Reasons and Emotions

Our emotions are an integral part of who we are. They play an important role in our mental life and in how we relate both to our environment and to other people. They are also a common object of various forms of critical assessment. Being afraid of a harmless spider is somehow unfitting, and getting angry can be both conducive and detrimental to your interests, depending, e.g., on whether you are facing an opponent in a boxing match or a potential future employer. But emotions are also subject to more robust forms of critique. Sometimes, they are considered hurtful, inappropriate, or unfair, e.g. when someone resents a more successful colleague, is amused at a racist joke, or disgusted by a disabled person’s bodily deformation. Are these, too, apt assessments of our emotions? Are emotions a proper object of such normatively substantial critique, and of moral evaluation in particular?

Despite its importance, this normative dimension of emotions has not received much attention by philosophers. Those who work on the nature of normativity usually focus on the normative assessment of actions or beliefs; they treat the normativity of emotions as an afterthought, or not all. The thriving philosophical literature on emotions, on the other hand, takes their criticizability into account, but it does so mostly in the context of debates about the nature of emotions and focusses on criticism in terms of fittingness or usefulness. Questions concerning their moral evaluation and its aptness, however, have rarely been addressed - the ethics of emotions is largely unexplored. The aim of this project is to fill this lacuna. The idea that emotions can be a proper object of moral evaluation faces important challenges. These stem from the various ways in which emotions differ from actions, the paradigmatic object of such evaluation. Merely feeling a certain emotion, as opposed to expressing or acting upon it, does not seem to negatively affect any other person. So how could it be morally problematic? Moreover, we cannot control our emotions in the same way that we can control our actions. But such control seems necessary for moral responsibility. And if we are no more responsible for our emotions than we are, e.g., for our digestive processes, then why should we be morally criticizable for them?

This project will address these challenges and examine their significance for the possibility of an ethics of emotions. The project will also take a broader perspective on the normativity of emotions. If they can be a proper object of normatively substantial and particularly of moral assessment, then a more general conception of the normative domain must be able to accommodate them. According to the most promising conception of this kind, that requires that there are normative reasons for emotions. Here, too, apparent disanalogies between actions and beliefs on the one hand and emotions on the other raise worries, for unlike the former, emotions do not appear to be within the scope of our reasoning capacities. Scrutinizing the assumptions underlying these worries and developing a satisfactory account of normative reasons for emotions will be another important goal of this project. By assessing the presuppositions of an ethics of emotions and clarifying the concept of reasons for emotions, the project makes valuable contributions to the normative theory of emotions and provides us with a better understanding of their place within the normative domain as a whole.



This project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.