Tuesday 12 April 2016

Emotional Actions

This post is by Mary Carman (pictured above), who will be joining Thumos, the Genevan Research Group on Emotions, Values and Norms as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in April. Mary works on emotions and action, and as part of her previous Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, she started working on topics in Bioethics. In this post, she writes about the rational role in action emotions can play.

In my PhD thesis and a paper currently under review, I develop an account of emotional actions that gives emotion a rational role in action. In this brief post, I outline how such an account might look.

Let’s start with an example of an impulsive emotional action from Elisabeth Pacherie (2002): I am fearfully running away from a bear, spot a crack in the rocks too narrow for the bear to fit, and climb through. In such cases, we act on the basis of an emotion without first forming beliefs and desires related to what to do. These actions can be under our control, in execution if not in initiation, and we have at least a de re awareness of what we are doing and why. And, often, such actions are in line with what we would take to be reasons favouring the action if we had deliberated more fully. Superficially, then, many of these actions are candidates for rational action (see another paper under review).

Now, acting rationally is traditionally thought to require that we act on beliefs and desires related to some goal we aim to achieve with the action. If one form or another of this picture is correct, then these emotional actions are not rational. This traditional picture, however, fails to take into account certain things we now know about emotion.

For one thing, emotions are fundamental to our functional practical rationality, and they have pervasive effects not only on our actions but also on our thoughts and decision-making. For another, emotions aren’t blind responses to just anything. They are responses to things of putative significance to us in our environment. They are also not complexes of beliefs and desires as once thought, although they are intentional states. And a substantial philosophical literature has developed in support of the claim that emotions can even provide reasons.

These points, together with other challenges to the traditional picture, all support taking seriously the idea that emotion can have a role not only in our functional practical rationality, but also in our conception of rational agency.

How, then, can we go about creating space in a theory of rational action for these emotional actions?

One thing the traditional picture captures well is the idea that acting rationally requires that we have some kind of control over what we are doing, and that we guide our actions in response to reasons as reasons. Can we guide our action in a rationally meaningful way when acting on the basis of an emotion? I argue that we can.

Specifically, I argue that an agent can: (a) be aware of the emotional considerations at the time of acting, given the intentional nature of emotions; (b) be aware of them as counting in favour of her action; and, (c) offer them as reasons that rationalise her action.

I’ll focus on (b) for the remainder of this post.

As mentioned above, emotions are responses to things of putative significance to us. What is of significance to us is grounded in what cares and concerns we have. Indeed, the subject’s cares and concerns are central to many accounts of emotions, both in psychology and philosophy. So, through being grounded in cares and concerns, emotions can motivate behavioural responses to things of significance to us, for both agents and non-agents.

Agents, however, are also capable of identifying with their cares. As a default, a caring agent will experience an emotional response as a manifestation of her caring. (She may not reflectively identify with that care, an issue I address in my paper.) Through that caring, I argue, she takes the way things appear seriously because of their significance, relative to caring. And, while not a truth-attitude like belief, her emotional awareness is sufficient for being an awareness of the emotional considerations as counting in favour of action that protects those cares.

The basic idea is thus that emotions can have a rational role in action because the way we are committed to how things appear emotionally, via caring, allows us to guide our actions by the reason-giving considerations we take ourselves to have. Of course, this is a controversial claim and I have only briefly described one aspect of an account that continues to develop.

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