Emotions, Values and Norms - The Emotion-value connexions

Swiss Centre of Affective Sciences
University of Geneva



Projects leaders: Otto Bruun, Julien Deonna, Kevin Mulligan, Raffaele Rodogno, Fabrice Teroni

What are the relations between emotions and related phenomena, on the one hand, and values, on the other hand? We investigate numerous versions of the claim that emotions have values as their formal objects and the relations between such claims and the thesis in psychology that emotions constitutively involve appraisals. The investigation proceeds in two directions. First, we consider the general theory of formal objects and its role in a theory of intentionality and knowledge and attempt to locate the place of values, emotions and preferences within such a theory. Secondly, we consider a series of more specific questions. In particular, what does it mean to say that we care about moral values and that we should care about them? What is the role of the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate emotions in the development of folk morality? How should we distinguish between inappropriate emotions, quasi-emotions and sham emotions?

1. Formal objects, intentionality and value

Philosophers and psychologists have often claimed that emotions involve appraisals or evaluations. One version of this claim has it that values are the “formal objects” (Kenny) or “correlates” (Husserl) of emotions. What do such claims mean? Are they true?

Perhaps the simplest version of the view is the claim that when someone is afraid he believes or judges that something is dangerous, that to feel one type of  indignation is to believe or judge that a situation is unjust, etc. There are two objections to such claims. First, many emotions are associated not with beliefs or judgements but with non-conceptual perceptual states or memories. Thus one may admire someone on the basis of a perception of the way the person looks. This objection suggests, at the very least, that not all emotions involve value-judgements or axiological beliefs. The second objection is more far-reaching: emotions involve neither presentations nor representations of values. This objection might be part of a general rejection of the very idea that emotions have formal objects or of the idea that these formal objects are values. But one version of the objection is in fact compatible with the view that emotions have values as their formal objects. According to this version of the objection, values figure in the correctness conditions of emotions but are not (re)presented by emotions. Thus fear of an object is correct (appropriate, justified) only if the object is dangerous; preference for y over z is correct only if y is better than z; a mixture of awe and subdued fear is correct only if the object is sublime. The fact that values figure in the correctness conditions for emotions does not imply that emotions themselves present or represent values.

It might be the case that although emotions do not themselves represent or present values, they are nevertheless associated with some sort of intentional relation to values. The best candidate for this role seems to be what is sometimes referred to as “feeling” (the nominalised verb, not the noun, “das Fühlen”). Then fear, for example, should be understood as a reaction to felt danger, indignation as a reaction to felt injustice. Of course, this is not quite right. The object of fear may not be dangerous and the object of indignation may not be unjust. Emotions should therefore be described as reactions to felt danger, injustice or other values or to what seems to be the felt danger of objects, the felt injustice of situations, etc.

The two claims, that values figure in the correctness conditions of emotions and that emotions are reactions to (what seems to be) the felt value of objects and situations, are best understood as part of a more general theory of intentionality, knowledge and correctness conditions. For a full understanding of emotions requires that we understand all the types of intentionality with which the intentionality of emotions is connected, in particular the intentionality of desire an belief.

One such general theory assigns different formal objects to many of the main types of intentional states, acts and activities. The formal object of judgement or belief is the truth of propositions or facts. The formal object of one’s desire to F is that one ought (ethically speaking, prudentially speaking, from the point of view of practical rationality….) to F. The formal object of a wish that p is that it ought to be the case that p. The formal object of one’s (subjective) certainty that p is that p is (objectively) certain. The formal object of one’s surmise or conjecture that p is the probability that p.

With respect to each of these claims some philosophers have argued that the relevant mental state, act or activity involves a representation of the corresponding formal objects. Thus some have argued that to judge or believe that p is to judge that the proposition that p is true, that to desire to F is to entertain the thought that one ought to F. It is apparent that these views are cousins of the view described and rejected above, to the effect that to enjoy an emotion is to represent a value. It seems likely that all these views stand or fall together.

The general theory described here does not assign any correctness conditions to those mental states, acts and activities which constitute knowledge (knowledge that p, acquaintance, coming to know that p). Why not? Knowledge has no correctness conditions. It is already, so to speak, correct. Indeed, according to the same general theory, it is constitutive of knowledge and of coming to know that in such states and activities formal objects, properties and relations are (re)presented. To come to know that p is to enjoy a (re)presentation of the fact that p.

The theory claims that there is a deep similarity between belief and emotions. Beliefs are reactions to knowledge or to apparent knowledge of facts. Similarly, emotions are reactions to the (apparently) felt value of objects and situations. The similarity does not stop there. To feel value is a type of knowledge, affective knowledge. Those contemporary philosophers who have argued that emotions or desires can disclose value are wrong. Emotions and desires are not qualified to play such a role. As a handful of philosophers have argued, feeling and one type of preference are so qualified.

