Draft Review of Roberts’s ‘Emotions in the Moral Life’

I’m working on a review of Bob Roberts‘s recent book, Emotions in the Moral Life, for Mind.


Here’s a draft of the review.  Questions, comments, and criticisms are most welcome, as always.  In particular, I’d be grateful for help cutting about 400 words….

Emotions in the Moral Life, by Robert Roberts, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. vii + 220. H/b £55.

The prolific Robert Roberts is at it again. His fourth secular and eleventh total monograph, Emotions in the Moral Life, exemplifies his characteristic insight, depth, earnestness, humanity, and religious commitment. Poised midway between Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Contemplating Virtues (in progress), Emotions in the Moral Life draws on the rich resources Roberts has already developed for analyzing emotions as concerned-based construals in order to show how such construals contribute in diverse ways to moral (and immoral) cognition, action, relationships, and character.

In the first, metaphilosophical, chapter, Roberts highlights the drawbacks of theoretical, arguing for the exploration of moral concepts in their ecological niches. Such a niche is the concept’s ‘moral framework or outlook or tradition’ (p. 13); examples include the outlooks represented in the Iliad and Odyssey, Aristotle, the Judaism of the Hebrew prophets, Roman Stoicism, New Testament Christianity, the Qur’an and the Hadith, Puritan Christianity, Nietzsche, contemporary democratic liberalism, and so on. Unlike moral theories, which attempt to impose artificial structure and consistency on our hazy and disordered moral concepts, moral outlooks rest content in expressing an uncodifiable but admirable way to live. Roberts does not consider the objection that moral theories could proceed not by laying out concise biconditional definitions of moral concepts but by Ramsification (David Lewis, ‘How to Define Theoretical Terms,’ The Journal of Philosophy, 67(13): 427-446, 1970), but since this methodology has not been pursued much or well by ethicists, the omission is understandable. One might also worry that, if theorizing is abandoned, then reasoned debate and persuasion would be replaced by a flaccid relativism. Roberts disagrees, suggesting that rational dialectic may still involve immanent critique (highlighting internal conceptual or practical inconsistencies in a moral outlook) and comparative ‘apologetics’ (p. 21), which recruits moral and non-moral agreement across frameworks to argue that one framework better harmonizes conceptually or practically with the zone of agreement. The proof is in the pudding, so readers may be disappointed that when Roberts engages in comparative apologetics, he tends to target independently unattractive frameworks, such as Stoicism, flat-footed sentimentalism, antebellum Southern racism, the culture of honor embodied in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, Camus’s existentialism, and an unrecognizable caricature of Nietzsche.

Chapter two is a useful roadmap to the rest of the book.

Chapters three through five elaborate Roberts’s view of emotions as concern-based construals, contrast this view with alternatives, defend it against objections, and demonstrate how emotions can contribute to (im)moral cognitive functioning. According to the concern-based construal account of emotions, what it means to have an emotion is to perceive an object or event as impinging importantly on an object of concern and to be consequently motivated to perform a relevant action. For example, consider the case (pp. 46-7) of a parent who feels fear when he sees his child toddling towards the edge of a yard-high wall. The parent has a deep-seated concern for the child’s wellbeing. He construes this wellbeing as threatened by the imminent tumble off the wall. He is consequently motivated to forestall the threat. This, for Roberts, is a paradigmatic emotion.

According to Roberts, motional perception is cognitively mediated by affect; affect is the phenomenological aspect of emotion, what it feels like to have an emotion. Roberts helpfully contrasts this account with Jesse Prinz’s (Gut Reactions, Oxford University Press, 2004). Like Roberts, Prinz takes emotions to be perceptions, but the resemblance ends there. According to Prinz, the object of an emotional perception is one’s own affective and bodily state: when you fear, you perceive the dropping of your stomach, the increase in your heartrate and blood pressure, the widening of your eyes, your tensing for fighting or fleeing. In a well-functioning human animal, these bodily reactions reliably track threats, so there is an indirect connection between a Prinz-style emotion and a typical object of concern. According to Roberts, by contrast, the semantic and perceptual object of an emotional perception is the object of concern itself as (potentially) affected in some important way; the affective bodily concomitants are just your way of registering fear (or whatever emotion is in question).

Roberts catalogues several ways in which emotions could contribute to (im)moral cognition. Although it is possible to arrive at moral judgments unmediated by emotion (deductively, inductively, via testimony), emotionally-mediated moral judgments are ‘higher quality’ because they provide ‘deeper understanding and more intimate cognitive contact’ with moral truths and provide additional justification for moral beliefs (pp. 52-3), in much the same way that seeing the Grand Canyon for oneself provides deeper understanding and more intimate cognitive contact with the non-moral truth that it is a big hole in the ground.

