Reasons of fit

D'Arms and Jacobson share the basic neosentimentalist intuition that the search for the right kind of reasons must start from within, from the sensibilities themselves. They argue that we need a specific and limited form of appropriateness which does not collapse into strategic, moral, evidential, or all-in reasons to feel an emotion. They postulate that fittingness constitutes this specific kind of rational assessment of emotions. "Reasons of fit are those reasons that speak directly to what one takes the emotion to be concerned with, as opposed to reasons that speak to the advisability or propriety of having that emotion" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2006a, p. 108). For instance, the characteristic concerns of fear are threats, whereas sorrow focuses on losses, disgust on contamination, and shame on social disabilities. All these concerns are deep, and they have a wide psychological role in almost all humans, which renders them plausible candidates for human values. Accordingly, fitting reasons for fear are those reasons that speak to whether or not something is a threat, whereas fitting reasons for sorrow focus on whether or not some event constitutes a loss.[1] In the same way, each emotion has a generic evaluative presentation that our glosses are capable of capturing only in a rough-and-ready and disputable manner.[2]

So far, the proposed account of fittingness is uncontroversial. It is compatible with the well-known argument from formal objects, which states that for each emotion there is a characteristic evaluative category, a formal object, that constitutes the general representational content and the standard of fittingness for individual emotions of that type (see e.g. Kenny, 1963; de Sousa, 1987; Goldie, 2004; Teroni, 2007). Typical examples of formal objects are dangers or threats for fear, losses for sorrow, slights for anger, contamination for disgust and so on. D'Arms and Jacobson's glosses of emotion-specific concerns figure thus as formal objects of emotions. The problem is how to flesh out the notion of fittingness in a substantial and informative manner.

Considering D'Arms and Jacobson's sensitivity to the shortcomings of other neosentimentalist theories in solving the conflation problem, they are surprisingly brief about the nature of their own reasons of fit. True enough, they argue at length that those deep and wide concerns that underlie our emotions impose constraints on the tenability of norms of fittingness. This argument is directed mainly against perfectionist theories, such as Stoicism or Christianity, which deny the legitimacy of some or all emotional concerns and, hence, the fittingness of some emotions, such as envy and anger, tout court. Important as this question may be, it is nevertheless distinct from the one that concerns the nature of reasons of fit. All we learn about the latter question is that almost all humans, when they are in the right context, have such reasons, and that the right context for each emotion depends on whether the emotion's characteristic concern is being impinged upon.[3] Thus, for instance, in order to have fitting reasons for fear, one must be in danger. But this is hardly news to anybody. We all know that reasons of fit are context-relative in this sense.

A more interesting claim about reasons of fit is that "anyone in the right context has reason to feel F, irrespective of his values and emotional propensities" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2006a, p. 114). Again, this is not a substantial claim about reasons of fit, but it is nevertheless highly important because it implies that the same things have, in the right context, the same value to all humans. This is a bold claim, but D'Arms and Jacobson are ready to bite the bullet at least in the case of some emotions, such as amusement, shame, and disgust. Prudential emotions, such as fear, grief, and envy, whose characteristic concerns have to do with what is good or bad for the agent, have more relational reasons of fit. Thus, even if the death of every human individual is a loss to someone, it is not a loss to those people who had no tangible relation with the deceased. This is obvious even though the relationality appears to concern fitting objects of emotion rather than reasons of fit themselves, which are the same for all individuals whose concerns are impinged upon in the relevant situations.

Although D'Arms and Jacobson's general description of reasons of fit is meager, this is not an entirely surprising outcome, given their earlier statement that reasons of fit can be discovered by examining our actual emotions piecemeal, by articulating "differences in how each emotion presents some feature of the world to us when we are in its grip" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2000b, p. 746). In accordance with this strategy, D'Arms and Jacobson provide detailed analyses of envy and amusement and their fitting reasons. In what follows, I focus on these analyses as examples of the general plausibility of D'Arms and Jacobson's proposal.

