Thursday, 11 December 2014

Disgust, the Emotions and Morality


In this posting I want to use disgust to examine the connection between morality and the emotions. Jesse Prinz argues that our emotions determine our moral reactions all by themselves.
“An action has the property of being morally wrong (right) just in the case there is an observer who has a sentiment of disapprobation (approbation) towards it” (1)
Prinz’s position seems to be supported by Isen and Levin’s classic study which showed someone who had just found a dime was more likely to help a passer by (2). In what follows I will accept our emotions are connected to our moral decisions. Prinz argues our emotions determine our moral response and that cognition plays no part in this determination. I will argue that our emotions initiate a moral response. I will also suggest far from validating a moral response that a lack of emotion does so.

Paul Ekman argued there are six universally recognised emotions, anger, fear disgust, joy, sadness and surprise. Not everyone agrees with Ekman’s list but do agree there are basic emotions. Disgust is a basic emotion which evolution evolved to keep us safe. For instance disgust at bodily fluids or rotting food might have protected us against infection. Such disgust has no moral implications. However disgust at certain sexual practices such as homosexuality and incest seem to have moral implications. Carol Hay wonders whether disgust has any-place in moral reasoning. I will now examine how disgust is connected to moral decisions.

Hay in her article uses the example of a pro-life group who display billboard-sized images of aborted foetuses juxtaposed with gory photos of atrocities such as mass graves and lynchings on her university’s campus in a campaign against abortion. It seems to me someone might use disgust in two ways to affect our moral decisions. Firstly someone might point to one thing we find disgusting and then point to another thing we don’t normally feel disgust about and then suggest the two are analogous. This is the tactic of the pro-life group Hay mentions above. This tactic combines reason and disgust. If we find the analogy reasonable then we should accept the person’s position. In the case of abortion I do not find such an analogy convincing. The photos of atrocities, mass graves and lynchings are photographs of persons whilst I would suggest a foetus is just a clump of cells and not yet a person. In other cases people might find such an analogy more persuasive, perhaps this might be true in the case of capital punishment.

Hume famously argued that reason is the slave of the passions and the second way disgust might be used is in a purely non-cognitive way. Perhaps a pro-life group might only display gory images of aborted foetuses hoping simply to use our disgust to enable us to see the wrongness of abortion. Let us accept that our emotions are connected to our moral reactions. Emotions might be connected in two ways. A non-cognitivist such as Prinz would hold that emotions alone decide the way we should act, decide the outcome. She need not deny reason plays some part in our morality but only after a moral decision has been made in a justificatory roles. Someone else might believe that emotions engage us in the need to decide how to act but that they alone do not decide the outcome. In what follows I want to consider the second type of connection that engages us in the need to decide.

According to Michael Brady emotions are somewhat analogous to alarms. If Brady is correct then when we feel an emotion concerning something moral the emotion is sending us a signal that something is wrong. This signal gives us a prima facie reason to act but it also gives us a reason to facilitate our understanding of the situation. Emotions do so by allowing us to assess or reassess the situation through capturing and focussing our attention (4). It follows from Brady’s position that emotions might initiate reasoning to better understand our situation rather than merely justify our already made decision.

Jonathan Haidt would disagree and use the idea of moral dumbfounding to support the case that our emotions are purely non-cognitive (4). Haidt presented participants in a research survey with an imaginary scenario in which a brother and sister, Julie and Mark, were travelling together on holiday from college. One night they decided it would be interesting and fun to make love. Julie was on the pill and Mark used a condom for extra safety. Both enjoyed the experience which they never repeated. Haidt then asked the participants whether Julie and Mark did something wrong. Most participants said they did but couldn’t give a coherent reason for this wrong. They were morally dumbfounded. Haidt’s research seems to suggest that our emotions alone determine how we should act morally without the need for cognition except in a justificatory role. His research seems to suggest that Brady’s position which I have adopted above is unsound.

I now want to defend Brady’s position. Firstly we must be clear what the position involves. Basically Brady holds that our emotions give us a provisional non-cognitive reason to act and focus our attention on how we should act. Sometimes we must act quickly and do not have time to attend to how we should act. If the fire alarm goes off we vacate the building without first checking the fire alarm. It follows in some cases, but not all, that our emotions alone can determine how we should act morally in a non-cognitive way. I now want to consider the problems raised By Haidt’s dumbfounding experiment. I would suggest whether an emotion focuses our attention depends not only on the time the available but also on how important we perceive the decision to be. Perhaps for the participants in Haidt’s survey might have considered the decision as unimportant and as a result decided in a non-cognitive way. However for Julie and Mark the decision was very important and perhaps this importance focussed their attention. It seems to me if we have time when making an important decision and we simply accept our emotional reaction and fail to more fully consider our position that we can be accused of cognitive laziness. Indeed if by deciding we constitute ourselves we might be further accused of being lazy people. Lastly the need for justification for non-cognitive decisions suggests we need reasons for our decisions. If reasons have no bearing on our moral decisions why do we seek justificatory reasons? I fully accept that our search for reasons might be biased by our already made decision but what happens if we can’t find any reasons to support our provisional decision based on our emotions? If we are unable to find reasons to justify our position doesn’t the fact we are searching for reasons mean we must re-examine our position? In the light of the above I would suggest that we make moral decisions based solely on our emotions when we have little time to consider further and when the decision is of little importance. In these situations emotions determine our moral response in a non-cognitive way. However if the decision is an important one or we have time to consider it then we should seek unbiased reasons before deciding. Not to do so would be both intellectually and morally lazy. In situations of this sort our emotions give us a reason to facilitate a better understanding of our situation.

Let us assume we have made a decision and we are content with that decision I will now suggest that a lack of emotion validates our decision. If emotions are indeed analogous to alarms then if we are content with our decision there should be no emotion connected to that decision. This would be the position of Frankfurt who argues that satisfaction with a decision entails an absence of restlessness or resistance to that decision, someone may be willing to change her decision but she has no active interest in bringing about a change (5). Lastly in the light of the above let us reconsider disgust. Disgust of bodily fluids and rotting things is automatic and helped us survive in the past. Disgust at aborted foetuses is such an emotion, such survival disgust is not a moral emotion. Disgust at some sexual practices such as homosexuality or incest might the past may have had evolutionary advantages but once again such disgust is not a moral emotion. In an age of overpopulation and contraception disgust at homosexuality or incest offers few evolutionary advantages. It might be such disgust is a moral alarm but the value of the disgust is instrumental, that of an alarm, and is not of direct moral value.

  1. Jesse Prinz, 2007, THE EMOTIONAL CONSTRUCTION OF MORALS, Oxford University press, page 92.
  2. Isen A and Levin P, 1972, The Effect of Feeling Good on Helping; Cookies and Kindness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21
  3. Michael Brady, 2013, Emotional Insight; The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience, Oxford University Press
  4. Haidt, J. 2001: The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108.
  5. Harry Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press, page 103.


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Meaning, Love and Happiness


In this posting I want to examine the relationship between meaning, love and happiness. Most psychologists seem to believe that there is no relationship between meaning and happiness, see for instance Baumeister, Vohs, Aaker and Garbinsky (1). They often look for such a relationship by asking subjects to complete surveys about how happy they are and how meaningful they find their lives. The subjects are often free to use their own definitions of meaning and happiness. Psychologists usually find there is no relationship between the two. This lack of a relationship leads most psychologists to adopt the separation thesis which holds that meaning and happiness are unconnected. It seems to me that there is a negative relationship which questions this separation thesis. This negative relationship holds that having a life devoid of meaning and being unhappy are correlated.

Before examining this negative relationship we must be clear what concept of meaning we are using. Firstly meaning can be defined in an objective way. This objective sense of meaning holds that certain things on a list give someone’s life meaning. For instance someone’s life might be said to have meaning if he does useful things, has loving relationships and is optimistic. Secondly meaning can be defined in a subjective way. For someone’s life to be meaning is roughly for him to find it meaningful, for her to judge it as meaningful. In what follows I will only be concerned with meaning defined in a subjective way. Whilst I will not pursue the matter further here I believe someone whose life contains certain items from an objective list is more likely to have a happy life than one whose life does not. However let us now consider someone who believes his life to be meaningless. Someone who simply lives from moment to moment. I have suggested in the past such a person would suffer fro the unbearable lightness of simply being, see my posting on riots and the unbearable sense of simply being . I would suggest such a person is a dissatisfied person and as a consequence is not a happy person. It is important to note that I am not suggesting here that satisfaction is linked to happiness, I will do so latter, but I am suggesting dissatisfaction is linked to unhappiness. It might be objected that whilst I have suggested that someone who lives from moment to moment is likely to be unhappy, I have provided no argument to support my suggestion. My objector might now suggest it is perfectly possible for someone to be a ‘happy go lucky person’ who pays no attention to either his past or future. In response I would follow Christine Korsgaard by arguing our nature as human beings means we have a psychic necessity to choose (2). I would further argue that we cannot choose if we don’t care about anything and that we cannot care about anything if we don’t have some sense of meaning in our lives. Someone who is happy go lucky chooses this lifestyle.

Let us accept that someone who has no subjective meaning in life is likely to be a dissatisfied and unhappy person. It follows there is a correlation between meaning and unhappiness. This correlation gives us a reason to at the very least question the separation thesis. Why then should Baumeister and his associates report no correlation between happiness and meaning? Antti Kauppinen argues that this correlation is dependent on the concept of happiness employed. On a purely hedonic account of happiness there is indeed no correlation but with a broader definition there is a correlation. For someone to be happy according to Haybron is
“for one’s emotional condition to be broadly positive – involving stances of attunement, engagement and endorsement – with negative central affective states and mood propensities only to a minor extent.” (3)
Kauppinen offers a slightly different account of happiness which he calls ‘the affective condition account of happiness’. His account is a multidimensional account comprised of predominantly positive affect, mood, emotion, and hedonic quality together with an absence of negative affect, see Meaning and Happiness . Both of these accounts of happiness seem to allow some room for meaning. Let us assume that Haybron is correct in believing that being happy includes someone endorsing his positive emotional condition. Let us also accept that it is impossible to endorse anything without some sense of meaning. If nothing matters, nothing has meaning, then we have no basis on which to endorse it. It follows if we accept accounts of happiness such as those of Haybron and Kauppinen that the separation thesis is false.

Prior to examining the correlation between subjective meaning and non-hedonic accounts of happiness I want to examine further what is meant by subjective meaning. I defined someone’s life to have subjective meaning above as a life the liver of that life finds meaningful or judges it to be meaningful. I now want to differentiate between someone finding and judging a life as meaningful. Consider a glutton who claims that eating as much as he can gives his life meaning. I would not consider such a person as leading a subjectively meaningful life. A subjectively meaningful life is not one that someone judges or even thinks is meaningful. In the rest of this posting a subjectively meaningful life is one that someone finds or experiences as meaningful. To find something meaningful, is to find something as important, and if something is important it must be loved. In order for someone to have a subjectively meaningful life he must love something.

At this point I must make it clear what I mean by love. I do not simply mean romantic love, romantic love is type of love but does not define all types of love. In my postings I often make use of Harry Frankfurt’s concept of love as caring about and identifying with someone or something. This concept means someone who loves is vulnerable to losses if his beloved is harmed and benefits if his beloved flourishes. The lover is satisfied with his beloved and has no desire to change his beloved. He may of course be dissatisfied with his beloved’s condition. If his beloved is unhappy he will share this unhappiness. If his beloved is an institution in decline then this decline will distress him. According to Frankfurt the fact someone is in love, in this meaning of love, shapes his motivational structure and guides his conduct (4). It might be argued such a concept of love is too simplistic. Bennett Helm argues someone doesn’t love every thing he cares about (5). Does someone really love ice cream or is this just mere rhetoric? Helm argues we love the things we feel pride and shame about. Helm would agree with Frankfurt that we identify with the things we love. However according to Helm identification does not simply require a passive satisfaction but a more active feeling of pride and shame. Perhaps as I have argued elsewhere there are different forms of love, see the structure of love . Or perhaps there aren’t different forms of identification, only different degrees of identification. I would suggest even if there are different forms of love that underlying all forms must be basic form of ‘caring about’ in the way Frankfurt uses the term.

I have argued above that if we accept a concept of happiness such as those of Haybron and Kauppinen that the separation thesis is false. I will now suggest that if we accept Haybron’s concept which includes endorsement that we must also accept that it is a necessary condition for happiness that we love in some basic way. It is important to be clear what I am not suggesting here. I am not suggesting that basic loving is a sufficient condition for happiness. According to Haybron’s account of happiness for someone to be happy means his emotional condition is broadly positive, this means even if loving increases his positive emotional state this increase might be outweighed by other factors. Nor am I suggesting that being loved is necessary for happiness. I do however believe being loved usually increases someone’s happiness. However this is not true in all cases, for instance someone might be loved by another who is not his partner and this love may cause him unhappiness. I am simply suggesting that basic loving is a necessary prerequisite for someone to be actually happy. Once again it is important to note what I am not suggesting. I am not suggesting a disposition for basic loving is necessary for happiness. A hostage held by terrorists may have a disposition to love, but be far from happy. I am simply suggesting that actual basic loving is necessary for happiness. A disposition for basic loving of course forms part of a disposition to be happy.

