The Case for Anticipated Emotion

In this section we develop the idea that actions are often guided (and guided well) by prospective hedonics—by forecasting how one will feel in the future.

Guilt as Anticipated Emotion

Fear was the favorite example of the old theory that emotions were for causing behavior. Guilt is a good example of the new theory. (We follow the current consensus on distinguishing guilt from shame such that guilt is a bad feeling about a particular action whereas shame is a bad feeling about one's entire person.) A man might do something and then feel guilty afterward, possibly because others complain and criticize him. Guilt makes him reflect on what he did that elicited that reaction. He imagines how he could have acted differently so as to avoid that unpleasant emotional state. The next time he finds himself in a similar situation and is tempted to act in the same way he acted before, he feels a twinge of anticipatory guilt, and so he alters his behavior.

The point of this example is that the current and future states are meaningfully, even causally linked. If he does the same thing he did before, he now realizes, he is likely to end up feeling guilty again.

This is not merely his logical analysis but it is aided, even spurred, by a twinge of automatic affect in the present as he contemplates the problematic action. The bit of bad feeling in the present is there to help him anticipate the full-blown emotional state he would have in the future.

That's part of the beauty of guilt. Used properly, it guides behavior effectively even if the person hardly ever feels genuinely guilty. If you can anticipate what will bring guilt and use that information to avoid those actions, then you can prevent yourself from suffering from more guilt. And in the process you're likely to change your actions to do things that benefit society and ultimately yourself as well.

Guilt thus furnishes a paradigm example of prospective hedon- ics. Based on past and present, one can project possible futures—and that includes what emotions one is likely to experience during each alternate scenario. And based on those anticipated emotions, one can adjust behavior accordingly, so as to avoid unpleasant emotional states. In the present, one does not really have the full-blown emotion, merely some awareness that guilt lies ahead if one does this. There is no need to feel guilty now, when one has not done anything wrong. All that is needed is to know that if one does a particular something wrong, one will feel guilty.

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