Appropriateness as truth

In the previous chapter I proposed and defended my account of emotional truth and argued that it offers the best available theoretical account of what it is for an emotion to be true to the world. Truth resembles correctness as an epistemic standard for the right sort of appropriateness of emotional evaluations. Unlike descriptive neosentimentalist theories, however, my anti-realist account of emotional truth does not invoke evaluative properties of objects as the basis for true emotions. True emotions represent evaluative properties that supervene on the descriptive properties of particular objects of emotion. Metaphysically, evaluative properties do not exist independently of emotional responses but are constituted only on the basis of the latter. The supervenience thesis is metaphysically neutral as it merely states that there cannot be a difference in the evaluative properties of two objects without some difference in the descriptive properties of those objects. However, the supervenience thesis does not imply that descriptively dissimilar objects could not have the same evaluative property. The reason is that evaluative properties are multiply realizable as they can supervene on dissimilar descriptive properties. For instance, smells and flavours of different kinds can be disgusting, but if two flavours differ in terms of their disgustingness, there must be some phenomenal difference in their taste as well, whereas indistinguishable tastes are similar also in terms of their disgustingness.

But how can we tell on which descriptive properties of particular objects evaluative properties supervene in specific cases? Like other neosentimental theories, my proposal seeks to elucidate these properties in terms of our appropriate, or in this case, true emotions. To recapitulate, an emotion is true if and only if there is an actual fit between the particular object of emotion and its formal object, and the emotion's propositional content is semantically satisfied or the target of the emotion exists. In addition to fittingness, the proposal also invokes semantic satisfaction in the explication of value-grounding descriptive properties. This is an important amendment because it addresses the problem that D'Arms and Jacobson have with identifying the cases that we should study in attempting to articulate reasons that are and are not relevant for the fittingness of emotions. D'Arms and Jacobson suggest that we should engage in this task when we are in the grip of emotions, but I believe that we should focus on those cases where the propositional content of emotion is semantically satisfied or the target of emotion exists. This means, for instance, that the loss I mourn has actually occurred instead of being merely imagined or anticipated, or that the object of my envy exists, or that the outcome I fear is as probable as my fear takes it to be.

In the case of factive emotions such as joy and grief, the semantic satisfaction of the emotional content and the existence of an emotional target seem trivial requirements. Psychologically, it may be difficult to avoid anticipated grief for an inevitable future loss such as the death of one's terminally ill parent, and such emotion may have important adaptive value in preparing the subject for the upcoming loss. Even so, it is obvious that we should focus on already befallen setbacks rather than anticipated or imagined ones in articulating the features of events that qualify as losses that merit grief instead of mere annoyance. In contrast, with epistemic emotions such as fear and hope, there is no easy way of determining to what extent the probability estimate of the emotion corresponds to the objective probability of the outcome - other people's assessment may be more reliable than one's own when experiencing the emotion. Even so, this criterion is particularly important for the situational appropriateness of epistemic emotions. Of course, semantic satisfaction alone does not make an emotion true, since its particular object must also have properties that render it a fitting object to the relevant emotion type. Yet, it makes more sense to articulate reasons that make emotions fitting on the basis of cases in which our emotions are consistent with non-normative facts than whenever we are in the grip of emotions.[1]

How does my proposed account of fit between the particular and formal object of emotion improve previous neosentimentalist accounts of fittingness discussed above? The first impression is that it doesn't: 'reasons of fit' and 'content-reasons' are coextensive with those reasons that are relevant for whether the particular object of emotion fits the formal object of the emotion type. Similarly to these accounts, mine invokes lower-level, descriptive properties of particular objects that provide reasons for emotional evaluations. Without specifying those properties, which must be done by studying emotional responses piecemeal, as D'Arms and Jacobson suggest, my account nevertheless provides a general characterization of those descriptive properties. They are properties that warrant the ascription of the relevant formal property to the actual object of emotion in a particular community of sensibility and this warrant remains undefeated no matter how much the status of information and understanding in the relevant community is or will be enlarged or improved through a critical, conscientious, imaginative, and sympathetic reflection and discussion.[2]

According to this semi-idealized account of justification, members of the community may not in their reflection and discussion neglect or ignore counter-evidence that is conceivably available to them. Understandable limitations to available evidence include historical, cultural, and social limitations. Historical limitations concern information that is not available to a community because no one has discovered it yet. The shape of the Earth as a globe is such a fact that influenced, for instance, the warrant of fear of falling off the edge of the world for centuries. Cultural limitations to available evidence are relevant if communities are geographically or linguistically so isolated from each other that information found in one community does not travel to the other communities. The Japanese culture that was isolated from Western influences until mid-19th century might be an example. However, mere ideological isolation does not qualify as an acceptable limitation, because counterevidence would have been available if the relevant society's members had sought it. This is even more so in the case of social limitations to available evidence. Only a few social arrangements, such as hierarchical class societies in which mobility between classes is non-existent or minimal, group boundaries are sharp, and these boundaries are enforced by violence if necessary, may qualify as societies where social limitations to available evidence bar entire communities of sensibility access to information that could otherwise be available to them. For it is sufficient that individual members have access to counterevidence that is relevant for the continuous warrant of specific value ascriptions in their relevant communities. It can be argued that it is an epistemic duty of the other group members to give the evidence presented by individual members its proper due in the critical, conscientious, imaginative, and sympathetic reflection and deliberation of the community (Mathiesen, 2006).

Accordingly, the evaluative properties of being funny, enviable, admirable, shameful, regrettable, and so on, can be determined in terms of the respective true emotions: amusement, envy, admiration, shame, regret, and so on within the evaluative perspective of the relevant community of sensibility. Emotional experiences ascribe these evaluative properties to their particular objects, but the objects have the relevant properties if and only if the emotion is true in the sense of being both fitting to its actual object by virtue of its descriptive properties, and either having a semantically satisfied content or an existing target.

The main question is whether my proposal is capable of making any headway in the conflation problem. If the reasons that warrant an emotion in a particular community of sensibility are such that this warrant survives an "arbitrarily close scrutiny of its pedigree and arbitrarily extensive increments to or other forms of improvement of our information" (Wright, 1992, p. 48), nothing substantial about the type of these reasons seems to have been said. With reference to Danielsson and Olson, these reasons could be characterized as content reasons as distinct from holding reasons for having the relevant emotion for some strategic or instrumental reasons. However, it is important to notice that several kinds of reasons - moral, aesthetic, and eudaemonistic reasons in addition to the more specifically 'fitting' reasons in D'Arms and Jacobson's sense - may qualify as content-reasons as they can be relevant to the fittingness of emotional evaluations to their objects.

For instance, even if moral considerations are not the primary criteria in our sense of humour, they may on some occasions override purely aesthetic standards if the particular joke is too coarse for its racist or sexist overtones to be truly funny. D'Arms and Jacobson, who oppose comic moralism, claim that "the wrongness of feeling an emotion never, in itself, constitutes a reason that the emotion fails to be fitting" (D'Arms and Jacobson, 2000a, p. 87). Thus, they believe that many racist jokes are actually funny but we refuse to be amused because we also judge them to be coarse and morally objectionable. The point here is that wrongness does not prevent or reduce the joke's amusingness even if it may speak against feeling amused by the joke. However, I doubt that this interpretation rings true to our experience. It would be odd to suggest that those people who find racist or sexist jokes funny in spite their unsavouriness possess a more refined sense of humour than other people who find some jokes of this kind coarse or offensive and therefore not funny. Instead of finding racist or sexist jokes funny but coarse and therefore objectionable all-things-considered, the coarseness of jokes with racist or sexist overtones may in some extreme cases be so blatant that it annuls the amusingness of these jokes in the first place, especially if the person who tells the joke is not ironic, sarcastic, or otherwise detached from the content. Jordan and Patridge (2012, p. 93) claim that in those cases, "moral considerations play the role of silencing or disabling any reason that an agent might otherwise have to be amused" On this account, moral considerations can be fit-relevant, which implies that amusement has a moral shape after all.[3] This conclusion can be generalized to other sensibilities and their fit-relevant reasons. "If what we are concerned about is judging correctly case by case, then judging correctly will involve countenancing considerations of all kinds - prudential and aesthetic, as well as moral" (Jordan & Patridge, 2012, p. 90).

