Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Before moving on to addressing the question of when it is right or wrong to get offended, let me quickly address a certain attitude that arises a lot in response to my posts on morality. I sense in the tone of a lot of comments I get in general that there is a fear of judgmentalism when I talk about what we should or should not do. This is especially the case in the last post when I talked about the rightness of sometimes blaming people for their feelings.

So, let me make a few things abundantly clear. I am not some old fashioned moralist who advocates absolutist moral standards that take no account of actual individual flourishing or happiness. As far as I understand it, adherence to morality against one’s immediate self-interest is only valuable insofar as it helps the individual adhere to certain standards that are in her own ultimate self-interest as a member of a social species in general and of specific communities in particular.

Most of our ethical life is about our own flourishing. I think that most of our own flourishing is achieved through actually aiding the flourishing of others since I think that we are at our most powerful when we are empowering other people who then replicate our power and spread it further. In this way, I think that if we tried to truly excel at being powerful, we would be people who empowered others rather than destroyed them for the sake of trinkets like material possessions. In this way, I think it is wise advice to just let people pursue their happiness, to encourage them to maximize their excellences since this is good for them, and to only worry about morality in those cases where it is a matter of turning down short term gains in ways that damage our mutual trust and cooperation with each other, which serve as the preconditions of our prosperity as individuals.

So, I am not the least bit interested in rules for the sake of rules, rules which trump human happiness, tradition for the sake of tradition, or, especially, moralists who want to impose capricious rules or arbitrary values for the sake of their own ability to feel better than others.

Also, as Christopher Hitchens is wont to point out, there is something repulsive, extremist, and false about the Thought Crime aspect of Jesus’s attack on “sinful” thoughts whereby he equates lust with adultery and anger with murder. I tried to explicitly distinguish that my view is not the same as that Christian attitude but I did not do a good enough job, so I need a few more remarks about why Jesus misses the mark and about how my own views about how to blame feelings is more nuanced and ethically constructive.

Further, I do not believe in an undetermined free will. I do think we have a will that makes genuine choices as expressive of who we are, but who we are is still ultimately determined by physical, chemical, biological, and psychological laws (and social determinants) in ways that make it ultimately impossible that we might have done otherwise than we chose to do. I just think that since we are these beings who are determined in these ways, what we do is a genuine expression of us.

Finally, I also grant (and am quite grateful for) the observation that I think Cuttlefish intended to make in his brief reply post yesterday. I took him to be saying that feelings may, like consciousness, be a response to circumstances or a mechanism for awareness by which we recognize decisions our subconscious brains are making, but may not be themselves at all causal in determining what we actually wind up doing. If I understand his point, it is a good one and one I should agree with, given my view that consciousness is more like an observation screen than something which does any causing and given the influence of William James on my understanding of emotions.

Taking all of these considerations into account. Why talk about blame at all? Isn’t that just judgmental moralism? Isn’t that incompatible with determinism?

No, it’s not. Here’s why:

First of all, responsibility is a concept that exists even without an undetermined free will. If a hurricane wind knocks down a tree and it crushes the roof of a car, we can identify the causal chain responsible for the car getting smashed up. Of course this is different than moral responsibility since it would be pure silliness to morally blame hurricanes or trees for what they do. But I do not think it is pure silliness to blame the car owner who had an empty garage and knew there was a hurricane coming sufficiently in advance for not putting the car in the garage. This is true even though ultimately the car owner can only think in terms of determinants which determine his or her actions. The reason that it still makes sense to blame the car owner is that even though the choice-making process is determined, it is in part a rational and emotional process in the car owner’s head that does that determining. When we say things to him or her, that is part of what determines what he or she thinks and what feelings he or she has. All of that is factored into the computations of his or her subconscious brain and part of the determination of future actions.

Blame, at its most benign, is simply a way of making an impression on someone that their choice algorithms need to be modified in the future lest they do things that cause disapprobation from others. Obviously we should not employ blame when someone does not do something that is genuinely worthy of our anger. We also should not express blame or enforce punishments in ways that will be counterproductive to helping the guilty to actually improve their behavior. (For more on my views on free will and morality see: The “Moral Argument” For Free Will Is A Morally Troubling, Hypocritical, Faith PositionInternecine War At Freethought Blogs: Philosopher vs. “Redneck” Edition: Free Will And The Real World Smackdown, and/or What It Means To Me To Be Free.

I have a strong Stoic streak in that I am persuaded we all mean well ultimately and either have defective sociopathic or psychopathic brains or we have normal functioning brains that are just misunderstanding the good when we do bad. I see no reason most of the time to attribute to people malignancy of will or to deeply shame people. Nonetheless, for the sake of various social goods and for the sake of another’s ability to maximize their own flourishing we should advise them about the ways their actions or their emotions contribute to their harming others or contribute to their failure to realize their own potential to flourish.

