Dissertation Abstract

Should we let ourselves be guided by our emotions when we make ethical or moral decisions? We can find various responses to this question in the history of philosophy.[1] Today, several philosophers reply affirmatively. However, I argue that these affirmative responses have not gone far enough. They assign normative roles to the emotions merely in virtue of emotions being belief-like or cognitive (Nussbaum[2]), imbued with reason (McDowell[3], Sherman[4]), or as a second-best and fast way to decide whenever there are no better options (Brady[5]).[6] By contrast, I consider the normative role of a non-cognitive kind of emotion, a kind that is basic or primitive, and ask whether even such basic, non-cognitive emotions can guide moral and ethical decisions. I call these basic, non-cognitive emotions ‘emotional responses’, while I call the other ones ‘sophisticated emotions’. I ultimately leave it open whether the sophisticated emotions entail some sort of cognition, belief, or reason, while I specifically deny this for basic emotional responses.

For basic emotional responses to play a normative role, I argue, they must be object-directed. In defending my position, I thus address a fundamental issue in the theory of emotions, namely, I need to show that emotional responses can be object-directed and yet not cognitive. If my argument is compelling, then this combination of object-directedness and non-cognitiveness is possible. I take this to be a significant result. Building on this result, I then show how this object-directedness is sufficient for the basic emotional responses to play a unique role in normative guidance, namely by giving us negative reasons to act against established beliefs and habits.


[1] The very different responses Aristotle and Kant give, as well as disagreements among ancient thinkers, have received much attention. Cf. Engstrom and Whiting (eds.), Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[2] Nussbaum M., Upheavals of Thought. CUP (2001).

[3] McDowell J., “Deliberation and Moral Development in Aristotle’s Ethics.” In: Stephen Engstrom and Jennifer Whiting (eds.), Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 19-35.

[4] Sherman N., The Fabric of Character. Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue. OUP (1989).

[5] Brady M., Emotional Insight. OUP (2013).

[6] There is also an influential view in psychology to the same effect: appraisal theory. According to Richard Lazarus, we first assess a situation cognitively, in ways that are automatic and unconscious, and emotion occurs in a second step. (Richard Lazarus, “From Appraisal: The Minimal Cognitive Prerequisites of Emotion.” In: What is an Emotion? Edited by Robert C. Solomon. OUP (2003)).