The general theory of correctness conditions for all non-epistemic states, acts and activities involves two further claims. First, correctness conditions involve more than specification of merely necessary conditions for correctness. Secondly, correctness conditions for mental states, acts and activities, are not to be confused with what are called “satisfaction conditions” for mental, states, acts and activities.

A preference for y over z is correct, we said, only if y is better than z. It is also true that if the preference for y over z is correct, then it is correct because y is better than z. Analogous claims hold with respect to every type of correctness condition. The following question then arises: what does “because” mean in such contexts? Only a general account of reasons and of the different types of “because” can furnish answers to these questions. On one such account, the relevant “because” is neither the causal “because”, nor the “because” of subjective reasons, but what is sometimes called the essential or conceptual “because”. At this point the theory of the intentionality of emotions and other acts, states and activities becomes part of the philosophy of logic and, in particular, of the properties of the “because” connectives and of their relations to different types of necessitation. It also becomes part of the philosophy of reasons. One illustration must suffice. Consider the case with which we began. One admires something on the basis of perceptual information. Suppose that one is right to admire what one admires on the basis of perceptual information. The correctness condition for the admiration is, trivially, the admirability of the object in question. But what is the correctness condition of admiring on the basis of perceptual information? The perceptual information is the subject’s reason or motive for admiring what he admires. What makes his reason a good reason? His reason is a good reason only if the admired object is admirable because of its perceived properties. The “because” here is the normative “because”. Further, his reason is a good reason only if the subject admires what he admires because this correctness condition obtains. The “because” here is the essential “because”. 

Perhaps the only general theory of intentionality which is of the same type as that presented here and which has a comparable degree of generality is that developed by John Searle (Searle, 1983). His theory has four distinctive features. First, it gives satisfaction conditions, not correctness conditions for intentional states and acts. Searle’s satisfaction conditions mention no formal objects and attribute no formal properties or relations. Thus (a simplified version of) his satisfaction condition for desire is that x’s desire to F is satisfied only if Fx and the fact that Fx is caused by x’s desire to F. Secondly, it gives satisfaction conditions for knowledge-candidates, such as perceptual experience. Thirdly, it gives satisfaction conditions for propositional states only. Finally, and most importantly, Searle’s theory gives no satisfaction conditions for emotions. Indeed, there are no satisfaction conditions for emotions unless emotions can be constructed out of beliefs and desires. Thus Searle’s theory of intentionality is condemned to ignore the intentionality of emotions. In this respect, if in no others, it resembles traditional belief-desire-action psychology.

The general theory presented here gives correctness conditions for all non-epistemic, intentional states, including non-propositional states and acts, and, in particular, emotions. It rejects the very idea that knowledge candidates could have satisfaction or correctness conditions. It identifies emotions and beliefs as reactions to knowledge or apparent knowledge rather than as possible constituents of knowledge and shows how the different formal objects, properties and relations, values, norms and truth, hang together.

The devil is in the details. Whatever the form of a general theory of intentional acts or states and formal objects, the claim that emotions have values as their formal objects or are associated with states which have such objects, is multiply ambiguous. We should distinguish, at the very least, the claim that each emotion has a distinctive formal object (the individuating thesis), the claim that formal objects are required in order to make sense of emotions (the intelligibility thesis), and the claim that formal objects play a role in determining whether emotions fit their non-formal objects (the appropriateness thesis).

Suppose that emotions, as many philosophers and psychologists have argued, involve both an affective dimension and a dimension that is intellectual, for example, doxastic, or perceptual or mnesic. Suppose, further, that the intentional relation between emotions and their non-formal objects, between fear and the dog, not the relation between fear and danger, is such that the intentionality of the emotion is inherited from that of its intellectual or perceptual basis. Then there are good reasons for thinking that the individuating thesis and many strong versions of the intelligibility thesis are false.

Links to related articles:

[5] Mulligan, K. (200?). Ascent, propositions and other formal objects. Submitted to Grazer Philosophische Studien.

[7] Teroni, F. (200?). On the formal objects of emotions. Submitted to Dialectica.

[13] Mulligan, K. (2006). Facts, formal objects and ontology. To appear in Andrea Bottani and Richard Davies (eds), Modes of Existence. Papers in Ontology and formal Logic, Heusenstamm: Ontos Verlag.


2. Emotions, care and moral values

Whether or not values are the formal objects of emotions or can be affectively known, it certainly seems to many philosophers and to others that we have affective attitudes towards moral values. We care about them, they are important to us. More generally, there seems to be a deep connexion between our affective attitudes, our ability to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate affective responses and the development of what has been called “folk ethics”.

What, then, is it to care about something? Should we care about moral values? And what conception of emotions is required if we are to understand how we become folk ethicists?