I agree with Kant’s wonderful rule of thumb that we in general should focus on making others happy and ourselves good. There are tremendous pitfalls in trying to improve other people. It is far easier to overestimate our own goodness (or at least our lack of fault) and to overestimate other people’s badness and need to change. This is precisely why I write so much about ways that people like me (atheists) need to be self-aware and self-conscious about not being unfair to religious people. It is crucial we be so introspective if we are to advocate for moral changes in our enemies. We must have their happiness in mind and we must be scrupulous about our own behavior being the best it can be, lest we be self-serving moralistic hypocrites who make the values which conduce to our own flourishing in life into the absolute standards of all goodness (even though, rationally, an honest person can realize there are other goods too that others we criticize are attaining to and which we are failing at).

I think there is a place to advise others about ethical ideals and to encourage a life aimed at maximum flourishing, as I do so often, but this is not because I am walking around judging individuals and assessing how much I think they’ve flourished or not or blaming them and calling them wretched people, etc. Judgment of particular cases requires a great deal of knowledge of particularities of circumstances. While of course not everyone is flourishing to their maximum possibility (certainly, I am not, I know that much!), judgmentalism is naive because it presumes too much about exactly what the struggles, limitations, and possibilities of a particular person are. How do I know what you are capable of or what good or bad reasons you have for your choices from where I stand?

We should not be judgmental not because there are no highest theoretical ideals for humanity in general to attain to. There are such ideals and talking about them in philosophical and empirical terms might help people figure out how to realize them in their own lives better, and that’s a great thing. We should not be judgmental, though, because we cannot know enough about the depths of the psychology of the person we are judging to know all the particulars of how they can or cannot best attain that ideal.

And when it comes to blaming, we must be constructive–we must be aimed at the other’s good and not creating a fiction of an undetermined free will which is malignant and blamable as a deliberate purveyor of evil itself. We must recognize that people are usually far more ignorant than evil. We must appreciate that people do things under psychological and social circumstances different from our own which would make them more understandable psychologically. In this way we should not paint them as evil when blaming, but just focus on what it would be constructively best for them to feel and to do, going forward, if they can.

But then why blame at all? Because we have to. And I write about blaming not because I’m a judgmental asshole but because if we are going to do it–and given the necessary dynamics of social enforcement of necessary group cooperation we inevitably will–then I want us to have an understanding and practice of blaming that is as rational, fair, humane, and conducive to actual human flourishing as possible. I want the opposite of absolutist, arbitrary, capricious, superstitious, judgmental, self-serving, hypocritical blaming and shaming.

The only way to do that is not to eschew all systematic parsing of moral rightness and wrongness as the stuff of moralists or religionists. Rather it means being even more careful and more precise in how we make such judgments so that when we inevitably slip back into everyday practices of blaming and shaming we do not unwittingly repeat their mistakes. If you want to dispense entirely with blaming and shaming instead and be consistent, then you’re going to have to explain what brand new mechanisms you will have for cultivating and maintaining social cooperation in others without those mechanisms that our psychologies have naturally bequeathed us. And you’ll have to explain how you will get creatures who are disposed psychologically and socially to such moral dispositions to so assiduously abandon them with you, even against their own natures.

Eventually whatever you come up with is going to look like a morality, i.e., a way of regulating, shaping, and changing behaviors of people. This is what I realized and why even though I hate moralism, I think the immoralist option is just untenable. Ironically, if you will, morality is a necessary evil. We will inevitably have norms and mechanisms of enforcing them. With this will always come power relations that are open to great abuse by the careless, the selfish, the authoritarians, and the masochists. The best we can do is to counter them with constructive alternative moralities that both in practice and in theory are as rational, humane, pluralistic, consistent, fair, benevolent, pleasant, and conducive to human flourishing as we can. So that’s my constructive project.

I’m not just still a Christian reflexively still in love with judging people. I’m an Aristotelian Nietzschean indirect consequentialist perfectionist interested in the maximum flourishing of the maximum number of people, with as much consideration for the well being of the worst off, morally and politically, as possible. As far as I can judge, morality is primarily valuable as instrumental to that good of flourishing. Moral behaviors only take on something like intrisnic value insofar as they express powers to humanly flourish, rather than restriction our flourishing or arbitrary repression of our natures.

So this brings up the question of how my view of blaming feelings differs from Jesus’s. My points are two.

First, I think the act of calling attention to another’s feelings when blaming him or her, when done right, is just a way of properly identifying for him or her a major part of where it appears they are erring. If he or she wants to change because he or she wants to be as positive a member of the community as he or she can, then he or she should appreciate the advice—especially if it is given in a kind (or at least dispassionate) spirit.