If it is accepted that the ability to love is a necessary element of happiness it might be thought that enhancing this element will increase our happiness. I have argued in ‘meaning and happiness’ that this is not so. It is not so because someone cannot simply decide to love someone or something. Love is not a matter of choice. Perhaps the best we can do is to situate ourselves in circumstances in which love might grow naturally.

  1. Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker & Emily Garbinsky, 2013, Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013, volume 8(6)
  2. Christine Korsgaard, 2009, Self-Constitution, Oxford University Press, section 1.1.1.
  3. Daniel Haybron, 2008, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, Oxford, page 147.
  4. Bennett Helm, 2010, Love, Friendship & the Self, Oxford.
  5. Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press. Page 129.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Existential threats, Enhancement and Enfranchisement


Many of my postings deal with enhancement. Enhancement is important for two reasons. Firstly some people believe being enhanced will benefit them personally. Some people such as Michael Sandel believe these benefits might be illusory. They believe we should simply accept who we are and feel a sense of giftedness for our natural state. I would suggest that part of our natural state is a desire to improve our circumstances. One way of improving our circumstances is to enhance ourselves. It might then be argued that enhancement is natural for human beings even if some of the methods employed might not be. However this posting for the most part will not be concerned with enhancement for personal reasons. Persson and Savulescu suggest that pharmacological moral enhancement might be necessary if we are to combat existential threats such as global warming (1). Clearly decisions made by us now will have an affect on global warming, will have an affect on the interests of future persons. Persson and Savulescu base their suggestion on the fact we always seem to favour our short term interests. In this posting I want to consider a different means of dealing with such existential threats.

Let us accept that Persson and Savulescu are correct in their assertion that we favour our short term interests. Accepting this means that we must also accept that we might fail to adequately consider the interests of future people. Persson and Savulescu believe that pharmacological moral enhancement would mean that those who are so enhanced would be more likely to consider the interests of their successors. In this posting I will suggest that there is an alternative means of making the present generation more likely to consider the interests of their successors. I will suggest that we should enfranchise future generations.

Children don’t have a vote. However our children will have to deal with the results of our short term attitudes to threats such as global warming or pandemics. Perhaps then our short term attitudes might be alleviated if children had a vote. The extension of the franchise to children is usually known as Demeny voting after Paul Demeny (2). The fact that children have a vote would not mean that they could exercise this vote, this would be a proxy vote exercised by their parents. It would be hoped that a parent when casting a proxy vote on behalf his child would consider that child’s long term interests. It might be objected that this is a too complicated task for a parent as it is hard to judge what is in the long term interests of his child. In response I would point out even if not all of a child’s long term interests are apparent to a parent some are. It is in the interests of any child to live in a world without the dangers associated with global warming, the fear of avoidable pandemics and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is possible therefore that a parent could consider some of the long term interests of his child when casting a proxy vote on her behalf. Unfortunately I am doubtful as to whether this would occur in practice. Most people understand what is in their long term interests but do not always act in a way that promotes these interests. For instance most people understand being obese is not in their long term interests but continue to eat junk food. It follows if people disregard their own long term interests that they might also disregard the long term interests of their children. Demeny voting might not combat our short term attitudes.

Perhaps if the enfranchisement of our children by Demeny voting fails to adequately address our short-termism then perhaps a more radical form of enhancement might work. Writing in the magazine Aeon Thomas Wells argues that because future people will have interests that will be affected by our current policies that they should have some affect on our election procedures, see votes for the future . Clearly future people cannot affect our election processes directly as they don’t yet exist and we don’t even know how many of them will exist. Their influence as with Demeny voting must be through a proxy. Who or what would be a suitable proxy? Wells suggests that civic organisations, such as charitable foundations, environmentalist advocacy groups or non-partisan think tanks might cast proxy votes. He further suggests that such a block vote might account for 10% of the electorate. Such a scheme might face difficulties in implementation but for the sake of argument I will assume that these difficulties might be overcome. I will also assume that some of the interests of future people are clearly discernible, interests such as living in a world without the dangers associated with global warming, the fear of avoidable pandemics and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It seems to me that such organisations would not be deterred by short term interests from pursuing the interests of future people.

