Kantian Emotions

Kantian Emotions August 8, 2017

A “Kantian chapter on emotion and responsibility,” write John Sabini and Maury Silver (Emotion, Character, and Responsibility), 

…is easy to write
and quick to read: the domain of the moral is the domain of the
will expressed in action; it is the domain of that for which we are
responsible. Emotions are beyond the will, and for this reason have
no intrinsic moral value. We know nothing of moral significance
about a person if we know that person’s emotions. People neither
gain worth by having appropriate emotions nor lose worth by having inappropriate ones. Indeed, insofar as emotions play a role in
moral life, it is an ignoble one; they distract us from attending to
moral principles and doing our duty (10).

Kant believed that “emotions are brute forces unconnected with higher mental functions” (10). Pain serves as a model: “Pain is a brute force; it is
beyond the will; it is, or at least typically is, independent of reason.
Our feeling pain when our trigeminal nerve is stimulated is a fact
about us unconnected to our values, or any other important aspect
of our characters. Further, pain can overwhelm reason” (10). If all emotion is like pain, perhaps Kant was right.

Sabini and Silver, though, think Kant was wrong, badly so. Emotions aren’t merely “reactions of the viscera,” though they may be accompanied by such. Drawing on Aristotle and the tradition that follows him, they find a closer connection between emotion and thought, emotion and cognition. They are “connected to assessments and values” (14).

Still, Kant might respond, emotions are passive, unwilled. How can something that happens to us, that overcomes us, be morally significant? Can the passivity of emotions be reconciled with our sense that moral conduct demands responsibility? Can we detach responsibility and will?

The authors demonstrate an initial connection between morality and passivity by considering sympathy: 

…what it is about pain, emotion,
and the transgression of a person’s values that is demanding of
sympathy is their being beyond the will of the creature experiencing them; were we able to turn these off at will, they would not demand our sympathy. Thus, we see at least one connection between
the passive and the moral. Since any life deemed good would include vulnerability to these states, we see what it is about the moral
life that presupposes elements of passivity. This vulnerability
makes us proper objects of sympathy and caring (16). 

If sympathy is amoral, then we are enslaved to a sort of moral schizophrenia, a necessary, unbridgeable gap between emotion and moral judgment.

With the wedge example of sympathy in place, they broaden the claim. In Aristotelian ethics, the passions aren’t a matter of choice, not in the moment when we experience them. Yet, emotions can be trained: “the practice of moderation in
action acts back on the passions to produce a balance, or harmony,
of the passions themselves. Thus, for Aristotle, though we may not
be able to change our emotions at the moment, we were once able
to become a different person, one who would have different emotions” (17). We aren’t responsible for the momentary experience, but we are responsible for how we respond and how we have trained our emotional character.

This line of thought provides a helpful response to Kant, but is Aristotle satisfying? Ought we to aim at moderation of emotional response? Isn’t strong emotion sometimes the morally right response (e.g., indignation at injustice)? It seems an even deeper defense of passivity is needed, along with a recognition of God’s role in arousing or stirring emotions. We need to reckon with the reality of being swept up by spirits, and the possibility of being swept up, passively and uncontrollably yet righteously, by the Spirit.

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