Now, as Cuttlefish notes, feelings themselves are quite likely not causal. But whatever brain processes do cause actions are influenced by considerations of reasons (and we must think this, lest a great deal of human action become unintelligible). And even if a feeling is an immediate response to the environment or the accompaniment of a thought process, what we can do is help “program” into each other’s brains other thought processes—ones that cut off and replace whatever mental programs get roused in negative ways in response to those negative feelings when they occur, and activate other feelings associated with other mental programs that are more constructive and lead to greater flourishing and happiness.

The goal, through whatever processes cognitive sciences will more precisely describe, is to calibrate our emotions so that they back up and serve our best reasoning about what leads to our own flourishing and others’, rather than launch mental programs and resulting actions that thwart our ultimate best interests and those of others. Insofar as blaming activities help each other do this, they are good. Insofar as they backfire and harm people, they are bad. And people genuinely concerned with the good of others pay scrupulous attention to this key moral difference—even if many people are gunshy about the whole practice of blaming because of bad experiences with those who are careless blamers.

Now, in blaming people’s feelings, unlike Jesus, I do not think they are intrinsically wrong or bad. They are bad because of the ways they lead to actions, not just for being there. And I think that the reason to avoid them even when they don’t lead to actions has nothing to do with anti-human concepts like hell and intrinsic sinfulness, but rather because power over ourselves leads to our flourishing, which is our happiness, and rational control over what we feel is a big part of that flourishing. It is about our own self-interests that we not feel in ways that unnecessarily pain us and that would undermine our long term projects of being positive spreaders of power in the world.

Your Thoughts?


The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Enkidum

    I’ll be brief: yes.

    And “Aristotelian Nietzschean indirect consequentialist perfectionist” may be accurate, but damn, it’s ugly.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      hahaha, shorthand only leads to people accusing me of what I don’t think!

    • John Morales

      Apparently, not just short-hand, but uncommon terminology (to your credit).

      For example, when I read your

      So, I am not the least bit interested in rules for the sake of rules [...]

      I deduced you were consciously taking it easy on us general readers, since as a philosopher and ethicist I figure you’re perfectly well-acquainted with deontology.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Sort of. I am more than the least bit interested in deontology insofar as there is more insight to gain from deontological systems than “rules for the sake of rules”.

      But in general I try to avoid jargon wherever possible and to spell out the shade of nuance of a concept rather than lean on received words with multiple connotations.

      In this case, it was important to say more than just that I’m not a deontologist, it really was a matter of saying I was against the entire “rules for the sake of rules” mental and emotional disposition. It was as much a rejection of legalism and traditionalism as deontology. I was really trying to distinguish myself from people’s negative experience with religious moralists, many of whom may not know the word “deontology” or be a fraction of a percent as rigorous and interesting as Kant.

  • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

    As far as I understand it, adherence to morality against one’s immediate self-interest is only valuable insofar as it helps the individual adhere to certain standards that are in her own ultimate self-interest as a member of a social species in general and of a specific communities in particular.

    Don’t like that part.

    Further, I do not believe in an undetermined free will.

    Liked that. Sort of thing I expect from a Nietzschean :D

    Don’t disagree with you that we can judge emotions as morally wrong when they do not lead to greater well-being, but I’m still concerned about the idea of judging people or allocating blame to individuals. Judging their behaviour, or even their emotions, rationally makes sense, but blaming people seems more like an emotional response. One I don’t blame you for, I indulge in it as much as anyone else.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      My primary discussions of the bit about moralities being valuable insofar as we are members of a social species and particular communities is laid out in these two posts: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/07/11/how-our-morality-realizes-our-humanity/ and http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/17/why-be-morally-dutiful-fair-or-self-sacrificing-if-the-ethical-life-is-about-power/

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      How are you distinguishing judging behavior and emotions from blaming? I am treating them as equivalent and taking out connotations of blaming that involve fictional libertarian free wills. Or am I not? Where do you see me making a mistake here?

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      How are you distinguishing judging behavior and emotions from blaming?

      I would see judgement as rational and blame as emotional.

      I am treating them as equivalent and taking out connotations of blaming that involve fictional libertarian free wills. Or am I not? Where do you see me making a mistake here?

      I’m not convinced that there is anything left of blame once you take out emotion and the fictional libertarian free will. The best argument I know against free will is that we cannot have ultimate moral responsibility without being self-caused.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      Oops, looks like I fucked up the tags. Where’s the edit button?