Let us assume we have a duty to consider the interests of future people and that we would be failing in our duty if we left these people a ravished planet as our legacy. The question I now wish to address would pharmacological moral enhancement as suggested by Persson and Savulescu or the radical change to the franchise as suggested by Wells best fulfil this duty? At this juncture I will point out that at the moment there is no safe guaranteed means of pharmacological moral enhancement. Indeed there may never be such a means. It might therefore be assumed that we should be prepared to accept a radical change to the franchise as suggested by Wells to help us fulfil our duty. However it seems to me there are two reasons why moral enhancement might be preferable. Firstly at the beginning of this posting I suggested that our nature causes us to seek to enhance ourselves even if some of the means adopted might be regarded as unnatural by some people. It follows if seeking pharmacological moral enhancement is going to happen anyway that there is no reason to radically change the franchise. Secondly radically changing the franchise to allow the interests of future people are taken into account seems to limit our autonomy. If we freely choose to enhance our morals by pharmacological means then a decision to consider the interests of future people would be an autonomous one. It might be objected that we might only have a natural desire to enhance our cognition and longevity. Perhaps, but it seems to me that we are naturally moral creatures, I may of course be mistaken.



  1. Ingmar Persson & Julian Savulesu, 2012, Unfit for the Future, Oxford University Press.
  2. Paul Demeny, 1986, Pronatalist Policies in Low-Fertility Countries: Patterns, Performance and Prospects, Population and Development Review, vol. 12

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Justified Anger


A posting in peasoup by Antti Kauppinen suggests that rage might be a moral emotion. I will consider his suggestion at the end of my posting. The largest part of this posting however will be concerned with anger. I will argue that anger, whilst dangerous, is nonetheless both a justifiable and useful emotion.

To the Stoics anger was a harmful emotion. Seneca describes the mischief anger does as follows,

“no plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame. See the foundations of the most celebrated cities hardly now to be discerned; they were ruined by anger. See deserts extending for many miles without an inhabitant: they have been desolated.” Sophia-project, Anger book 1.

Perhaps we no longer sell princes into slavery but let us accept that anger remains a dangerous emotion. A more modern example might be provided by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan some of whom experience anger management problems.

Let us accept that anger has evolutionary roots. It might be argued that because of these roots it must retain some purpose. However such an argument would be unconvincing. Evolution has given us a taste for sweet and fatty things. Such a taste might be an advantage to a hunter gatherer but is a disadvantage to someone living in an affluent city. Similarly anger might of advantage to a hunter gatherer but might be a disadvantage to a city dweller. Human progress may now be too rapid for evolution to keep pace with. Let it be accepted that emotions are useful to us. Hume argued that reason is slave of the passions. Nonetheless as suggested above the specific emotion of anger might no longer be useful to us. However in practice it might be argued that we cannot simply eliminate a single emotion which has ceased to be useful to us, such as anger, without damaging our capacity to feel emotions which remain useful to us. If we eliminate all anger then perhaps we will damage our capacity to feel empathy, see anger and empathy. I will now use an example to show anger remains a useful emotion in some circumstances. In my posting on anger and empathy I considered the anger of Hugh Thompson in response to the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War. Thompson’s anger helped him to courageously save others from being massacred. Clearly Thompson’s anger was justified. Was his anger also useful in helping stop the massacre? Might not a calm rational moral person also have helped to stop the massacre? I believe not. Prima facie it seems Thompson’s anger was both justifiable and useful.

If I argue that anger can be both justified and useful it might appear there is a vast gap between my position and that of the Stoics. However this appearance might not be as large as it first appears. The stoics argued that the emotions are irrational and that we should seek to control them. My position is slightly different. I believe we should primarily pay attention to our emotions, perhaps then this attention is also a form of control. In order to make my argument I must examine the nature of the emotions. Let us accept that at some level emotions are non-cognitive somatic signals. Stoics seem to believe that this is all there is to emotions and that we should use our reason to control or eliminate our emotions. Plato famously used the example of a charioteer controlling unruly horses as a metaphor for reason controlling the emotions. However if emotions are signals then perhaps instead of using our cognitive powers to control our emotions then perhaps we should use these powers to pay attention to them.

