Recalcitrant and managed emotions

Recalcitrant emotions

Emotions that we experience in spite of our contrary beliefs or appraisals of the eliciting situation are familiar in our everyday lives. Some of these recalcitrant emotions are quite unavoidable and harmless. For instance, most people feel a little nervous or afraid while standing on the edge of a steep cliff even if they know that they are quite safe behind a bar. These feelings are echoes from our evolutionary past when avoidance of heights was an adaptive strategy for the survival of our species.

However, more pervasive and pernicious emotional recalcitrance is common among persons with phobias, obsessive-compulsory disorders, panic reactions, and other affective disorders. These people invariably report that they can see how unfounded their responses are but they still cannot help experiencing them. The same applies to people with extremely sensitive and repressive moral senses that censor their thoughts, desires, and actions, contrary to their considered opinions. At times we may even get carried away within emotions that we disapprove of before and after the emotional experience. This phenomenon of emotion contagion is common in family life, social rituals, political rallies, and mass meetings (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). All these cases appear as counterexamples to the claim of the correlation between a person's spontaneous emotions and his or her personal values or concerns that many philosophers have characterized as a semi-analytic truth about emotions (e.g. Roberts, 2003; Stocker, 1996; Oakley, 1992).[1]

Robin S. Dillon discusses anomalous recalcitrant emotions in her article "Self-Respect: Moral, Emotional, Political" (1997). Dillon distinguishes between three forms of self-respect: recognition, and evaluative and basal self-respect. The first one centres on the issue of status worth, whereas the second one is oriented around merit. Emotions enact both these forms of self-respect as we resent people who do not respect our status as persons with equal moral worth or feel ashamed if we fail to live according to our normative self-conceptions. Basal self-respect is no exception to this involvement with emotions. In fact, basal self-respect manifests itself primarily through emotions because it does not involve explicit beliefs, judgments, or evaluations. Yet it has a cognitive function of providing us with an experiential, nonpropositional understanding of our worth.

The fundamental role of basal self-respect is displayed in the distortions of recognition and evaluative self-respect. These manifest themselves as recalcitrant emotions that conflict with the subject's explicit beliefs and judgments of his or her worth and with his or her reflexive or "second-order" emotions. The latter are emotions about emotions, such as shame at feeling afraid in a situation that according to one's considered judgment does not merit fear. Dillon illustrates the psychology of anomalous recalcitrant emotions by providing a real-life example of "Anne", a respected and successful professor who cannot feel proud of herself or take pleasure in her accomplishments or feel satisfied with her life. Instead, she feels wholly inadequate and undeserving: each success feels like a fluke, those who praise her are only being nice. Anne is harshly critical of herself, dwells incessantly on her failures, feels that her screw-ups give a better picture of her than her so-called successes, and fears the inevitable unmasking of her mediocrity. Anne's emotional experience of herself testifies to a lack of evaluative self-respect. At the same time, however, she knows that she deserves to take pride in her accomplishments and that she lives self-acceptably. She believes she is respect-worthy and regards her lack of self-acceptance as ungrounded and disrespectful of herself. She is ashamed of her emotional incongruity; yet try as she might, she cannot bring her emotions into line with her beliefs, so she is ashamed of what she regards as weakness of will (Dillon, 1997, pp. 232-233).

Anne is torn between her avowed beliefs and second-order emotions that affirm her worth and her first-order emotions that persistently deny it. The latter are inappropriate and anomalous because they do not enact Anne's self-respect in a proper way. For "her second-order self-evaluations and emotions, and her struggles to correct the first-order emotions provide strong evidence that her real beliefs about her worth are what she says they are" (ibid., p. 237). Dillon argues that Anne's self-reproaching emotions make sense as manifestations of her damaged basal self-respect. Such profound damage may originate from one's experiential history of interactions with other people, especially with one's earliest caretakers. Many basal frameworks arise from institutionally structured and enacted social, cultural, and political contexts as well. Still, whatever the cause, Dillon argues that the subject of a damaged basal self-respect is a victim of mistreatment or oppression.

I believe that Dillon's account of damaged basal self-respect provides us with a poignant case against identifying sincere and authentic emotions. As such, Anne's recalcitrant emotions constitute a vital source of self-knowledge which, in turn, may contribute to her emancipation from the oppressive basal frameworks. Sincerity is, thus, an important virtue of self-knowledge. Nevertheless, it is not obvious that anomalous recalcitrant emotions should count as evidence of Anne's authoritative evaluative attitudes. Moreover, Anne is not a helpless victim of her anomalous emotions. On the contrary, she may attempt to transform her emotional dispositions through improved self-understanding, through her present relationships, by deliberately changing her way of being in the world, or through political engagement with the aim of removing the oppressive basal frameworks (ibid., pp. 247-249).

  • [1] Anatomically, these pervasively and perniciously recalcitrant emotions seem to depend on very strong amygdala links between conditional stimuli and unconditional stimuli, learned in the ontogenetic development of the individual. Longer term values of the subject that are processed in the prefrontal areas do not have direct control over those amygdala links. My thanks are due to an anonymous reviewer of the manuscript for this point.
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