D'Arms and Jacobson point out that "the paradigm cases of envy concern goods that contribute to determining an agent's social position" (D'Arms & Jacob-son, 2006a, p. 120). A typical example is one's colleague's promotion, which constitutes a cost to one's own relative position. However, all goods that can function as assets in interpersonal comparison and competition may become positional goods, whose distribution plays an important role in people's self-esteem and welfare. Indeed, D'Arms and Jacobson maintain that all pursuit of excellence in various endeavors from scholarship to the arts, industry, and sports, however intrinsically motivated, also manifests a stake in positional goods, not least because the standards of excellence are defined as a function of the performance of others, at least within a local comparison class. Even those who do not pursue excellence manifest interest in positional goods by trying to avoid falling to the bottom of their reference group, by dropping down a league, if necessary. Thus, D'Arms and Jacobson conclude: "Once it is granted that positional goods matter for human flourishing, then it follows that envy is sometimes fitting, because the success of rivals can be bad for an agent in the way envy suggests: it marks a comparative loss" (ibid., pp. 123-124).

The main problem with D'Arms and Jacobson's account of fitting envy emerges from what I call their "sociological conception of rivalry". D'Arms and Jacobson observe, correctly, that people affiliate to various reference groups whose characteristic practices involve them in the pursuit of positional goods, whose possession constitutes the standard of success or excellence and, hence, status within the group. I call this conception of rivalry sociological because it takes rivalry within the various practices as a social fact, without raising the question about the independent value of those goods that constitute the objects of rivalry. However, this question appears to be relevant when we think which objects are truly enviable, rather than de facto enviable for members of actual groups. True enough, having or lacking some highly esteemed positional good may affect the agent's self-esteem and subjective well-being, which renders the good prima facie enviable. Yet if the value of being enviable derives ultimately from human flourishing, which is a more objective notion than subjective well-being,[4] we should perhaps require that the positional goods whose possession warrants fitting envy are valuable also on some independent grounds, in addition to their being positional goods in social rivalry.

To illustrate this argument, let us go back to the example of the members of the National Rifle Association, gun lovers who take pride in their possession of modern firearms: handguns, assault rifles, machine pistols, and whatnot. The members of this organization may proudly present these weapons to each other in their meetings at shooting clubs. Accordingly, these articles constitute positional goods whose possession defines, at least in part, one's social status in the local branch of the organization. Thus, when one member presents an especially fine specimen of the (in)famous Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle at the shooting club, other members find the rifle enviable. According to D'Arms and Jacobson's sociological conception of rivalry, these people's envy is fitting in this context if their lack of this gun inflicts a loss to their self-esteem and welfare that are relevant for their flourishing. However, if we think about the intrinsic value of guns for human flourishing, their value is actually a disvalue, for it is hard to imagine circumstances where guns, and assault rifles in particular, would promote human flourishing. The only exception is their strictly controlled police and military use, where the value of guns is purely instrumental, not positional.

The example indicates that reasons of fit for prudential emotions are not as agent-relative as D'Arms and Jacobson think. Another way to put the point in their own terms is to say that what is good or bad for the agent, or what is in his or her interests, does not depend on the agent's actual judgment. If goodness or badness for an agent depends on the agent's own judgment in the first place, it must depend on an ideally well-informed, rational judgment rather than on an actual one. True enough, not getting something one thinks is good for oneself when some relevant other gets it may undermine one's relative social position and, thus, perceived self-esteem and subjective well-being. However, the previous example suggests that these effects do not provide sufficient criteria for the object's being enviable, because this would imply that anything can qualify as a fitting object of envy insofar as it functions as a positional good in some human practice. But since the status of being a positional good cannot turn an intrinsically worthless thing into a valuable one, we must maintain that a fitting object of envy must be independently valuable on moral, aesthetic, epistemic, eudaemonistic, pragmatic, or similar grounds, or it must be instrumentally valuable in the service of some intrinsic value, in addition to being valuable as a positional good. Indeed, D'Arms and Jacobson's examples of endeavours in which positional goods are distributed include scholarship, the arts, industry, and sports, where intrinsic values of different kinds are pursued, but not for instance organised crime, counterfeiting, or torture even if some standards of 'excellence' are conceivable in these intrinsically immoral practices as well. These examples indicate that D'Arms and Jacobson presuppose some view of human flourishing that encompasses endeavors whose internal goods are intrinsically valuable and rules out inherently immoral endeavors, even if they do not explicate this view.[5]

The alternative view about fitting envy that emerges from this discussion falls between D'Arms and Jacobson's sociological view and the equally radical Stoic view that envy is systematically unfitting, which they criticize. However, the Stoic view is clearly a straw man, and D'Arms and Jacobson have not provided an argument to show that their sociological view about envy is preferable to an account which maintains that fitting objects of envy must have intrinsic value on some further ground or grounds, in addition to being positional goods in a social practice.

A contrary problem haunts D'Arms and Jacobson's view that certain sentimental values are universal, that is, independent from the agent's values and emotional propensities. D'Arms and Jacobson see the hardness of the bullet they are willing to bite. They discuss in passing the conditions in which a Chinese peasant who speaks no English has reason to be amused at the witticisms of Oscar Wilde, which they present as examples of truly amusing jokes. D'Arms and Jacobson (2006a, p. 114) suggest that the right context for having a fitting reason to be amused at a joke "requires at least that one have heard the joke and understood it".[6] Yet these are clearly just minimal conditions because they are obviously insufficient, especially in the case of Wilde and the Chinese peasant. Hearing and understanding a literal translation of a joke from an entirely different culture rarely conveys the point of the joke, unless the point is about some very general theme pertaining to the universal human condition. We typically need some background knowledge about the cultural context from which a joke originates in order to be able to share and appreciate its point. This is clearly the case with D'Arms and Jacobson's other example of the truly funny: the early Woody Allen movies, whose humour, apart from their physical comedy, emerges from the sexual and other neuroses of contemporary urban liberal-minded intellectuals.

These examples suggest that the value of being amusing that emerges from our responses of amusement is culturally relative, even though the borders between cultures can in some cases be transcended, which creates the impression of a universal value. The same objection applies to disgust, which D'Arms and Jacob-son also present as a sensibility in which "anyone in the right context has reason to feel F, irrespective of his values and emotional propensities". Yet the property of being disgusting, even in its evolutionarily original gustatory context, is so dependent on individual and communal preferences that it is difficult to comprehend how D'Arms and Jacobson can argue to the contrary.[7] In a like manner, moral disgust relates to transgressions against a perceived natural order that depends on culturally varying metaphysical and religious beliefs (Prinz, 2007). Different forms of disgust may constitute an evolutionary continuum on which concerns of contamination were first applied to the body and later to the soul as well. Yet individual and cultural differences in disgust sensitivity are so wide that "there is no overarching abstract definition of the class of disgust elicitors", as Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley (2008, p. 771) argue. This conclusion is in sharp contrast with that of D'Arms and Jacobson who exaggerate the agent-relativity of reasons of fit for such emotions as fear and envy and the objectivity of those reasons for amusement and disgust.

Therefore, I conclude that D'Arms and Jacobson fail to provide a plausible account of emotional fittingness that is capable of solving the conflation problem. Their general description of reasons of fit, which emphasises the right context, is overly abstract, as this context is defined in terms of each emotion's characteristic concern. Worse still, their characterization of reasons of fit in terms of our having them in the right context is uninformative without independent criteria for determining when the characteristic concerns or sentimental values are at stake. Feeling an emotion suggests to the subject of the emotion that the relevant concern is at stake; indeed emotions serve as heuristic detectors of such concerns (Prinz, 2004). However, the impression can be deceptive because emotions can be misplaced. Sometimes we feel afraid when we are not in danger, or angry when we have not been offended. Therefore, D'Arms and Jacobson's recommended strategy to locate reasons of fit by articulating "differences in how each emotion presents some feature of the world to us when we are in its grip" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2000b, p. 746) is unsatisfactory. Being in the grip of emotion does not guarantee that the subject is "in the right context with respect to the value in question" (D'Arms & Jacobson, 2006a, p. 114). Indeed, this seems to be the case only when the emotion is felt for reasons of the right kind. But if the right context and reasons of fit can be identified only interchangeably, the account remains uninformative and circular, or "elliptical" as D'Arms and Jacobson (ibid.) put it.