  • http://langcogcult.com/traumatized DuWayne

    You seem to have a profound lack of understanding of emotions. You cannot, for example, control “getting angry.” There is a stimuli, you have an emotional response to it that you cannot control. The very best you can hope for is to cultivate a set of beliefs about the world and yourself that will help change your emotional response to that stimuli in the future – assuming that anger is not a reasonable emotional response. This is, however, not an easy task. It requires that you first recognize that your emotional response was not a reasonable response to that stimuli. It then requires rather intense introspection, as to allow you to determine what of your biases and aspects of your beliefs fostered that emotional response. Finally, it requires that, assuming you can work out the last two steps, you actually change those beliefs and biases.

    I am not saying it isn’t doable, in most cases it is. But it isn’t easy and before those steps can be taken, a person has to know that that is possible. Biases are a hard thing to manage, because no matter how much you assume you can understand about your biases, it is unlikely (impossible, as far as I can figure) you can ever completely untangle them all to recognize them all. Everything we do, every reaction we have to a given stimuli is driven by innumerable factors – including factors that we may not be conscious of, such as the weather, what we just ate, some ad that we aren’t particularly conscious of even having seen – I could go on and on.

    The bottom line is that it is near enough impossible to functionally change our emotional responses to stimuli, that it isn’t unreasonable to assert that it actually is impossible. I put the likelihood of anyone actually managing it on a par with the likelihood that the Southern Baptist’s perception of a Christian god actually exists. That is not to say that how we respond emotionally to this stimuli or that won’t change naturally – that is a given. But actually consciously changing it is just not plausible.*

    What we can and need to control, is how we react to that emotional response. For example; I get angry with my children sometimes. On occasion that anger is completely irrational. Kids explore things and try new things all the time – including things that might not be appropriate, but which they were never taught were inappropriate. It is absolutely absurd to get angry when they do that sort of thing, yet it happens. Ultimately it is not particularly useful to get angry with them at all. But frustration sometimes turns to anger and there is nothing to do about it. The important thing is how we react to that emotional response.

    On occasion I end up yelling at my kids. This is not only useless, it is actually counterproductive. But I am an only parent, dealing with children who have serious problems – shit happens. Most of the time I avoid the yelling to be sure, but occasionally it comes out. But even then all is not lost. What this provides me – each and every time it happens, is the opportunity to talk to the boys about feelings and how we deal with our feelings. I can make it clear that my emotional response was out of my control, but that my actions should not have been. This has led my nine year old, who has rather severe emotional problems (for very good reasons) to start becoming more conscious of his underlying feelings. When he “wakes up angry” as he puts it, he lets me know and on school days lets his teacher know. He also works hard to recognize when he is escalating, so he can deescalate.

    My point being, it is important to recognize what we can control, versus what we can’t. This is especially important for a parent teaching a child. Adults – at least adults with even minimal emotional maturity – generally get this, even if they aren’t aware of it. Kids rarely understand this without being told. So, for example, you end up with children like my Cay who are struggling to not get angry, instead of working on controlling what they do *when* they get angry. This is not entirely uncommon in adults either and is where anger management courses can be very useful. It’s amazing how much easier people can find it to behave properly, when they understand that all they need to do is change their reactions to their emotions, rather than making a futile effort to change the emotions themselves.

    * Just to be clear, we can consciously try to change the sort of person we are – but that is only in a relatively general way. What I am saying we cannot control is specific emotional responses to specific stimuli. If we work to become, for example, more tolerant of people who are different, we will likely have less visceral reactions to such people.

    • Enkidum

      You seem to have a profound misunderstanding of the post. Well, at least I think you’re missing a big part of the point.

      Yes, changing your feelings is hard. And no, it’s generally not worth saying “I’m angry, this is unreasonable, time to stop being angry!”. But it is certainly worth looking back at an angry period, saying “I was angry then, it wasn’t worth being angry over that trigger, I should think about why that made me angry and maybe I won’t get angry for such a petty reason next time.”

      This isn’t that much different from what you’re teaching your children – as you say “He also works hard to recognize when he is escalating, so he can deescalate.”, and “children like my Cay who are struggling to not get angry, instead of working on controlling what they do *when* they get angry.”

      Blaming someone for feeling a certain way doesn’t need to involve shouting at them right in the moment, or even engaging them in the moment at all. It can be as simple as saying “Hey, three days ago when you went ballistic on me for no good reason – that wasn’t cool. You shouldn’t allow that to happen to yourself.” And that seems perfectly in keeping both with Daniel’s post and with your comment.

      In fact, I think the only thing Daniel’s argument has which isn’t embedded somewhere in your post is that not only is it possible to try and gradually change your emotional responses (through the kind of indirect methods you advocate), but it is a moral imperative that you do so. You get angry over stupid shit? Realize this, do what you can to avoid getting angry over stupid shit in the future, and if you fail to do this, this is a moral failure on your part. And to a certain extent it is my responsibility (or at least my right) to let you know about this.

