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The conflation problem

The conflation problem emerges from the ambivalence of such notions as "appropriate", "rational", and "warrant" to which neosentimentalist theories have referred in their analyses of value concepts or properties in accordance with different versions of the response-dependence thesis - conceptual and metaphysical. Several criteria appear to be relevant when we appraise the appropriateness or warrant of particular emotions, such as amusement, envy, or shame. However, some criteria are more relevant than others, some of which can be even quite irrelevant. Neosentimentalist theories are aware of this problem as they maintain that it is possible to rank sensibilities "according to whether there are better reasons for one sensibility's responses than another's", as McDowell (1997a, p. 220) points out. Even so, D'Arms and Jacobson argue that these theories are notoriously unclear about what kind of reasons qualify as better than others and how the relevant reasons are to be found and differentiated from other reasons.

Both McDowell and Blackburn maintain that we can improve our sensitivity to Ф properties (a general term for response-dependent properties). Thus, Blackburn (1984, p. 79) writes, "My attitudes ought to be formed from qualities I admire - the proper use of knowledge, real capacity for sympathy, and so on". In a like manner, McDowell (1997a, p. 221), in discussing reasons for preferring the deliverances of one sensibility over another, suggests that "there is no reason not to appeal to all the resources at our disposal, including all the ethical concepts that we can lay hands on, so long as they survive critical scrutiny". However, D'Arms and Jacobson remark that it is not obvious that every kind of improvement of sensibility constitutes an increased sensitivity to the response-dependent property Ф. An increase in sympathy may refine one's sense of humour, thus constituting a rational improvement. Yet if the new, morally refined sense of humour is less sensitive to the funny, then the refinement is founded on the wrong kind of reason and does not constitute an improvement of the right kind. D'Arms and Jacobson observe that McDowell is aware of the danger of bringing moral considerations to bear on the merit of amused responses. Even so, his advice to appeal to all ethical recourses at our disposal in deciding whether or not a response is merited, together with his adherence to the unity of the virtues suggests that he is not able to ward off comic moralism, which constitutes a decrease in sensitivity to the funny.

Next D'Arms and Jacobson consider the neosentimentalist theory of Wiggins. He purports to avoid the conflation problem by means of working from within evaluative practices. Wiggins eschews reasons talk and appeals to the relevant sensibilities themselves. Even so, his manner of talking about "marks" of Ф properties which are "made for" the associated emotional responses suggests that those "marks" figure in the account as reasons for the correct ascription of Ф properties to objects. Wiggins offers a speculative account of the social evolution of evaluative properties and responses in human practices, which sheds some light on the "made-for" relation between responses and Ф properties as well as on the descriptive "marks" of the latter, identified by way of our responses. No reduction of Ф properties to their "marks" is available or forthcoming, but ascriptions of Ф properties can be criticized and refined partly by appeal to the "marks" of property and partly by appeal to the nature of the shared responses.

D'Arms and Jacobson argue that Wiggins is vague and abstract when it comes to determining what a given sentiment is made for. "This much is clear: different cultures find different things funny, disgusting, shameful, and so on. Their differing histories of reflection and refinement, driven by social pressures imposed by the feelings and judgments of a community, inevitably establish disparate standards of shameful" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2000b, p. 737). Yet it is obvious that communal standards do not settle questions about the correct ascription of those properties. Shame need not be an appropriate response to homosexuality, for instance, even if prevailing standards of one's community are adamant about the matter. Wiggins appreciates this point by emphasizing that the "marks" of evaluative properties must be essentially contestable in order for these properties to serve their function in normative discourse. D'Arms and Jacobson do not object, but they point out that "simply to adduce essential contestability without further explication and at such a high level of abstraction threatens to undermine the suggestion that we can understand the appropriateness of a sentiment by appeal to what it is made for - a suggestion that itself needed support" (ibid., p. 738). Therefore, they conclude that Wiggins has not made any headway towards the solution of the conflation problem.

The most promising neosentimentalist theory in D'Arms and Jacobson's view is Gibbard's. He suggests that we should understand the question of whether an emotion is rational as a question of its warrant. Thus, Gibbard distinguishes evidential reasons for feeling a given emotion from strategic, moral, and all-in reasons, and maintains that "what is rational to feel about something settles what to feel" (Gibbard, 1990, p. 49), while judgments of rationality are identified with a thin, flavourless endorsement. However, the problem is that "the warranted feeling is not always what to feel, all things considered", as D'Arms and Jacobson (2000b, p. 743) point out. Bad consequences of being ashamed of one's academic inabilities, for instance, may trump considerations of warrant that render those inabilities shameful. There is a conflict between warranting and prudential reasons here, which Gibbard accommodates by distinguishing between the rationality of an attitude, either belief or emotion, and the rationality of wanting to have this attitude. "Rationally feeling or believing something is distinct from rationally wanting to feel or believe it", Gibbard (ibid., p. 37) writes. Unfortunately, this distinction is not very helpful for a person who endorses both feeling shame for evidential reasons and the desire not to feel ashamed for prudential reasons, because it leads him to an impasse: "he would feel counterproductive shame while vainly desiring not to feel it" (D'Arms and Jacobson, 2000b, p. 744). This impasse shows that endorsement may not settle what it is rational to feel.

D'Arms and Jacobson argue that it would be more plausible to let the subject endorse not feeling ashamed of his inabilities after weighing all the reasons, while also thinking that shame is warranted in the situation. This shows that the question of whether X is Ф is different from whether it is rational to feel F in response to X. More importantly, however, the question of whether X is Ф is also different from whether anyone is warranted in feeling F at X. This is because "whether someone is warranted in feeling an emotion depends upon the evidence he has about the circumstance, but whether the circumstance is Ф may not depend on any such thing" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2000b, p. 745). People may be unaware of some relevant evidence or, worse still, their evidence may be systematically misleading. In such cases, the subjects are warranted in feeling F even if the object of their emotion is not Ф. Therefore, D'Arms and Jacobson (ibid.) conclude that "judgments that X is Ф are not judgments about the warrant of the relevant sentiments"

D'Arms and Jacobson emphasize that their criticism is not that sentimentalist theories "must fall prey to the conflation of relevant and irrelevant reasons to feel, but that they do" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2000b, p. 736, original italics). Since I agree with this criticism, I do not attempt to defend the theories that D'Arms and Jacob-son discuss. Instead, my primary interest lies in their proposed solution of the conflation problem.[1] I shall next focus on this proposal, which turns out to be seriously incomplete as it stands.

  • [1] Rabinowicz and Ronnow-Rasmussen (2004) discuss several possible solutions to the wrong kind of reason problem, but eventually reject them all. Accordingly, they are pessimists about the solvability of the problem.
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