The problem of autonomy

The anorexic person's anxiety about her fatness does not then qualify as authentic even if it coheres with her beliefs and values because these fail to be justified on the criteria of subjective rationality. However, it seems that some emotions can meet these criteria without still qualifying as authentic. The problem is that one's beliefs and values may have been adopted in an inappropriate manner. This problem emerges poignantly in Helm's example of Betty, a traditional housewife. Betty is a woman who internalized conservative family values in her upbringing in the 1950s. Accordingly, she naturally came to adopt a subservient role in the family, catering to others and, just as naturally, came to find self-esteem in anticipating and fulfilling their desires and supporting their aspirations. To say that she finds self-esteem here is to say in part that she takes pride on her fulfillment of this role and, conversely, becomes disappointed in herself for more selfish pursuits instead of catering to the needs and aspirations of others (Helm, 2001, p. 102).

Betty exhibits a coherent and projectable pattern of first- and second-order emotions and evaluative judgments even if her values do not result from a self-conscious deliberation and choice. Nevertheless, a feminist might point out that Betty's subservient emotions originate from a sexist upbringing that she was not able to resist. Moreover, those emotions do not contain the seeds of authenticity that are involved in "outlaw" emotions. Therefore, Betty should rephrase her evaluative judgments in accordance with an adequate understanding of her upbringing and struggle to alter her emotions accordingly. After all, the normativity of authenticity entails that we may have to strive for it if our spontaneous emotions persistently conflict with our internally justified evaluative judgments. Indeed, Helm admits that if Betty's new understanding of herself is accompanied by relevant first- and second-order emotions, this coherent and projectable pattern provides her with a new set of import. However, the feminist might argue counter-factually that Betty's subservient emotions may qualify as inauthentic even if she were not able to effect the relevant emotional change in herself.

Counterfactual considerations about the origin of our emotional dispositions bring us to the notion of personal autonomy that often is associated with authenticity even if their mutual relation is far from clear. The example of Betty indicates that mere coherence between a person's emotions, values, and beliefs does not establish authenticity for some or all constituents of this coherent pattern may have been produced by, for instance, an oppressive or guilt-provoking upbringing, manipulation or indoctrination, distortion of evidence, brainwashing, or by a restricted interaction with the outer world. The subject whose personal autonomy has been violated in this way may find that his or her beliefs and values cohere with his or her emotion, but we hesitate to qualify the emotion as authentic because the values and beliefs that both set the stage for the emergence of particular emotions and settle their authenticity have been adopted in an improper way.

In order to highlight this point, let us consider a more extreme example than Betty, a person who loathes himself for seemingly rational reasons. This person has not succeeded in life, he has no proper education, no job, no family, no friends, no property, and so on. In all likelihood, a person who has ended up in such a predicament was abused, abandoned, oppressed, neglected, rejected, or otherwise mistreated in childhood and/or adolescence. Such person may find that his present emotion coheres with the available evidence that the subject regards as rational. Yet the main problem is the emotional disposition of self-loathing that has distorted and keeps distorting the person's evaluations of himself, the world, and the future. This maladaptive emotion schema that constitutes a coherent pattern of thematically interrelated memories, emotions, bodily sensations, perceptions, and cognitions continues to plague the person in his present life.

In order to exclude such cases from the scope of authenticity, I propose that coherence between an emotion and the subject's rational beliefs and values should survive critical acknowledgment of the manner in which those beliefs and values and/or the emotional disposition were adopted. This condition of personal autonomy associates with de Sousa's dimension of diachronic coherence, highlighting critical transparency about one's own mental constitution; not merely emotions but also cognitive and other evaluative attitudes. Thus John Christman (1991) argues that a person is autonomous if he or she is capable of critically attending to and approving the formation of his or her desires and values or if he or she would not have resisted their formation had he or she been able to critically attend to it. The latter, counterfactual criterion is especially relevant for emotions because many of our fundamental beliefs and evaluations about ourselves, other people, and the world live on in emotional appraisals that go back to our formative years when we were incapable of attending to their acquisition due to our lack of reflective abilities. A major problem with emotions of course is the fact that it is practically impossible to critically attend to and approve the formation of most emotional dispositions. True enough, a recruit to a racist group, for instance, may be capable of attending to the formation of his hatred of other ethnic groups through peer pressure and propaganda. In general, however, this is not the case because most emotional paradigm scenarios go so far back in our personal history that the idea of critically attending to and approving their acquisition may be implausible even as a theoretical fiction. Indeed, it is not obvious who would be the subject of such fiction: the present self with its more or less articulate beliefs and values, or past selves with their inchoate epistemic and evaluative attitudes? Further still, the idea of approving of an emotional disposition is seriously ambiguous until we specify criteria for the evaluation of emotions. Should we evaluate an emotional disposition in terms of its fittingness to the emotion-eliciting situations, or in terms of those behaviours that it motivates, or both?

Fortunately, we need not stumble to these seemingly insurmountable hurdles. First of all, the problem with autonomy can emerge only for emotional dispositions that have been adopted during ontogenetic development, not for phylogenetically ancient emotions such as fear of heights. Moreover, the counterfactual condition of attendance and approval does not force us to engage in laborious self-scrutiny provided that we remain open to new evidence that is capable of challenging the evaluative perspective of our emotions. Goldie (2004) has pointed out that emotions are capable of skewing the subject's epistemic and evaluative perspective in weighing evidence independently of her awareness of this mechanism. Such mechanism operates for instance in the case of a self-loathing outcast that was highlighted above. While it may be psychologically impossible to penetrate into the sources of many emotional dispositions, it is slightly easier to become cognizant of the ways in which those dispositions influence information processing in the present life. If this influence turns out to be distortive, the skewed epistemic and evaluative attitudes must be rejected and emotions must be brought in line with the more rational and autonomous beliefs and values in order to maintain coherence.

Therefore, we can settle with a counterfactual condition of autonomy which states that an emotion is authentic if its coherence with one's subjectively rational values and beliefs would survive critical acknowledgement of the manner in which those values and beliefs were adopted. The condition of autonomy does not guarantee that an oppressed or manipulated person will renounce her emotion as inauthentic after having discovered the origin of its authenticity-conferring values and beliefs. After all, it is not the content of those beliefs and values that is challenged but the procedure of their adoption. Thus my love of classical music may survive an acknowledgement of the fact that it originates in part from piano playing to which I engaged reluctantly as a child to please my demanding father. However, considerations of this kind force the person to reconsider the issue by breaking the previous, ignorant coherence. If the person is able to reach a new, enlightened coherence by critically re-evaluating and endorsing her beliefs and values, we must accept such coherence as authentic.

 
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >