Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Appearances, Beliefs, and the Moral Emotions (by guest blogger Justin Tiwald)

Part of what it means to have an emotion is to regard an object in a certain way. To fear an activity, for example, is to regard it as a threat to your interests. To be indignant about someone's behavior is to regard her as committing an injustice. But this usage of "regard" is ambiguous. If I regard something as dangerous, it might mean that I believe it to be dangerous. But it could also mean that it just seems dangerous to me. Often what seems to be the case is also what we believe to be the case, but sometimes these two things come apart. A popular example is the perceptual illusion created when the moon is low on the horizon. It seems bigger than usual, but most of us don't believe it's bigger.

These days most philosophers working on the emotions prefer the believing version of regarding. One thing going against it, though, is that we have emotional responses that don't match up with our beliefs. A good example (which I steal shamelessly from Michael Stocker) is the fear of flying: we don't really believe flying is dangerous. In fact most of us know that it's safer than driving. But we fear it all the same, and that's probably because it seems dangerous to us, despite our acceptance of the fact that it's safe.

Now let me apply this to an issue in historical moral psychology. I spend a lot of time reading the Neo-Confucian philosophers, who wholeheartedly embrace an account of the emotions as constituted by thoughts and judgments. For a long time I (like most scholars in my line of work) assumed they were cognitivists in the more familiar "believing" sense. Recently I've come to realize that they also make room for cognitivism in the "seeming" sense. In fact, the purpose of moral education as they understood it was to make us more reliant on emotional appearances (seemings) than on emotional beliefs. The beliefs just "second" the emotional appearances. Here's why.

When we think about harmless perceptual illusions like the appearance of the moon on the horizon, it's evident that beliefs tend to be more reliable than appearances. But in matters of moral significance the situation is often reversed. Moral beliefs tend to be more susceptible to rationalization and self-deception than moral appearances. Admittedly moral appearances also get things wrong--visceral disgust often plays a crucial role in the moral condemnation of entire classes of people (think of the initial disgust elicited by foreign eating habits or different sexual practices). But while both beliefs and appearances are unreliable, one of these problems is more intractable than others. It doesn't take much exposure to overcome our visceral disgust at unfamiliar things. But the tendency to rationalize self-serving ends is a permanent feature of the human condition. When given the chance, successful revolutionaries usually turn into unapologetic dictators.

On my reading the Neo-Confucians thought that emotions were constituted by both appearances and beliefs. But unlike many moral sense theorists they thought we were better off relying on the former. The latter will never go away, but they can be shut out by acting on our more spontaneous feelings (unlike most classical Greek and Chinese virtue ethicists, the Neo-Confucians were more attracted to accounts of moral selves as permanently divided between their good and bad parts). I think there is some truth to this, even if I'm not willing to give up entirely on belief-based emotional responses.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Another interesting post, Justin! I don't know about appearances serving us better than reasons, though. I entirely agree that "reasons" are often just rationalizations -- even, I think, all the sophisticated reasoning of ethics professors has little real positive impact on their moral behavior. But I'm not sure our gut moral reactions are any more reliably trainable.

Consider sexual shame. For all our cognition about certain sexual acts being okay (safe and responsible sodomy, masturbation, homosexuality, etc., -- and I assume they are okay), the moral "appearance" of wrongness often seems to persist, I think.

Repeated exposure may not help, either. I remember a lesbian philosopher giving a talk here once on how important it was for her that her sexual morality be grounded in reason rather than in the cultural norms against homosexuality that still, she thought, affected her emotional self-assessment.

Also: What standard do we use to decide which misleading moral appearances to train away? Further appearances?

Justin Tiwald said...

Thanks for these very thoughtful remarks, Eric! I take seriously your worries about the possibility of retraining gut reactions, and I wouldn't want to defend the view that moral emotions should go on appearances in all cases. Surely some gut reactions are less retrainable than others. I also think that some gut reactions can be trained to trump other gut reactions, but even so that won't get us as far as the Neo-Confucians would like.

As for the intriguing problem of deciding which gut reactions to retrain, I wonder if we aren't talking past each other somewhat. I didn't mean to imply (and I don't think most Neo-Confucians would say) that we must pick out preferred moral appearances by appealing to other moral appearances. When we're not in the arena of everyday moral decision-making (where we face strong conflicts of interest) we'll need sort things out with the help of considered judgments, good teachers, etc. But the goal is to prepare ourselves so that we can face that arena with more reliable gut reactions. There's a distinction between the carefully considered moral justification required for moral education and the spur-of-the-moment moral decision-making required in everyday life. As with the classical Confucians, the Neo-Confucians tend to think about moral cultivation in terms of preparing youngish people without strong vested interests for their future lives in positions of authority, where they will face powerful temptations on a day-to-day basis.

Anonymous said...

Great post Justin, and very thought-provoking. I enjoyed reading this!

It's been a long time since I've read Neo-Confucian writings in the anthologies by de Bary and Wing-tsit Chan. I do want to study the Neo-Confucians seriously at some point (esp. their moral psychology), and in this respect I find your posts very helpful.