Humour is not the only sensibility where several types of reason may influence the fittingness of emotional evaluations. The sensibility of envy discussed above is an apt example. D'Arms and Jacobson attempt to analyse reasons of fit for envy in terms of positional goods in social status competition. Yet their sociological conception of rivalry relativises enviable objects conspicuously in allowing anything to qualify as a fitting object of envy insofar as it functions as a positional good in some human practice with internal criteria of excellence. But since the status of being a positional good in social rivalry cannot turn an intrinsically worthless thing into a valuable one, as I have argued above, a fitting object of envy must be independently valuable on some other grounds, in addition to being valuable as a positional good. As in the case of humour, fit-relevant reasons for envy may include moral, aesthetic, eudaemonistic, or prudential considerations. Examples of this kind indicate that our sensibilities are not immune to moral and other reasons even if those reasons do not figure as central in these sensibilities.

I suggest then that an actual object of emotion x has the evaluative property Ф if and only if x has a descriptive property or properties that warrant the ascription of Ф to x in the particular community of sensibility and this warrant remains undefeated no matter how much the status of information and understanding in the community is or will be enlarged or improved through a critical, conscientious, imaginative, and sympathetic reflection and discussion. In contrast to D'Arms and Jacobson, I emphasise that different kinds of reasons are capable of contributing to the fittingness of emotions as the previous examples suggest. I favour piecemeal examination of actual emotional responses in finding relevant reasons for emotional evaluations as much as D'Arms and Jacobson, but I do not believe that such an examination is capable of yielding just one type of reason that would capture the essence of fittingness. Danielsson and Olson's notion of content-reasons fares better, but only because many kinds of considerations are capable of providing content-reasons for emotional evaluations. This conclusion is also compatible with the view of Gibbard insofar as his evidential reasons that warrant emotions may involve several kinds of reasons. Reasons that emerge from the characteristic concern of the emotion-type may in some cases be silenced by moral, aesthetic, eudaemonistic, or prudential reasons that in those cases bear on the fittingness of the emotional response to its particular object. This kind of proposal appears to solve the conflation problem by dissolving as much as resolving it. In a way, this is my conclusion. My proposal offers a theoretical account of how to distinguish between reasons that are and are not relevant to the fittingness of emotional evaluations, but it does not identify any single type of fitting reasons because there are no such reasons for emotional sensibilities, except within distinct emotional episodes perhaps.

The proposed account of sentimental value properties is relativistic as it is cast in terms of semi-idealised epistemic warrant in particular communities of sensibility. However, it is only moderately relativistic because the susceptibility of sentimental values to rational standards of warrant reduces the scope of relativism from what we see to be the case in our world. Indeed, many past or actual communally warranted ascriptions of sentimental values are or have been maintained by means of culpable ignorance or negligence of counterevidence to those value ascriptions that is or would have been available to members of the relevant community. For instance, racist disdain of other ethnic groups or sexist denigration of women fail to qualify as warranted ascriptions of sentimental values, because these emotions are not fitting in light of evidence that is available to racists and sexists, respectively. Indeed, these sentimental values may have never been warranted even though people in some ages and societies have regarded such emotions and the corresponding value ascriptions warranted insofar as members of those communities have not engaged in a critical, conscientious, imaginative, and sympathetic reflection and deliberation of the matter. This view is consistent with the philosophical and common sense intuition that there is progress in the realm of values: old values are being rejected and new values are being established. My sentimentalist theory explains this development in terms of warrant that is cancelled when the state of information and capacities of reflection in a community of sensibility are being enlarged upon or improved. Blackburn, McDowell, and Wiggins have proposed similar views of the development of sentimental values along with the refinement of sensibilities. However, I believe that my account provides a more solid theoretical foundation for this approach.