“Care” may be understood as a determinable term under which such determinates as “desire” or “admire” fall. It may also be understood as a type of future-directed identification. On some views this identification is a complex volitive and intellectual attitude. According to a more plausible view, identification involves attachment.

What, if anything, makes care appropriate? Even if the exemplification of value makes some emotions appropriate there are no properties which make an object worthy of care. Care has no formal object. This suggests that, although intimately linked to emotions, care, understood as attachment, is no emotion. The fact of caring affects our judgements by making us recognise certain facts as reasons to act. But the simple fact that someone cares about morality may easily be overridden by care about non-moral values. Furthermore, as we have seen, no features of the bearers of moral values will make it the case that we should care about the exemplification of moral value. Finally, if moral reasons are categorical, then care cannot ground moral reasons.

Our more general question was: what conception of emotions is required if we are to understand how we become folk ethicists? What is the role of the capacity for emotions and other psychological competences in the development of a capacity for moral discernment? One plausible view, compatible with a variety of psychological and philosophical theories, assigns a central role to the way empathy, simulation and emotional evaluation grow out of our capacities to feel emotions and our ability to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate emotions as this is understood by contemporary neo-sentimentalism. But this view faces a challenge. How should we understand the way we come to distinguish between what is morally significant and what is non-morally significant and, eventually, between moral and non-moral values? Between the funniness of the joke and its cruelty? Simulation, the process which allows me to experience emotionally what it is be in someone else’s shoes, seems to provide the beginnings of an answer. Putting ourselves in the emotional positions of others together with reflection may defeat initial affective responses and trigger the awareness of what is morally significant, the awareness of what is appropriate ethically speaking and what is inappropriate non-ethically speaking. And one way of understanding affective simulation, at least at the personal level, is in terms of make-believe.

Links to related articles:

[6] Rodogno, R. (200?). Should we care about morality? Submitted to Dialectica.

[2] Deonna, J. (2006). From emotions to ‘folk ethics’. Submitted to European Journal of Analytic Philosophy.


3. Emotions, quasi-emotions and sham emotions

Some emotional responses that are called inappropriate are indeed inappropriate emotions. But according to the view that there are make-believe or as if emotions (quasi-Gefühle) some emotional responses involve make-believe emotions and these are not emotions at all. Make-believe emotions and make-believe sentiments differ from emotions and sentiments in that, like make-believe judgements or beliefs, they are more or less directly subject to the will. Make-believe emotions, unlike make-believe beliefs, often require or rely on props, for example, works of art. Make-believe emotions are appealed to in accounts of aesthetic experience. But they are arguably required by the analysis of many other phenomena.

In the cross-cultural study of rituals and emotions, particularly in anthropology and in the history of religion, it is often argued that there is an element specific to the ritual setting that prevents what seem to be emotions from being fully-fledged emotions. If we assume that the component theory of emotions, according to which emotions are constituted by cognitive, phenomenological, bodily and action-oriented components, then, it seems, in the case of ritual affective phenomena, one or another of these components is missing or suppressed. The theory of quasi-emotions and quasi-sentiments provides an excellent conceptual framework for understanding the type of affective phenomenon which is central to religious ritual.

The category of make-believe emotions is also useful for understanding the nature of what many ordinary languages and novelists call “sham emotions”, “fake” or “false” feelings and some bad philosophers “inauthentic” emotions or sentiments. Make-believe emotions are no bad thing. But fake feelings (unechte Gefühle) are a bad thing. One promising account of the difference runs as follows: a false emotion is a make-believe emotion which is treated by the subject as if it were an emotion. One way of treating a make-believe emotion as an emotion is to act on it, another to express linguistically and non-linguistically the emotion which is the counterpart of the make-believe emotion in the absence of the emotion. Similarly, one way to treat a make-believe belief as a belief is to draw inferences from it, or to act on it. Treating make-believe emotions or beliefs as emotions or beliefs is not, then, to have any beliefs about the make-believe emotions or beliefs. So understood, make-believe emotions and sentiments provide the beginnings of a philosophical account of a large range of phenomena – self-deception, some forms of sentimentality, cant, pharisaism and bullshit. These phenomena are themselves part of the large family of the fake, the false and the phony. Thus the theory of sham emotions and sentiments provides the beginnings of an account of some features of what is sometimes (unfortunately) called inauthenticity.

Links to related articles:

[9] Bruun, O. (200?). Les émotions rituelles dans la théorie des émotions. To appear in P. Borgeaud (ed), Les émotions rituelles.

[15] Mulligan, K. (2006). Was sind und was sollen die unechten Gefühlen? To appear in Ursula Amrein (ed), Das Authentische. Zur Konstruktion von Wahrheit in der säkularen Welt, Zürich: Chronos Verlag, submitted.