Thursday, December 20, 2007

Do feelings reflect preferences?

It makes sense to be especially concerned (excited, etc.) about the near future. I previously suggested that once we distinguish feelings from preferences, this premise gives us no reason to doubt that we should be temporally neutral when it comes to the latter. However, Brad Skow argues [draft PDF, p.10] that "biased attitudes [feelings] will be rational just in case biased preferences are." Why? Because, he suggests, the former are typically generated from the latter: we are pleased, for example, when we think that our preferences have been satisfied. The fact that we are more affectively attuned to our future than past welfare is thus taken to indicate a temporally biased preference structure: we must want to be well-off in the future more than the past.

I'm not so sure about this. After all, our affective responses are designed to help us respond successfully to threats and opportunities in our environment, and this changes over time. I should feel fearful and alert when faced with a dangerous predator, and all my time-slices can endorse this. It does not follow that all my time-slices should themselves maintain such a state of arousal –- once the danger has passed, there would be no point. So I agree with Parfit that attention and affect should change over time, in sync with our changing circumstances. But preferences are another matter. I may feel greater excitement about an imminent lesser benefit, as I attend to it in the present, even though I judge the distant greater benefit to be preferable, and so would sooner give up the imminent benefit if forced to choose. Again, note that I do not later regret feeling mounting excitement in anticipation of some immanent event, whereas I would regret choosing a lesser nearby good over a greater distant one. This is a revealing difference. Changing feelings may be endorsed from a timeless perspective, and so are consistent with temporal neutrality, unlike changing preferences.

Still, it would be too quick for me to conclude that a feeling or affective attitude is rationally warranted just because it is advantageous (cf. practical vs. adaptive reasons). So I need to say more about what the adaptive reasons for our attitudes are, exactly, that justifies their temporal partiality without appealing to biased preferences. What facts do our emotions answer to? One possible (rough) answer is that they are to track the normatively salient features of our local environment. This will normally be useful, much as having warranted or true beliefs (tracking the descriptive facts) is normally useful, but warrant and utility may come apart in particular cases.

Anyway, on this view the reason why I shouldn't get too excited about the satisfaction of my past or distant-future preferences is because they're not really relevant to my immediate situation, and it's this that I should be affectively attuned to. This story seems oversimplified though: surely we may reasonably enjoy the thought of future benefits, or savour pleasant memories, etc. Perhaps a better answer is that our emotions respond to normative features of any situation under consideration, and it's just that our attention happens to be focussed more often on the present (and reasonably so).

What do you think is the best way to flesh this out?


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