  • [1] In a like manner, Rabinowicz and Ronnow-Rasmussen (2004, p. 421) point out that "reasons for an attitude are of the right kind only if they speak to the attitudes' characteristic concern"
  • [2] In contrast to D'Arms and Jacobson, Roberts (2003) offers detailed analyses of emotion-specific construals. He argues that emotional content is expressible in terms of utterances with propositional content even in those cases where the content does not causally depend on concepts. I agree with Roberts that it is possible to provide detailed descriptions of the content of typical adult human emotions. However, such descriptions may be metaphorical at best in the case of pre-linguistic human and animal emotions whose content I have argued to be nonconceptual in Chapter 2.
  • [3] D'Arms and Jacobson specify that the excluded group includes "some autistics, sociopaths and other outliers" who may lack the emotional capacities necessary for being sensitive to sentimental values.
  • [4] D'Arms and Jacobson speak about human flourishing without relating this notion to any specific theory about the ultimate end or telos of human beings that constitutes the framework for traditional accounts of human flourishing. Instead, they give examples of endeavors with internal standards of excellence that contribute to human flourishing. These endeavors include the arts, industry, scholarship, and athletics. This approach resembles the strategy of Alasdair Maclntyre (1981), who advocates a teleological theory of ethics without a metaphysical telos. For Maclntyre, human flourishing relates to virtuous striving of excellence within the practices of one's community. However, he argues that flourishing also requires an overarching telos beyond internal goods achieved through excellence within practices. Such telos emerges from a narrative unity of life spent seeking for the good life for oneself and humans in general within a particular moral tradition together with others. Maclntyre's communitarian account of human telos has been criticized for its vagueness and conformist implications (e.g. Kymlicka, 1990). Yet its lesson is that D'Arms and Jacobson's allusions to human flourishing require some normative framework that would explicate how the various endeavors with internal standards of excellence contribute to human flourishing. And even if they do not provide such a framework, it is obvious that flourishing understood as excellence in such inherently social endeavors as the arts, industry, scholarship and athletics has more objective standards than subjective well-being that is generally defined in terms of experienced positive and negative affect and cognitively evaluated life satisfaction (e.g. Diener, 2000).
  • [5] Fabrice Teroni (oral communication) is worried that my view of truly enviable objects that requires them to have an intrinsic value of some kind besides being positional goods in social rivalry is overly stringent. He maintains that people flourish or not as a function of their obtaining positional goods and anticipates that I have a hard time trying to convince many of my readers that social inclusion, prestige, and the like are irrelevant for human flourishing. Fortunately, I do not defend such a claim. I recognize the importance of prestige and social inclusion for flourishing, but I am more optimistic than Teroni about the contexts in which such positional goods are typically pursued. That excellence in an endeavor qualifies as a positional good in a community already requires that the endeavor and its internal good enjoy wide social esteem. This indicates that the internal good is regarded as intrinsically valuable at least within the relevant community. Of course, there may be communities whose views of intrinsically valuable endeavors are immoral from a more enlightened perspective, such as terrorist cells or criminal organizations. However, I do not believe that many of my readers derive their flourishing from prestige and inclusion in such communities or think them as viable contexts for deriving positional goods that are conducive to human flourishing.
  • [6] In a more recent article, D'Arms and Jacobson (2010) discuss the instability of affective responses as a problem for the determination of stable sentimental values. Accordingly, they are somewhat more specific about the conditions in which, for instance, jokes can reliably track the property of being funny than in the earlier article. However, the instability problem relates only indirectly to the problem of fitting reasons, which is not discussed in the relevant article.
  • [7] Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley (2008) argue that variety in disgust sensibility is present even at biologically early stages of disgust whose organising principle is oral rejection of bad-tasting or contaminating items, let alone at the later stages of interpersonal and moral disgust. To focus on contamination, which D'Arms and Jacobson regard as the characteristic concern of disgust, "most cultures value some kind of decayed/fermented food that is disgusting in most other cultures, but such food varies quite a bit", as Rozin at al. (ibid., p. 766) point out. To support this view with some anecdotal evidence, the traditional Swedish dish of surstromming (sour Baltic herring) tastes awful (rotten) to non-Swedes, and many foreigners are so disgusted at the feces-like appearance of the traditional Finnish Easter dessert mdmmi - which tastes like sweet malt - that they cannot even taste it. The Scottish haggis, including the idea of its contents, also raises nausea in many. Finally, fermented dairy products such as yoghurt and cheeses that Westerners generally enjoy arouse disgust in many Asians.
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