Emotional truth and appropriateness

The notion of emotional truth might be criticized for being either redundant or too cheap to count as valuable and substantial enough. The former argument is easy to anticipate on the grounds that we already have the notions of appropriateness and rationality for the evaluation of emotions. After all, the fundamental methodological principle of parsimony forbids the introduction of inexpedient theoretical concepts. The latter argument on the cheapness of emotional truth is Adam Morton's response to de Sousa in their joint contribution to the subject. I will discuss it in the next section.

The main problem with defining emotional truth in terms of appropriateness lies in the inextricable ambiguity of this notion. Justin D'Arms and Daniel Jacobson argue that we must distinguish fittingness from other forms of emotional appropriateness. We may ask whether it is prudential, morally right, or all-in reasonable to feel f in a situation s. Nevertheless, none of these considerations is relevant for the fittingness off to its object. For we may recall or imagine situations, for instance, at funerals and other formal ceremonies where it would be rude or disastrous and therefore all-in unreasonable to be amused by a particular event even if the event really is funny.

So there is a need for a distinct notion of emotional appropriateness as fittingness. True enough, de Sousa defines emotional truth in terms of fittingness but his view that fittingness depends on a wide reflective equilibrium of biological facts, social norms, and individual paradigm scenarios, blurs the distinctions between kinds of emotional appropriateness, analysed by D'Arms and Jacobson. Indeed, 'fittingness' in de Sousa's sense that invokes a wide equilibrium of biological facts, social norms, and individual experience appears to coincide with all-in appropriateness, rather than with the more restricted notion of fittingness that focuses specifically on epistemic warrant, as distinct from prudential, moral, and overall considerations. Instead, D'Arms and Jacobson suggest that the two proper dimensions of fittingness are the size and the shape of an emotion. An emotion is unfitting on grounds of shape when its object lacks the relevant features. My envy, for instance, is unfitting "if the thing I envy isn't really possessed by my rival, or if it isn't really good - indeed better than mine" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2000a, p. 73). On the other hand, my envy is unfitting on grounds of its size, if what I have is almost as good as my rival's.

D'Arms and Jacobson correctly focus on the descriptive properties of the actual object that render it fitting for the relevant emotion type. In some cases these appear to be enough: a maggot-infested piece of meat is disgusting or an attacking predator is dangerous, provided that I am the target. However, this is so because well-being and survival are biologically hard-wired concerns for every one of us, and those descriptive properties render the piece of meat disgusting or the predator frightening for virtually every human being. But if I do not share your concerns or values, our emotions or rather their fitting objects differ significantly.

Suppose that I have inherited a World War II pistol from my late grandfather. Being a pacifist, I do not fancy guns but keep the pistol as a memento of my grandfather. My neighbour, in contrast, is a member of the National Rifle Association, an ardent lover and collector of modern firearms, including handguns. My neighbour certainly has a better handgun than I, probably even several of them. But since I do not value guns or the primitive sense of power and security that they bring to their possessor, it does not make sense to suggest that envy of the neighbour's handgun would be a fitting emotion for me, even though his gun is good and better than mine as a gun.

Whether envy is a fitting emotion depends then on the value of the envied object, which cannot be determined by its descriptive properties alone, because those properties qualify as reasons for envy only insofar as they render the object valuable. Handguns are valuable for members and sympathisers of the NRA, but hardly for people who detest guns and resent their easy availability in American society. Perhaps it is not possible to determine which of these two emotions toward handguns is objectively more fitting. Each emotion could then qualify as superassertible in the relevant community of sensibility, defined by the members' concern-based values. However, this is not a very probable result of a most careful, informed, and imaginative reflection on the matter. Instead, I presume that a close scrutiny of the reasons for valuing handguns together with enlarged or improved information and imaginative reflection about the availability of handguns, the regularity and consequences of their abuse in criminal activities, school shootings, domestic confrontations, and other acts of violence are capable of removing the warrant of valuing handguns except in strictly controlled police and military use. Accordingly, handguns do not qualify as fitting objects of envy after all. Therefore, I argue that superassertibility provides a more plausible account of fittingness than D'Arms and Jacobson's proposal.[1]

  • [1] I discuss and defend this claim in more detail in Chapter 7.
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