      Of course I could be projecting my own thoughts onto Daniel, so apologies if that’s the case. At any rate, I think you’re reading him as far more ignorant about emotions than his writing warrants.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, that’s what I mean, Enkidum.

      DuWayne, I’m not saying there’s not going to be that first immediate response to a stimulus which might be automatic but over the years I have noticed so much more control over how I respond to that stimulus through training my rational habits of response. Like something really frustrating happens and as soon as I feel the emotional surge, The Stoic Voice In My Head says, “Now think about this rationally” and I come down. I used to be much more temperamental when I was a kid.

      Also, you seem to equate my talking about what is morally ideal with what is easy. I never said the two were the same.

      Finally, I specifically like what Enkidum pointed out about addressing these issues after a cool down period. I was also talking with a friend recently about how we would raise kids. I was saying that what I would do was just be extremely dialectical with them, help them reason out their reactions to situations and think through how bad situations really are and what proactively to do about them. He was like, “But kids are emotional” and I was like, that’s fine, what you don’t yell at the kid to just knock off the crying or whatever. You affirm how they’re feeling and dialectically help them process the reasons they feel that way and what to do about it and what they want to come of the situation. If you do that, my prediction is they will be calmed eventually.

      When dealing with an adult, you can be similar and when they’re totally calmed, if you have a good enough rapport, you can gently as possible work through what happened rationally.

      And, finally, I think if you have enough training in dealing with a certain stimulus and refusing to let it take over, you will eventually have less and less of that initial surge of emotion. I know I can cope with much more than I used to. I know my parents sure do. They were hot tempered when younger and yet I don’t think I’ve heard either raise their voice since they divorced. Even when I was a furious late teenager they never shouted back at me, they just mastered themselves and were so calm and when I’d shouted myself out they calmed me down and in doing so they made me generally calmer. I only really lose my temper a couple times a year at most now.

    • http://langcogcult.com/traumatized DuWayne

      And, finally, I think if you have enough training in dealing with a certain stimulus and refusing to let it take over, you will eventually have less and less of that initial surge of emotion.

      First, it’s not so much training, as it is maturity. Most people become less temperamental as they get older and have more experiences – people who do not are to some degree or in some way, atypical (I don’t mean bad, just abnormal). Some people take longer at it, while others might have rather a lot of self-awareness and come into their own quite young.

      But even then, unless a person has made fundamental changes in how they think (not necessarily positive changes), their underlying emotional responses are unlikely to change significantly. As we get older we are mainly becoming proficient at ignoring/suppressing our emotional responses. Taken to a certain degree this is generally healthy, though men have something of a tendency to take it to an extreme that is unhealthy.

      I realize that this may sound like parsing bullshit rather finely, but it is not. The nuance is extremely important in terms of emotional maturity and learning to function in society. It is not as important for neurotypicals, because outside teh context of neuropathology, most people develop emotional maturity quite naturally. They may not always process emotions in a healthy fashion, but they generally learn to navigate their way through society with minimal inappropriate reactions to their emotions.

      For people with any of a variety of mental illnesses on the other hand, this doesn’t come naturally. For us, it is extremely important to recognize the difference between an emotional response and how we react to that response. Because for many of us it is extremely hard to suppress or ignore our emotional responses – or for some of is it is hard to do so given certain external pressures. For myself and my neuroproclivities, my life is trying to stay balanced on a tiny pendulum – in the midst of a raging, pounding torrent of ideas and emotions – that never stops, never slows down. The thing is though, if we were sitting down for a coffee and a good chat, you would likely never have the faintest idea what is happening in my head. There are a few people who can read me, but that is only because they know me exceptionally well.

      If you would like, I would be happy to provide you with a bibliography about emotions and emotional processing. The evidence is very strong that the lack of an emotional surge you notice more likely indicates your ability to suppress your emotional responses, than it does a lack of emotional response. Anger, being the most common strong emotion that most people are familiar with is also one of the most important to suppress. Sadness is an emotion that men are socialized to consider a weakness, so that is “important” for us to suppress for a different and unhealthy reason.

    • http://langcogcult.com/traumatized DuWayne

      Endikum -

      I could be mistaken, but I suspect I am not. At best Daniel is oversimplifying the problem of emotions.

      But whatever brain processes do cause actions are influenced by considerations of reasons (and we must think this, lest a great deal of human action become unintelligible). And even if a feeling is an immediate response to the environment or the accompaniment of a thought process, what we can do is help “program” into each other’s brains other thought processes—ones that cut off and replace whatever mental programs get roused in negative ways in response to those negative feelings when they occur, and activate other feelings associated with other mental programs that are more constructive and lead to greater flourishing and happiness.

      The first problem here is the assumption that the cognitive functions that lead to action are necessarily influenced by consideration of reasons. People ignore reason in the face of emotional responses because a) they believe that is the only possibility and b) because it is a hell of a lot easier than reasoning. Daniel asserts that we must believe his assertion because otherwise a great deal of human action becomes unintelligible. My response would be that a great deal of human action *is* unintelligible. That is not to say that we can’t turn around and figure out, in general terms, why such responses happen. It just means that those actions make no sense, outside the context of being an emotional response.

      The next issue is with this conception of “programming.” It is easy enough to say that feeling X is irrational/wrong and that therefore there must necessarily be irrational/wrong thinking behind it. The problem is that that isn’t necessarily true. My oldest son, to use a good example, is angry a lot of the time. His anger manifests over things that are completely irrational – not because he is thinking irrational things (which he is), but because he can’t functional deal with what he is actually angry about. Note – I am not saying that he *refuses* to deal with what he is actually angry about, rather that he actually *can’t* deal with it. This is something that we will work on and at some point he will have the tools to deal with it, but for the moment they don’t exist for him. So he regularly has an anger response to a variety of stimuli that aren’t rational or consistent – without there existing irrational thinking behind it.

      Beyond that, there are health and environmental issues that influence emotional reactions. Some of these apply to my son, some apply to me. I experience overwhelming sadness, anger, and giddy joy for no rational reason on a regular basis – though less so, since I started taking meds for it. I am also very prone to over empathize with the emotions of others – something that my meds have not only not been able to quell, but which they seem to enhance. This extends to the affected emotions of actors on tee vee/movies sometimes. None of this has anything to do with anything I am thinking – it’s just the way my brain works. I cannot control my emotional responses to stimuli and no amount of rationalizing, changing my thinking will allow me to control them. What I can and do control (for teh most part) is how I react to those emotional states. On rare occasions my anger drives me to responses I don’t have complete control over and I sometimes find myself weeping when I’d rather not.

      And even where there are concrete cognitive processes behind those emotional reactions, it isn’t as simple as switching one process – or program – for another. I could be misunderstanding him, but it seems to me that that is what he is asserting. There is no precision in this process and it is not simple – nor is it easily or even possibly controlled. There must be a certain self-awareness as a catalyst for change, without which people can point out how inappropriate a given person’s behavior is until they’re all blue in the face and nothing will change.

      In part, that is because most people internalize most of their emotional responses – often to such a degree that they are only peripherally aware of them. The latter is an especially big problem for men. But it is also an issue of general self-awareness. People aren’t generally receptive to the sort of criticism that Daniel is talking about, unless they have the willingness to accept that some of their fundamental assumptions about themselves and the world around them are seriously flawed – or at least may be seriously flawed.

      Finally, awareness does not equal change. I have negative biases that bug the hell out of me. Some of them are very ugly, all of them are contrary to my beliefs about the world and myself. The problem is that there are many factors that contribute to our emotional responses, not all of which are easily controlled for. This is the problem with being specific – it is just not as simple as making micro changes. The flip side of that is that generalized changes don’t make everything better.

      Because emotions are complicated like that.

    • Enkidum

      I agree with more or less everything you’ve said, but I don’t see how that disagrees with anything Daniel’s said either. We have a moral obligation to learn to control our emotions – that doesn’t mean it is easy. It may be one of the most difficult things to do in the world, and it may be harder for particular individuals like yourself or your son. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a moral obligation.

      Look, you seem to agree that there are certain things one can do to modify one’s emotional responses. If that’s the case, then where’s the trouble with there being an obligation to do those things? Surely it’s a moral failing if you yell at your kids all the time and do nothing about it?

      I’d say there’s really two options: either you are morally obligated to attempt to control your emotions (although this may, as you say, necessarily be a slow and piecemeal process), or you simply aren’t a moral agent. (E.g. someone with truly severe autism – their moral sphere is simply smaller than the rest of us, because they genuinely appear to be incapable of controlling themselves.)

      For what it’s worth, I have kids and get angry at them all the time too. It’s not the end of the world. Hell, my 7-year old daughter’s reading this as I write it.

    • http://langcogcult.com/traumatized DuWayne

      …control your emotions…

      I swear to you, I am not trying to be an asshole and this semantic qualification isn’t about pedantry, but this is exactly what I am disagreeing with – something that may entirely be about semantics. You cannot control – absolutely and without any qualification – cannot control your emotions. You can, over time, change what feeds your emotions. But you cannot control them. You can only control how you respond to them.

      They are not the same and the importance of that difference is critically important for some people.