I have a couple of questions. First, the Neo-Confucians are a heterogenous group, and traditionally they are divided into two schools (that of Principle and that of Mind), the first represented by Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, and the second by Cheng Hao and Wang Yangming. It seems to me that Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi may have prefered to rely on belief-based emotional responses rather than spontaneous, appearance-triggered emotional responses. So IMHO what you say of Neo-Confucians in general seem to apply better to a proper sub-group, i.e., those traditionally classed together with Cheng Hao and Wang Yangming. This may help explain the relative lack of emphasis on book-learning and ritual-based cultivation in Wang Yangming as compared to Zhu Xi.

Second, if it is not too much trouble to you I would very much appreciate relevant passages illustating your points. I am reminded of the story (Cheng Hao's, I think, recounted by Zhu Xi) of the man who had once seen a tiger. Upon hearing of a tiger on a later occasion, the man turned pale, his hair raised (though the tiger was not in the vicinity and so he had no reason to fear). The point of the story, if I recall correctly, is to illustrate what genuinely sincere affective knowledge is like. Just as cognitive knowledge aims at truth, so the kind of affective knowledge emphasized by Neo-Congucians aims at sincerity, which can more readily and reliably translate into action. I believe that is the point of the tiger story, and I'd like to suggest, very tentatively, that this could be the point of other passages where Neo-Confucians seem to emphasize spontaneity of emotions. A careful discussion of relevant passages would help here, but unforunately I don't have the tiger passage before me, and I don't know of other pertinent passages.

I do have one passage before me, where Cheng Hao seems to be saying that the sage relies on belief-based emotional responses, though I can also sort of see how it can be read your way. (This is from his reply to Zhang Zai's letter on stabilizing human nature, translated in de Bary and Bloom, SOURCES OF CHINESE TRADITION, 2nd Ed., Vol.1, pp.692~3.):

"...The sage is joyous because according to the nature of things before him he should be joyous, and he is angry because according to the nature of things before him he should be angry. Thus the joy and anger of the sage does not depend on his own mind but on things.... Compare the joy and anger of the selfish and clever person to the correctness of joy and anger of the sage. What a difference! Among human emotions the easiest to arouse but the most difficult to control is anger. But if in time of anger one can immediately forget his anger and look at the right and wrong of the matter according to truth, it will be seen that external temptations need not be hated, and one has gone a long way toward the Way."

Justin Tiwald said...

These are great comments, Boram. How nice to find a reader who knows the materials!

It's funny that you bring up the anger passage in Cheng Hao. My thoughts about this were motivated by the recurring theme of anger that leaves the moral agent unchanged (bu qian nu), sometimes described as anger without residue. You can find this in the writing of most of the major Neo-Confucian philosophers, usually in conjunction with praise of Yan Hui, whose anger and calm coincided perfectly with events that merited anger or calm. This points to a certain moral failing: most of us have an angry residue even after we realize there is nothing to be angry about (or after the object of anger no longer merits it). If we're cognitivists in the strict "believing" sense, how can this be? I think the best explanation is that things still appear to us as meriting anger, and that both beliefs and appearances are constituents of anger. This departs from some of the things people are currently saying the Neo-Confucian theory of emotions (inspired by all of the work on the Stoic theory of the emotions, which generally makes no room for appearances and sticks with beliefs).

I agree that my reading is more plausibly read as an explication of the School of Mind types (especially Wang Yangming). My favorite bits of textual evidence are the passages on the unity of knowledge and action/practice, including the one about the tiger (you and I seem to be on the same wavelength!). In another favorite passage, Wang says that we know a practice is wrong after the fact, just like we know that an odor is bad after discovering that we hate it. This strikes me as putting the appearances before the beliefs.

That said, I'm not ready to abandon this as a reading of the more reflective School of Principle types. I should have made it clear that I'm only talking about appearance-based emotional responses, not emotional responses where beliefs are absent entirely. For my purposes an emotion is appearance-based when the belief just tracks appearances alone, rather than taking non-appearance-based beliefs into account. (This is what I was trying to get at with the business about the belief "seconding" the appearance.) To put this in terms of the moon-and-horizon analogy, if the moon looks bigger, then the refined and cultivated person will believe it's bigger, even if this contravenes her other beliefs. No one ever completely buys it (I certainly don't). But there's an interesting point in there!

Justin Tiwald said...
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Justin Tiwald said...
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Justin Tiwald said...

Hmm. I tried to link to an on-line version of one of the passages, but something went haywire.

Anyway, here are some of the textual citations sans hyperlinks:

1. You can find the stuff about the anger that leaves its subject unchanged in Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, and the two Chengs. Just search the e-texts for "Yan Hui" or "bu qian nu."

2. As for the passage about believing an odor to be bad after discovering that you hate it, I'm pretty sure this one appears in your edition of Sources, near the end of the "unity of knowledge and action" bit.

