Tuesday 4 September 2018

Emotions, Practical Rationality and the Self

This post is by Tyler Flanagan, and in this post he briefly introduces and outlines his recent publication in Res Cogitans entitled “Emotions, Practical Rationality, and the Self.” He is a first year Master’s student in Philosophy at Virginia Tech.

What I am attempting to do in my paper is defend the view that our emotions are quite amenable to the view of ourselves as rational beings. Rather than throw out the picture of the emotional human, I argue that we should embrace the view instead. Our emotions do not in any way stop us from reasoning properly, and in fact provide us with reasons for action that seem to outweigh even our most thoughtful contemplation (Arpaly, 2002; Jones 2004)

With this view in tow, I suggest that the emotions we have about ourselves, such as regret or shame, act as a guide to how well or how poorly we are attending to our goals and what we care about, and in some instances can show us when we are valuing what we should not. In these ways our emotions are an integral part of our rational agency.

Let me begin by explaining that emotions occur for reasons. When a loved one gets angry or holds a grudge towards us, we do not simply throw our hands up and accept it. We ask why they are angry; we ask them to give us reasons for their emotion, suggesting that emotions are in fact beholden to standards of justification and explanation in just the same way as we justify or explain our beliefs and actions.

Ultimately, our emotions are explained (though not necessarily justified) based on what we value. Whether I become angry or sad, joyful or remorseful, it is because I believe something good or bad has either happened or will happen to something or someone I value. If I see a crocodile rushing towards me and I become fearful, it is not only because I value my life, but also because I think the crocodile will in some way harm my life if he catches up to me. If I become sad over my mother’s death, it is because I valued my mother in many ways, and believe that I have experienced a great loss of what I value with her passing.

Because our emotions are so tightly related to our values and implicit beliefs, we can use our emotions as a source of self-knowledge. If my analysis is correct, then recent discussions regarding implicit racial bias in certain police forces across the United States have weight behind them. Any time a police officer cites fear as a reason for their violent actions towards unarmed citizens –especially towards those who are non-white or who are white but do not fit into norms of society- then the police officers must see the victims as presenting a danger to them simply by the way they look. 

What we value determines who we are as persons. What we set out to accomplish, who we spend our time with, and what we decide to eat (or not eat), are all because we have values. Our actions are guided more frequently by what we care about instead of what we reason to. If I look out the window and see that it will rain and decide through reasoning that it would be best for me not to go outside, but I decide to take my bike out for a ride anyway in a snap decision, does that not say something about how much I enjoy and care about riding my bike?

So when we experience an emotion, or act on our emotions in ways that make us feel regret or remorse, what occurs is our failure to tend to what we care about. If I feel remorse over an insult I hurl at my significant other, it is because I care about my significant other and acted in a way that contradicts that valuation.

And since the goals we set for ourselves are determined by what we care about, our emotions do more than help us achieve our goals, they also help set us on the right path when we have gone astray. Since our emotions are not an irrational phenomena, we need to take them seriously. By taking our emotions seriously we take an important step in changing as an agent from the sort of person we are to the sort of person we want to be.

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