that salient similarity to paradigm “rough and ready” triggers will have a similar effect on the extension too. And there will be other influences as well. If one views the extension of ‘admirable’ and tries to give an account of it without reference to admiration and when it is appropriate, I don’t think there’s any hope. But for you two, that isn’t right. Admiration has a motivational profile that allows you to come to a view as to what its focus is, and then you’ve got a conception of that focus which can do – you think – the work of explaining why certain things are admirable, and others aren’t. Of course, you wouldn’t have come up with that focus without thinking about admiration. But the description of the extension need not mention admiration, for you, once you’ve got ahold of what the focus is.
    Probably I’ve distorted your view here somewhat. But I do think that I’m getting at a genuine difference between our views.

  18. Hi Josh,
    Sorry to be slow. I’m leaving tomorrow and have had to get a lot done today. It does seem like we agree about more than we thought. We thought that your talk of normal responses, and of whether emotional mechanisms are functioning properly, were an attempt to flesh out the notion of fittingness by appeal to notions that were distinct from correctness—trying to give an account of emotional correctness, or offer a substitute for it, in order to explain fittingness. It sounds from your penultimate like that was not your goal, at least for normality. Is the same true for function? It is now not clear to me what work function or normality do in your view. For instance when you say ‘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’ I am not sure what the part about the emotional mechanism adds. Could you have simply said that fear is fitting when the object has the relevant markers?
    Next, what are the relevant markers of the shameful and fearsome? We all agree that whatever there is to be said about this must be informed by the relevant emotion. So any account of shame’s ‘focus,’ or any interpretation of its appraisal as we would put it, in order to be adequate, will ultimately have to be informed by the kind of emotion shame is. But it’s true we hold out some hope that there may be a way of saying informative things about that appraisal all the same—things about which anyone subject to shame could be expected to agree, even if they disagree about what things are shameful—what things really possess the markers, so to speak. There is no a priori guarantee that there will be an informative way of describing such appraisals in terms other than ‘fearsome,’ ‘shameful’ and such. But there sometimes seems to be, and we try. Your latest seems pessimistic about that project. Is there nothing systematic to be said about these sorts of questions, beyond that what is shameful is what it is fitting to be ashamed of, on your view?
    On the question you raise of whether there is always some (pro tanto) reason to do something (say, make reparations, or retaliate) whenever it is fitting to feel an emotion that motivates you to do that kind of thing (guilt, or anger), we are indeed inclined to say yes. So that is a point of disagreement. We have gone back and forth a bit on this question, and I don’t think the answer we now want to give is entailed by understanding fittingness in terms of reasons for anger or guilt etc.. Getting to reasons to act requires supplemental premises. They are controversial but seem plausible to me. But that is a topic for another time…
    Anyway, thanks for the discussion, it has been very interesting. I look forward to more of them.

  19. Joshua Gert says:

    Hi Justin (and Dan),
    I realize you are travelling, and won’t see this until next week, but here’s my response anyway.
    You say that you and Dan thought my talk of normal responses, and of whether emotional mechanisms are functioning properly, was an attempt to flesh out the notion of fittingness by appeal to notions that were distinct from correctness—trying to give an account of emotional correctness, or offer a substitute for it, in order to explain fittingness.
    You are right that I was not trying to analyze emotional correctness in terms of anything like evolutionarily proper functioning. My focus is more linguistic. My appeal to evolutionary considerations was meant to suggest that the set of things that elicit the responses on which processes of language-learning operate is going to diverge pretty significantly from the set of things that provide the basis for a prima facie case for acting as the emotion prompts. As I result, it seemed to me extremely plausible that the extension of the emotion-linked evaluative term would diverge from any set that could be explained in terms of special set of practical reasons. That is the basis for my skepticism about your view and other views that attempt to solve the WKR problem. My view of when a response counts as fitting or correct is taken from Pettit, as I note in the paper.
    You ask whether I could simply have said that fear is fitting when the object has the relevant markers, omitting reference to the proper functioning of an emotional mechanism. I believe that when I wrote the sentence to which you refer in asking this question, I had the following thought in mind: it isn’t fitting to be afraid of something when one is not even aware that it has the relevant markers. So just having the markers isn’t enough.
    You say that you and Dan ‘hold out some hope that there may be a way of saying informative things about that appraisal all the same—things about which anyone subject to shame could be expected to agree, even if they disagree about what things are shameful’. I agree with something very much like this. That is, my account explains why people can be expected to agree that when one feels shame, one feels like doing such and so sorts of things: things for which a prima facie case could be made, if the object of their shame really had (which it might or might not) the characteristics that are the focus of the emotion. It would not be at all surprising that they would also largely agree to something like the following: that it feels as if there are good reasons for acting in that way. If they say that, I think they are sometimes wrong.
    You ask whether I think there is anything systematic to be said about the focus of an emotion. Yes, as I mention in the paper, I think that evolutionary theory might explain why we have certain emotions: because we need quick-and-dirty responses to certain kinds of situations. In characterizing those situations, one specifies the focus of the emotion. What I deny is that there is anything like a direct line from an account of such a focus and the extension of the related emotion-linked evaluative term. That’s why I say that ‘the focus of an emotion is both more objective, and of more remote and theoretical interest’. What I am pessimistic about is a systematic account of the extension of emotion-linked evaluative terms.
    Thanks again, to both of you, for your attention to my paper. It is very interesting to me that we are as close as we are, and I think we’ve narrowed down the sources of our disagreement pretty well. I also very much hope we can continue these discussions later – or, indeed, sooner rather than later.