Following out the visual analogy suggests some ways in which emotions can undermine rather than support moral cognition. Just as visual perception can be fooled so that we construe things as having non-moral properties they lack, so emotional perception can be fooled so that we construe things as having moral properties they lack or fail to construe them as having moral properties they instantiate (p. 61). Just as visually attending to one thing makes one less able to notice and attend to other things, so emotionally attending to one thing makes one less able to notice and attend to other morally important things (p. 61). Just as seeing something unfamiliar as just another instance of a familiar category demotivates visual inspection, so emotionally perceiving something as impinging on one’s concerns in a way it does not (or failing to perceive it as impinging in a way that it actual does) demotivates appropriate moral reasoning about it (p. 61). Thus, emotions are a double-edged sword in the domain of moral epistemology. They can either facilitate or undermine moral cognition by appropriately motivating, inappropriately motivating it, or demotivating it (p. 64). Moreover, they can help produce and reinforce premises to (im)moral reasoning (p. 65).

All this talk of truth presupposes that both emotions and moral judgments are the sorts of mental states that can be true or false — issues in philosophy of mind and meta-ethics respectively. Roberts argues persuasively that emotions can be assessed for truth and falsehood just like visual perceptions. Indignation is true (appropriate) only if one really has been treated unjustly; fear is true (appropriate) only if an object of one’s concern really is threatened (p. 92). Like beliefs, then, emotions seem to have mind-to-world direction-of-fit. (Since Roberts thinks that emotions result in motivation as well, he seems to think that they in fact have world-to-mind-to-world direction of fit: their construal element is assessed mind-to-world and their consequent motivation is assessed world-to-mind.) Moral realism based on divine governance is not so much argued for as offered as ‘a way out’ of the quagmire of moral skepticism (p. 109).

Chapter six explores the ways in which emotions contribute to (im)moral action. One thing that intrinsically contributes to an action’s being morally good (bad) is it’s (im)moral motivation. Hence, if one is appropriately concerned for the good, then one’s emotional reactions to things that impinge on the objects of one’s concerns will typically contribute to the intrinsic moral goodness of one’s actions (p. 118). By the same token, if one is inappropriately concerned, unconcerned, or concerned for the neutral or the bad, then one’s emotional reactions to things that impinge on the objects of one’s concerns will typically contribute to the intrinsic moral badness of one’s actions. This point follows in part from the truism that action is always action under a description (Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), paired with the plausible claim that the semantic content of an emotion’s motivational component contributes to said description.

Another way in which emotions contribute to (im)moral action has to do with our higher-order emotional relation to our own first-order emotions. Roberts plausibly argues that the status of an otherwise morally good action is undermined if the agent emotionally repudiates her own reason for acting (p. 127). In the same vein, it would seem that a base-level good action is morally enhanced if the agent emotionally endorses or at least accepts her first-order motivations, that a base-level bad action is ameliorated if the agent emotionally repudiates her first-order motivations, and that a base-level bad action is aggravated if the agent emotionally endorses it. (Roberts does not remark on the close analogy with Frankfurt’s discussion of free will and higher-order volitions in The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.) This chapter also contains several fascinatingly complex examples, which for lack of space I will not describe in detail, that Roberts navigates with characteristic meticulousness.

Chapter seven — perhaps the most interesting and original in the book — turns from cognition and action to personal relationships. Roberts explores the ways in which emotions and emotional feedback loops strengthen and desiccate such relationships as friendship, enmity, civility, and incivility. For example, consider a sister who generously and in a spirit of friendship gives her brother her own tickets to a concert that he would like to attend. He feels the emotion of gratitude for this gift, which he expresses with a token of thanks. Satisfied that her generosity has hit its mark, she is ‘gratified by his gratitude. […] And he may in turn be gratified that she is gratified by his gratitude’ (p. 137). Despite the fact that this is a tiny schematic example, it plausibly contains a fourth-order emotion (he is gratified that she is gratified that he is gratified that she was generous). Such episodes are, in Roberts’s view, constitutive of friendship and other normative personal relationships (pp. 140-1) — an idea I explore in a forthcoming paper (‘Friendship as a Model for the Moral Virtues,’ Webber & Masala [eds.], The Architecture of Personality and Ethical Virtue, forthcoming). Constructive feedback loops strengthen positive personal relationships but aggravate negative relationships such as enmity (leading enemies to hate, despise, or contemn each other all the more); destructive feedback loops, by contrast, undermine positive relationships (introducing distrust, contempt, or other negative emotions into extant friendships) but ameliorate negative relationships (introducing sympathy, respect, or even admiration into extant enmities).

The nuance of Roberts’s view comes fully into focus in this chapter, as he shows that, in many ordinary human encounters, the cognitive, motivational, and relational contributions of emotions to the moral life dissociate. For example, arguably, it’s at once cognitively incorrect and relationally correct to feel guilty about putting one’s increasingly dependent mother in an assisted living community. By changing her abode, one does not do her an unjustified harm; nevertheless, her (stipulated) resentment is a call to feel guilt that cannot simply be shrugged off.

Chapter eight continues to develop this dissociative hypothesis, arguing that the contribution of emotions to personal wellbeing and virtue can also come apart from their contribution to moral cognitions, actions, and relationships. Chapter nine is a prolegomenon to Roberts’s next book, in which he promises to explore the complex relations between moral emotions on the one hand and various specific virtues, including compassion, justice, courage, a sense of humor, a sense of duty, practical wisdom. We may hope that his next book will forego default masculine pronouns. Whether he does or not, if Contemplating Virtues is half as good as Emotions in the Moral Life, we will owe Roberts an immense debt of gratitude.