I believe that my sentimentalist account of values in terms of true emotions is capable of solving the conflation problem that has troubled previous neosentimentalist theories of value. My solution suggests that reasons of the right kind for the fittingness of emotions to their actual objects are those reasons that are relevant to the emotion's characteristic concern and remain undefeated no matter how much our information and understanding is or will be enlarged or improved through a critical, conscientious, imaginative, and sympathetic reflection. Unlike D'Arms and Jacobson's fitting reasons, fit-relevant reasons in my sense cover several types of reasons, with the exception of strategic and instrumental reasons, which means that my solution of the conflation problem dissolves as much as resolves it.

This is bad news for semantic neosentimentalism that purports to define value concepts in terms of appropriate emotions of the right kind. If it is not possible to specify the right kind of reasons, the project of defining value concepts in terms of appropriate emotions remains seriously incomplete. However, the metaphysical project that seeks to identify value properties survives with less severe damage, as the determination of value properties may still proceed on the basis of true emotions. The main limitation of this account is that it is capable of providing a sentimentalist explication of only those value properties that have a one-to-one relation to the associated emotions. Hard questions of whether or not it is possible to give other seemingly response-dependent values, such as elegance, grace, or prettiness, a neosentimentalist explication, and how this can be done, if it can be done, thus remain open. However, since neosentimentalist theories have usually settled for the more limited task, I am satisfied if my proposal from true emotions can make headway in this task, as I believe it can.

  • [1] Obviously, there is another established and popular manner of refining one's sensibilities besides articulation of emotions in which one is directly involved. Empathy allows us to experience vicarious emotions in response to other people's destinies and their emotions in these situations. In literature, empathy is capable of operating in both fiction and non-fiction, but fiction has the edge of offering even more detailed depictions of the protagonists' internal space of reasons than most genres of non-fiction, with memoirs and in-depth interviews excluded perhaps. In suggesting that we should focus on cases in which the evaluative content of emotion is satisfied or the target of emotion exists when articulating the reasons that render emotions fitting, I do not wish to deny or downplay the role of empathic understanding in the refinement of our emotional sensibilities. However, I surmise that the capacity of fictive works to arouse our empathic fellow-feelings, insofar as these works have this capacity, emerges from the non-fictive roots of fiction in emotional experiences of real people that the author has been capable of combining and restructuring in an original yet psychologically credible manner.
  • [2] Joshua Gert (2012, p. 101) argues that "it is the social purposes of the practice of admiring and talking of who to admire that have determined - in conjunction with other contingencies in the development of the concept of the admirable - what counts as admirable and therefore which instances of admiration count as fitting and which do not". This recent Wiggins-style solution to the problem of the wrong kind of reasons eschews reasons-talk and emphasises the role of linguistic practices in determining the criteria of accurate value ascriptions. My proposal is similar to Gert's in invoking communities of sensibility whose evaluative practices provide initial warrant to ascriptions of sentimental values. Yet my account differs from Gert's in being both backward- and forward-looking in terms of warrant. The latter aspect is necessary in order to ward off value ascriptions that are warranted within existing communities of sensibility due to systematic bias, distortion of evidence, irrational reasoning, or other epistemic deficiencies
  • [3] Jordan and Patrigde suggest that the joke-telling context is crucial in silencing reasons that would otherwise count in favour of amusement. One of their examples is Bill Clinton telling a dead baby joke at the United Nation's Special Session on Children. Jordan and Patridge maintain that "dead baby jokes, while providing reasons for amusement in many contexts, when told before the United Nation's Special Session on Children by Bill Clinton simply do not" (p. 92). While accepting the importance of context, I believe that reasons related to the content of jokes may silence reasons for amusement as well. Contrary to Jordan and Patridge, I think that jokes about dead babies, for instance, may qualify as jokes that are not funny in most contexts because of their gross content.
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