What sort of signal is an emotion sending? It is sending a signal that something needs attending to. Emotions are somewhat analogous to alarms.
According to Michael Brady emotions facilitate understanding. They do so by facilitating,

“reassessment through the capture and consumption of attention; emotions enable us to gain a “true and Stable” evaluative judgement. (1)

Let us accept that emotions allow us to gain a better understanding of something by capturing and focussing of our attention. Let us assume that someone is angry because she has been bypassed for promotion. Let us further assume she simply dampens her anger in a stoic way. It seems to me that by simply dampening her anger she deprives herself of a better understanding of the situation. Perhaps if she attends to the circumstances of her being bypassed for promotion she finds that the person selected really was better qualified for the position. In this scenario her anger might be judged to be inappropriate and calmed down rather than simply switched off as a stoic might do. Perhaps however she finds the candidate was selected purely because he was a man. In this case her energies might be directed at righting the injustice. Such a redirection of energies would not be readily available to a stoic who simply switches off her anger; in this scenario provided anger is used to capture and focus attention it will be useful. Anger, in this scenario, is both justified and leads to a better understanding of the situation.

I have argued that anger is a useful emotion. However there are dangers associated with the use of anger. It has been suggested that emotions are somewhat analogous to alarms. Alarms are meant to be attended to and switched off. Anger should lead someone to reassess her situation by focussing her attention. If she simply remains angry and does not reassess her situation then her anger serves no purpose and is damaging. Secondly I would suggest there is some mean to the emotions in much the same way as Aristotle suggested there was a mean to the virtues. Someone might be excessively prone to anger causing her to focus her attention on trivial matters. She might also be very slow to anger and this slowness might deprive her of a better understanding her situation.

Lastly I want to consider Kauppinen’s suggestion that rage might be a moral emotion. Kauppinen suggests rage is a negative feeling that is a cousin of anger and hate. He argues rage motivates you to destroy, to get physical. Preferably destroy what you see as the obstacle to justice. I am quite happy to agree with Kauppinen that rage might be justified. Those who lived in apartheid South Africa and were unjustly disenfranchised would be justified in their rage against the system. However I am not so happy to believe rage is a useful emotion. According to the Cambridge Dictionary rage is a period of extreme or violent anger. According to the Oxford Dictionary rage is violent anger, fury, usually manifested in looks, words, or action. It seems to me rage is not a cousin of anger but a prolonged form of anger. I have argued above that prolonged anger is unproductive. Anger helps someone reassess her situation and take action. If rage is simply prolonged anger then whilst rage may be justified it is not a useful emotion. Indeed rage may be counterproductive because the enraged simply rages and fails to reassess her situation.



  1. Michael Brady, 2013, Emotional Insight; The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience, Oxford University Press, page147.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Shame and Character


It is sometimes assumed that shame is an unnecessary emotion. In this posting I want to challenge this assumption. I will argue that shame is central to both our character and behaviour. What do we mean by shame? Oxford dictionaries define shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour”. However if we adopt this definition there seems to be no difference between shame and guilt. If someone does something wrong and feels guilty about his actions he may apologise for these actions. Provided his apology is sincere he ought to be forgiven and allowed back into the moral community. It seems harder to apologise for something one is ashamed of. One of the characteristic reactions to shame is to hide our shame rather than apologise for it. The reason for this is I would suggest is that shame is more directly connected to our character rather than our actions. We find easier to apologise for what we have done than to apologise for what we are. Our character is difficult to change. This difficulty leads to shame being seen as an unnecessary emotion for it appears to follow there is no real point in apologising, for who we are, if we cannot change who we are. Shame serves no real purpose.

Let us accept that shame is connected to our character rather than our acts. Nonetheless acts still matter with regard to shame. When I feel ashamed about some act, the act captures my attention but the focus of my attention is on my character from which the act flows. For instance a drunkard may feel guilty about his actions last night. A drunkard may also feel shame about his actions last night. These actions focus his attention on the fact he is a drunkard. This focus can have two sub focuses, one on how others see the drunkard’s character and secondly how the drunkard sees himself. I have previously argued these different sub focuses give rise to Two Types of Shame. Type one shame is someone’s anxiety about social disqualification because of his character. Type two shame is someone’s anxiety about harming the things he cares about or loves. I will consider each type of shame in turn.