3. Before I forget, let me just say that the deBary translation of the passage you took from Sources isn't quite true to the original (although it certainly makes for more readable English than mine does). His translation reads "[The sage] is angry because according to the nature of things before him he should be angry." In fact, there's no "because" there. It simply says "[The sage] is angry according to the object's being something he should be angry about" (NU YI WU ZHI DANG WU). This might seem trivial, but deBary's translation seems to imply that the sage takes something's worthiness for anger as a a first-personal reason for his anger. In fact it simply says that the anger accords with the circumstances, deliberately or not.

Thanks again for the comments!

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your responses, and for (supererogatorily) taking the time to respond to my query on passages. The more you spell out your ideas the more I seem to agree with your interpretation... which makes a lot more sense now that you've contrasted it with the Stoic position on anger, and I have to admit that it is very plausible and interesting (and seems to me to open up a very promising line of research)!

You write, "if the moon looks bigger, then the refined and cultivated person will believe it's bigger, even if this contravenes her other beliefs." I think that's practically inadvisable and psychologically improbable. Or at least Hume, who uses similar examples, would say so. According to Hume, both the wise and the fool are alike in forming their beliefs on appearances. But the wise person is guided by the most stable and general features of appearances, whereas the fool goes by the variable and irregular ones. Going by stable and general appearances, the wise person is able to correct the bigger appearance of the moon on the horizon, which is bound to be contradicted by its smaller appearance on other occasions. Psychologically, the contradictions in appearances are felt as pains that should be avoided.

There is an intriguing connection between Hume and the ancients on this matter, at least according to Donald Baxter (UConn). The Pyrrhonian skeptics made a distinction between passive acquiescence caused by appearances and active endorsement based on good reasons. The Stoics (and I can't remember well but I believe the Academic skeptics as well) were in favor of active endorsement. The Pyrrhonians thought there were no good reasons on the basis of which any active endorsement could be made, but used the notion of passive acquiescence to explain how they were able to form beliefs and refrain from crazy behavior like jumping off a cliff. According to Baxter, Hume was misinformed about the Pyrrhonian position (which is why he favored mitigated skepticism instead of the Pyrrhonian version), but actually Hume (esp. throughout the Treatise), makes claims very similar to the Pyrrhonian ones described above.

Sorry for this long digression, but I am excited by the possibility of bringing Hume in to these discussions on Neo-Confucianism. If your interpretation of Neo-Confucian position on the emotions is right, it can be related to Hume's position on belief-formation. (But not to the emotions, because Hume assumes that the passions have no cognitive content, and he relies on this assumption in one of his two arguments against the possibility of practical reason.)

I will be keeping track of your blog posts, they are very interesting, and please let me know if you publish anything on these issues.

Justin Tiwald said...

Hi Boram,

What a nice point of contact between the Neo-Confucians and Hume! I'm sure there are more charitable ways of putting the Neo-Confucian position than my moon-on-the-horizon analogy suggests (I tend to make a public display of biting bullets, but in fact I'm looking for ways to soft-pedal the "appearances before beliefs" claim). I'll be sure to look this up and run it by you when I start writing on this topic. Would you mind giving me the Baxter citation?

Badda Being said...

Hi Justin. I don't understand what's in question here. Are you concerned with defining moral regard as either moral belief or emotional reaction? Or are you concerned with determining the relative strength of moral belief and emotional reaction in the production of moral regard? Or are you concerned with determining the reliability of either moral belief or emotional reaction in producing the correct way to regard something morally?

Anonymous said...

Hi Justin, biting the bullet, so often met by the incredulous stare, is a hallowed philosophical practice, so you are in excellent company!

The Baxter citation I have in mind is not published yet. But here it is (see the subsection on "Hume's Skepticism"):

Donald L M Baxter, "Hume's Theory of Space and Time in Its Skeptical Context", forthcoming in The Cambridge Companion to Hume, SECOND EDITION, 2007 (it's not in the first edition).

I think Baxter's reading of Hume as (an unwitting) Pyrrhonian empiricist is a very interesting and illuminating interpretation, though I disagree with it, or with Hume to the extent that the interpretation is right. Take the passage from the Treatise most pertinent to your moon-on-the-horizon discussion, Treatise (numbering in the Norton edition). Are the general rules in light of which the understanding corrects the appearance of the senses actively endorsed or passively acquiesced in? Baxter would say the latter and not the former (and there are very plausible grounds for this elsewhere in the Treatise), but I want to say it's both.

For the distinction between stable appearances as opposed to variable, cf. Treatise (What Hume refers to as reasoning there is association by habit, forced on us by appearances.) With respect to general rules of morality (the general point of view), cf. Treatise

Justin Tiwald said...

Hi Daryl. I'm happy to try and clarify. Of the three options--defining moral regard, determining relative strength, and determining reliability--the third one comes closest. But your phrasing of the three options makes me think that we're not quite on the same page. I'm more worried about moral regard's role as a constituent of moral emotions, not the other way around. I start from the presupposition that moral emotions like guilt, indignation, etc. are constituted in part by their cognitive content. So on my account there is no such thing as a (moral) emotional reaction either conceptually or temporally prior to moral regard. Thanks for the questions.

Many thanks, Boram, for all of the citations. I'm very glad you mentioned Hume and I do plan to follow up on this!

Badda Being said...

Thank you for the clarification.