    • Enkidum

      Fair enough. I was using “control” as shorthand for a longer process that I frankly don’t understand that well, although I know it’s possible (your posts provide several examples). But I can understand why it would be better to use more precise and careful language. I’ll try to do that.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

      How do I change my responses, then, when so many of them — particularly when my Berserk Button has been pushed — are just… automatic? The pointy ends just come out by reflex. (And I don’t like myself very much when that happens.)

      I guess that’s why they refer to it as “blind rage”?

    • Enkidum

      I think that we’re moving on to a different kind of emotions than Daniel had in mind. I think he’s talking about specific categories of triggers leading to specific emotional responses. So, for example, what if you flew into a blind rage every time you were required to interact with someone of another skin colour? There are people like this in the world. And surely you would agree that this is a moral failing on their part, even though their racism may be so ingrained that they are literally incapable of changing their emotional responses in the heat of the moment?

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

      What I’m saying is, I want to be able to stop and go, “How can I react to this [thing] in a productive way?”

      Is there a way to do that? Or am I just flailing around in the dark?

    • Enkidum

      DuWayne is probably the person to ask about that – sounds like he knows more about the ins and outs of behaviour modification.

      But I guess my answer would be that in the short term, there’s probably nothing you can do. You can’t just say “hey, time to chill out, let’s stop being unreasonably angry!” You can try and identify what it is that causes you to fly off the handle after the fact , and by investigating that over time, you may be able to predict when things are about to happen, and respond accordingly. Something like that?

    • http://langcogcult.com/traumatized DuWayne

      Instantaneous explosive reactions are really hard to manage. Thoughts worksheets can be powerful tools for behavior modification – I think I have one for anger, but for the most part they are essentially the same. If you email me (duwayne.brayton at gmail dot com) I would be happy to send you a PDF and rather more of an explanation about it’s use. The important thing is that while it is not guaranteed to work, it is an evidence based tool that can be extremely effective. It is more likely to be effective when used in conjunction in therapy with a psychologist, but can be very effective by itself.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

      Thank you.

  • Robert B.

    I almost said this to Cuttlefish, but he said he wasn’t being serious so I held off.

    The claim that emotions don’t cause actions is preposterous on its face. Everyone has had the experience of meeting stimulus A, feeling angry about it, and then meeting stimulus B. Still angry, one reacts more aggressively to stimulus B than one otherwise would. Everyone has seen someone they know acting differently than usual because they’re in love. And those of us who suffer from depression have the experience of desperately struggling against the crippling effect our depressed emotions have on even routine and everyday actions.

    At the very least, sadness can cause us to cry.

    Now, I’ve seen both anecdotal and scientific evidence that emotions can be caused by actions – including the same actions you would expect to be caused by those emotions. I can easily believe that. If an expert told me that emotions are always caused by the emoting person’s actions, I would find this surprising but credible. If a knowledgeable person told me that being conscious of an emotion is neither necessary nor sufficient for actually having that emotion, I would believe her instantly (and ask how one objectively tests for an emotion.)

    But to say that emotions categorically don’t cause or affect actions flies in the face of a huge body of common knowledge and experience about human behavior. (And the claim must have been categorical – that is, emotions never cause or affect actions – because otherwise it doesn’t count as an objection to your claim that one should regulate one’s emotions as much as possible so as to make ethical actions more likely.) I decided it didn’t really matter whether I agreed with Cuttlefish’s side comments in a post that was actually about a funny video. But I was surprised and dismayed when you accepted and accommodated his very strange claim into your argument without the least demur.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I still took emotions to play some sort of causal role but I took Cuttlefish to be specifically talking about feelings which would be our passive reception of an experience, different from more complicated things like dispositions. My concession was to say the experience of feeling is not necessarily causal but emotions play some role in the total subconscious matrix of decision making for sure.

    • Robert B.

      Ah, well. That’s sensible, I could get behind that. Thanks for the response.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      No problem, I should have teased out such distinctions in the post itself. Thanks, as always, for the contribution to my thinking.

  • Ariel

    The reason that it still makes sense to blame the car owner is that even though the choice-making process is determined, it is in part a rational and emotional process in the car owner’s head that does that determining. When we say things to him or her, that is part of what determines what he or she thinks and what feelings he or she has. All of that is factored into the computations of his or her subconscious brain and part of the determination of future actions.

    We often ascribe blame in order to influence other people – that’s what you are saying. And I think it’s correct, but it still leaves intact the question of what ascriptions of blame actually mean (you can also pinch someone in order to influence her, with an act of pinching not used to make any statement at all!) So what’s the meaning of the blame ascriptions on your view? Is blaming like pinching, or maybe it has factual content? If the latter, what sort of a content? Maybe it’s something like “X’s decisions belong to a causal chain producing Y, and Y is undesirable”? If so, my impression is that it loses much of the moral force which actual blame ascriptions do possess … but I will wait with further comments until I hear an answer.

