Emotions, Judgments, and Mattering

26 July 2005

Thanks to Martha Nussbaum for being a fine guest.   We've been trying to get her on the program for two years.  And we're please that she was finally able to do it.    It was certainly a lively and entertaining conversation that probed some philosophically interesting issues.   I haven’t yet had a chance yet to read her two big recent books on the emotions,Upheavals of Thought and Hiding from Humanity : Disgust, Shame, and the Law,  but both sound fascinating.   They are  definitely on my list.

I am still not fully convinced that emotions are nothing but  judgments.  Certainly emotions are tied up with judgments, sometimes quite closely.   But it just seems wrong to say that an emotion is nothing but a judgment.   Judgments can be true or false.  Any given judgment, even a judgment concerning my own flourishing, can be made with  or without an accompanying emotion.  Emotions, on the other hand,  are sometimes appropriate and sometimes inappropriate, but they don’t seem the sorts of things that can be true or false.   Also emotions, at least conscious emotions, seem to have a felt qualitative character, but judgments, even conscious judgments, don’t.   It’s like something to be (consciously) angry.  But what’s it like to judge that you have been wronged?  Such a judgment might cause  an episode of anger.  But could such a judgment  really just be an episode of anger?

Nussbaum is of course well aware of these kinds of criticisms of theories that try to reduce emotions to judgments.   As far as I can tell, she thinks that she can get around the typical criticisms of cognitive theories of emotions by tinkering with the contents of the relevant judgments.   That’s why she says that emotions are judgments with what she calls  a self-referential “eudaimonistic” component.  Emotions, she says,  “are appraisals or value judgments, which ascribe to things and persons outside the person’s own control great importance for that person’s own flourishing.”  The thought here must be that if emotions are evaluations that have intrinsic reference to the subject’s own flourishing, they will be intrinsically but defeasibly motivating in the way that emotions seem to be.   Emotions have a strong tendency to move us to act – sometimes, of course, against our better judgment.    And perhaps evaluations of the sort with which Nussbaum wants to identify emotions might have something like the same strong tendency to move us to act.

In the end,   I doubt that  it works.   The approach may address worries about whether judgments are even  the sorts of things that can move us in the same ways  that emotions apparently do.   It was the thought that “reason” is powerless to move us on its own,  in the absence of  passion,  that led Hume to his famous slogan that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.   If you think that emotions are intrinsically motivating and  that judgments are not,  that would give you a reason to deny that emotions are judgments.    But showing that certain kinds of judgments – evaluative judgments that have reference to one’s own flourishing – are motivating would not suffice to show that emotions just are such  judgments.   Would it?   Don't  all the rest of the worries about the difference between  emotions and judgments would still stand.  Conscious emotions feel like something.  Judgments don't.   Judgments are true or false.  Emotions aren't.   They are appropriate or inappropriate to a situation, perhaps when based on a bad judgments.    Emotions conflict with judgments in different ways from the way judgments conflict with each other.  Two judgments may be inconsistent, but held at the same time.  But when judgment is overcome by emotion, it doesn't really seem like just more judging happening.   Does it?

Plus, there’s John’s quasi-Humean  point about “primitive caring.”   I’m not sure what John meant by that exactly.  I take it the that the primitive part had something to do with it being a form of caring that can’t be analyzed as something else – as say a judgment.    And I take it that the caring part had to do with  it being something like intrinsically and “fundamentally”  motivational.  Probably most people do primitively care, about  their  own well being.   But it seems possible that someone could fail to primitively care even  about his or her own  flourishing and so fail to be moved by Nussbaumian type evaluative judgments, but nonetheless still be moved by various emotions in various ways.

I don’t take any of these to be absolutely knock-down  arguments against Nussbaum.  Besides, even if she gets the metaphysical nature of the emotions wrong, she gets a lot about them absolutely right -- including their deep and perhaps intrinsic connection to our cognition and representation of the world as mattering to us in various ways. And she is certainly right to insist that emotions are not just blind, distracting  intrusions upon rational thought, as some philosophers and macho-cultural formations, once had it.   

That, of course, is just the beginning of the story, not the end.  Clearly, negotiating our emotions in ways that adjust them to our considered judgments about what matters is a tricky thing.   Sometimes,  one feels too much or too little anger, sympathy or love for those we judge to  deserve our anger, sympathy or love.  It seems to me that in a well-lived life, emotion and judgment work together like sort of hand and glove. with judgment helping one to track the true, and emotions helping to move one in ways that honor the good.

Comments (1)

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Saturday, August 6, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

When Ken writes that "Any given judgment, even a j

When Ken writes that "Any given judgment, even a judgment concerning my own flourishing, can be made with or without an accompanying emotion," I believe his view to be contrary to the nature of neural computation.
The amygdala, known to be one of the epicenters of affective processing, has direct, bidirectional (inhibitory and excitatory) projections to the prefrontal cortex, theorized to be the seat of conscious thought and, more generally, "judgements." If a judgement can be made without an accompanying emotion, then the physical link between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex would have to be severed. Otherwise, it's physiologically impossible, without receiving some type of neural damage, to have a judgement about anything without input from emotional centers in the brain.
Moreover, short term memory (STM) is always filtered by emotional, neural computation (see LeDoux's work, for example), so any long term memory (LTM) we may draw upon to form a judgement has already been accompanied by an emotional appraisal.
The more difficult and, in my view, interesting question is how nonconscious emotions influence our judgements, or whether such nonconscious, nonemotional centers in the brain, capable of producing judgements, exist in the first place. If they did, then there would be a positive challenge to Nussbaum?s hypothesis. The only question left after that would be how significant they would be compared to emotional centers in the brain. And to that, I would likely say ?not very.?