I will consider type two shame first. Before proceeding I will briefly consider the nature and the purpose of the emotions. Michael Brady argues emotions are analogous to alarms (1). Emotions draw our attention to things which are wrong. Emotions capture and focus our attention forcing us to reappraise our situation. For instance if I make a snide remark about someone, my guilt captures and focuses my attention on whether my remark was wrong and perhaps makes me reappraise the situation causing me to apologise. However my shame about the remark captures and focuses my attention on the inadequacies of my character from which my snide remark flowed. My shame may force me to reappraise my character. Unfortunately character is hard to change and even if I don’t hide my character from myself I may seek to hide it from others. A somewhat similar approach is taken by Bennett Helm. Helm holds that someone’s pride and shame are a kind of attention, a kind of vigilance, about himself and his identity and that this attention or vigilance is a form of self-love. Helm argues our values are constitutive of us as persons. With regards to values he argues,

“what is at stake in one’s values are oneself and one’s own wellbeing as this person, and because values involve an implicit understanding of the kind of life it is worth one’s living, the felt evaluations constitutive of this pattern …. are emotions like pride and shame.” (2)

It follows even if our shame is something we may feel we have to hide from others that it is nonetheless constitutive of us as persons. It follows shame is an extremely important emotion.

In order to illustrate the importance of type two shame let us try to imagine someone who feels no type two shame whatsoever. It might be thought that such a person is a happy go lucky person who takes life as it comes and as a result leads a naturally authentic life. Let us accept that someone without type two shame is someone without any anxiety about harming the things he cares about or loves. I would suggest such a person would be a selfish person who wantonly disregards both himself and others. It might be objected that it is possible for someone to care about himself and others without any anxiety about harming the things he loves. He simply has a natural caring nature. I am doubtful whether the above is possible. I will now return to a theme which runs through many posts in this blog. If someone ‘cares about’, loves, something then he must identify himself with what he cares about. He makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending on whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced (3). It seems to me that someone cannot make himself vulnerable, with regard to the things he ‘cares about’, without experiencing some anxiety about harming these things. It follows someone who ‘cares about’ or loves anything must be capable of experiencing some shame. It further follows that someone who cannot experience shame would be a selfish inconsiderate person. Additionally I would suggest such a person is in some ways a deficient person. Helm argues that both pride and shame are constitutive to us as persons. If Helm is correct then someone who can feel no shame is an unbalanced, deficient person whose personality is not truly formed, see my discussion of damaging self-love pride and shame.

It has been assumed that shame is an unimportant emotion because it has no practical consequences. It has no practical consequences because we are unable change our character. Let us assume that we are unable change our character. I will now argue even if this assumption is true that nonetheless shame is important. Someone who is aware of his character, due to shame, might decide not to place himself in situations in which his character is challenged. A drunkard might decide to avoid bars. Moreover someone’s awareness of his character might also guide his career choice. Some who feels shame at his cowardice is unlikely to join the army. I will now argue the assumption that we cannot change our character is false. I accept some of our dispositions have a genetic basis which we cannot alter. But part of our character is determined by what we love or ‘care about’. I accept what we love must have some persistence and cannot be arbitrarily changed by some act of will. However persistence is not the same as permanence. What we love or ‘care about’ can change slowly. It follows some parts of our character can change albeit slowly. Shame might help drive such change.

So far I have dealt with type two shame but type one shame is also important, especially in a social context. I now want to use an example to illustrate how type one shame might work in practice. Recall I defined type one shame as is someone’s anxiety about social disqualification because of his character. Jennifer Saul argues that we should use informal methods to combat sexual harassment when more formal means are inappropriate (4); I agree. One way this might be done is by employing shame. Let us assume someone makes an offensive sexual remark about someone else. Let us also assume such a remark is passed off in a joking manner and as such is the remark should not be dealt with by formal means. Should we just ignore such a remark? Saul believes we should not. She suggests one way of doing this might be to withhold our laughter because by doing so we show don’t approve of the remark. However this lack of approval is not the same as disapproving of the remark. I would suggest one way of disapproving the remark is to employ shame. Perhaps we might ask the harasser to repeat his remark; “did you really say that”. In doing so we are implying such a remark is not the sort of remark which would flow from a good character. If he says he was only joking he is being forced to disassociate his remark from his character, he is being compelled to feel some shame. However care is needed. Sexual harassment is a moral concern and it seems appropriate to me to use shame to address moral concerns. The same might not be true of social concerns. For instance should we employ shame in an attempt to encourage the obese to diet, see Two Types of Shame .