    Now, in blaming people’s feelings, unlike Jesus, I do not think they are intrinsically wrong or bad.

    I’m not sure if Jesus thought that people’s feelings are intrinsically wrong. Even if Jesus was a real person, it’s not obvious that the passages you mention are not mere rhetoric devices with the intended interpretation being more instrumental than you (or Hitchens) want. As far as I know, various contemporary denominations also do not interpret Jesus in that style.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Jesus’s language advocates extreme asceticism. Better to pluck out your eye than have your whole body burn in hell.

      What does blame mean in the car owner case? Well, it means the following, “(a) You, along with the hurricane and the tree were part of the causally responsible chain that led to the car getting smashed up. (b) While the hurricane and the tree had no choices, it was theoretically possible for you, with a non-mentally ill, choice-making brain to integrate a more reasonable choice algorithm that would have avoided your car getting crushed, and yet for whatever reason your prior choice algorithm, your brain did not do that. In order to effectively encourage better feeling responses and thought processes which will avoid such mistakes in yourself and others, we are holding your brain’s mistakes of this nature accountable with consequences that will give it incentive to change its future choice algorithms and to influence others to do similarly before they make similar mistakes.”

      None of that requires an undetermined free will. We’re just interacting with brains’ choice making processes to influence them towards outcomes more conducive to their own flourishing and that of others in the future. I think it also accounts for what is happening in blame ascription without taking seriously superstitious interpretations.

    • Ariel

      While the hurricane and the tree had no choices, it was theoretically possible for you (…) to integrate a more reasonable choice algorithm (…)

      What do you mean by “theoretically possible” in a deterministic world? (At the moment I can see a sense in which it was not possible. And it this sense the blame ascription you are describing would be false after all.)

      Jesus’s language advocates extreme asceticism.

      My worry was that’s it just too easy to concentrate on the language. The objection is powerless against many brands of contemporary Christianity (most of them?) which treat these fragments as rhetoric. It’s also quite possible that (historically speaking) they are quite right about it.

      Ok, the rest maybe tomorrow. It’s very late in my country.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Theoretically possible not in the sense that that particular chain of causes that led to the action could have been different but that the brain factors that made it happen then do not have to work the same in future decisions. Were another hurricane of the same speed to hit a tree of the same mass and height at the same angle, etc. the tree will fall the same way. But through our blaming intervention that encourages you to see another way to choose in the future, you will not make the same choice. The theoretical possibility might not be that the universe could have behaved differently in the past but that a being of your sort could operate with a different choice algorithm and should be encouraged to feel sadness that it did not figure that out in the past and work to do so next time.

      The sadness over the past is rational not because you could have genuinely done otherwise but because it should suck to realize your brain working as it has led to a bad thing and that’s just bad in itself. And that recognition is motivation not to lead to more bad in the future. Of course the sadness can be mitigated and kept from being overwhelming by realizing that you are limited and determined and by looking proactively with hope that you can do better next time with no information and feelings calculated into your choice algorithms.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      If Jesus (or whoever wrote the narrative of the character or recorded the legends, etc.) meant to say something more restrained than he (or they) sure should have because millions of Christians think that we are worthy of hell based on our lusts and angers. I know when I was a Christian I felt like Luther, obsessed and feeling worthless and sinful over every “sinful” thought. I know I wasn’t alone. There are better ways Jesus (or his creators/adapters) could have communicated to be more precise.

      (And goodnight in your country :))

  • Dark Jaguar

    Morality to me is NOT purely defined by my own flourishing, both short term and long term. I actually flirted with a moral system like that, called libertarianism, shortly after going atheist. It wasn’t a good “fit”. I just couldn’t get around the notion that I shouldn’t care about others if it could be demonstrated they could NEVER aid my own flourishing.

    To me, my own flourishing (and I do like that word as a good definer of a general goal of morality) is no more nor no less important than anyone else’s. I see no logical reason why I shouldn’t be equally obsessed with the flourishing of, say, James McRolf from down the way. I think that helping others to flourish because it helps me misses the point a little. Yes, that’s a good consequence of it, and certainly one to be pointed out. However, I think aiding the flourishing of total strangers is an end in itself, for exactly the same reason why aiding my own flourishing would be an end in itself.

    After all, my own flourishing is eventually going to stop. A moral goal that helps the world at large has a chance of having a point beyond my own death. If the goal is not just my flourishing, but ALL flourishing of all intelligent beings, then it can potentially last as long as the universe does, long after my demise. That said, I’m not entirely obsessed with “net results”. It’s enough to have had those moments of growth and happiness.