Saturday, June 14, 2008

Emotion and Reflective Equilibrium

Another passage from Frazer's 'Two Enlightenments' paper raises the interesting question whether emotion is properly subservient to reason or a partner on equal footing in our mental economy:
Although Rawls sometimes seems to see the quest for reflective equilibrium as basically a cognitive process involving the weighing of pre-philosophical beliefs against philosophical theories, the sentimentalist conception of reflection involves a holistic attempt to reach an equilibrium on which the faculties of reason, feeling and imagination can all settle in harmony.

This may reinforce the thought that there's something fundamentally flawed about a conception of rational warrant that we wouldn't want to live by (because it contradicts preferences that stem from love, for example).

To relate this to the vexing problem of 'Moral Roots and Alienating Aspirations', I guess the sentimentalist will be more rooted by the emotions he starts with (though they may be revised to some extent), whereas the rationalist is willing to countenance a far more radical critique of her prior affective responses, in light of what can be justified by universal reason.

How would you assess the two competing views? (There's some sense in which I find the rationalist more admirable -- certainly more noble -- though sentimentalism might be advisable insofar as it's probably a stance that's more conducive to happiness, and perhaps even to 'living a good life' more generally.)


  1. Hello Richard,

    I have trouble giving making emotion a "partner on equal footing [with reason] in our mental economy" since I believe that we can have many bizarre feelings that need to be just discounted.

    For instance, during the times when slavery was prevalent in the US, I am sure many perpetrators of slavery were repulsed by the idea of giving full rights to African-American people. So suppose one of these slave masters reasoned to the moral conclusion that slavery was wrong - a conclusion that didn't mesh with her feelings.
    From this, should she conclude that her reasoning was bad or that she is not at the right equilibrium?

    I don't think so. Passions are and ought to be a slave to reason.

  2. cihan b.,
    your point about bad emotions is a good one, though i don't think it implies the conclusion you come to. The idea of an emotional equilibrium is very welcome, though we must certainly allow for an interplay between reason and emotions. In the case of the slave owners, what needs to happen is not that they go with their reason _against_ their emotions, but rather that they rework their emotions in line with their reason so as to arrive at an acceptable emotional (and cognitive) equilibrium. It is a mistake to ignore our emotions; as richard points out, that might not lead us to happiness. emotions are a constituent part of our humanity and must be worked with and not against.

    Think of emotions as a tool we've been given that helps us to navigate through life. The problem is not that this tool needs to be replaced with a new, better one (reason), but that it needs to be tuned or tweaked to work with another one (reason). In the end we want to feel good about abolishing slavery.

  3. I'd call Michael's account a version of rationalism, because it still makes emotion properly subservient to reason.

    The sentimentalist is not merely claiming that we should "rework" our emotions when they clash with reasoned judgments, but that at least sometimes our emotions should come first.

    Possible examples include: (1) justifying a preference for this world -- containing one's actual loved ones -- to an alternative possible world where you had completely different attachments and were slightly better off because of them. (2) The interest many adopted people feel in discovering their biological parents, or African-Americans in discovering their African "roots", and similar forms of emotionally-nourishing historical fetishism. (3) Emotionally-driven calls for retribution (rather than rehabiliation) in punishment. Etc.


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