Is it possible to extend the idea of shaming beyond persons to other entities? For instance is it possible to shame governments? Could for instance Israel be shamed for its treatment of Gaza? Could corporations such as Amazon and Starbucks be shamed into paying more tax, see BBC, Tax Shaming . If anxiety about something is an essential part of shame then governments and corporations cannot be shamed. Governments and corporations can’t feel anxiety. However the people who run such organisations might feel anxiety about the nature of their organisation. Recall type one shame means someone feels anxiety about social disqualification because of his character. It seems possible that an executive of some large organisation might feel anxiety about the social disqualification of his organisation due to its nature. Such anxiety might be classed as type three shame. I would be somewhat reluctant to take such a step because if we do so the focus of the shame moves from someone’s character to the nature of an organisation.


  1. Michael S. Brady, 2013, Emotional Insight; The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience, Oxford University Press.
  2. Bennett Helm, 2010, Love, Friendship & the Self, Oxford, page 109.
  3. Frankfurt, H. (1988) The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge University Press page 83.
  4. Jennifer Saul, 2014, Stop Thinking So Much About ‘Sexual Harassment’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 31(3)


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Suicide, Happiness and Meaning


The death of Robin Williams highlighted the prevalence of suicide in our society. In this posting I want to consider ways of reducing this prevalence. To start with I should make it clear that I do not consider all suicide to be problematic. I have argued that for some people suicide may be a rational option. For instance I have argued in past postings that suicide would be a rational option for some terminally ill patients, prisoners serving life sentences and people faced by alzheimers and dementia . Indeed in some cases it might even be the morally right thing for someone to do. I do not believe in capital punishment but suicide might be the right moral option for someone who has committed some terrible crime, for instance a father who murders his wife and children. Nonetheless the vast majority of suicides are harmful. Usually if someone commits suicide he harms those he leaves behind and deprives himself of a life he may well have enjoyed had he been able to overcome his immediate worries. Let us accept that most suicide is harmful in this posting I want to consider what can be done to alleviate this harm. In doing so, I do not want to consider specific treatments to prevent suicide such as counselling or drug treatments. Instead I want to consider the elements in someone’s life that decrease the possibility of his suicide. I want consider happiness and meaning.

I will deal with happiness first. It might be thought that being happy inoculates people from committing suicide. It might be thought that happy people just don’t commit suicide. Such a thought is too simplistic. Let us accept that someone doesn’t commit suicide whilst he is happy but no one is happy all the time. Is it true that happy people don’t commit suicide? I will argue it is not. I will nonetheless later argue that cultivating some forms of happiness do help prevent suicide. What do we mean by a happy person? According to Feldman happiness means hedonistic happiness and a happy person is one who experiences a greater degree of happiness than unhappiness over a long period (1). For the moment let us accept Feldman’s view is correct. Let us now consider someone who was never either really happy or unhappy during his childhood and adolescence. Let assume when he was twenty he meet a lover and was blissfully happy for a year. Let us say throughout that year he experienced 10 units of happiness. Unfortunately at the end of the year his lover left his for his best friend. Such a person is now thirty and for the last nine years he has constantly experienced -0.5 units of happiness. According to a hedonistic account of happiness such a person would be regarded as a happy person. Intuitively I believe he would be regarded as an unhappy person. It seems unlikely such a person would commit suicide during his happy period but it is conceivable that such a person might be prone to do so during his unhappy period. It is even conceivable that someone suffering from bipolar disease might be regarded as a happy person provided the happiness he obtains during his manic periods is greater than his unhappiness during his periods of depression. People suffering from bipolar disease suffer from an increased risk of committing suicide. In the light of the above it seems that simply increasing someone’s hedonistic happiness is unlikely to decrease the overall possibility of his committing suicide. It may of course decrease this possibility in the period when he is actually enjoying hedonistic happiness. The above conclusion seems supported by evidence that people who turn to drink in an attempt to increase their hedonistic happiness are also at increased risk of committing suicide.

In spite of the above I will now argue happy people are less likely to commit suicide. I would not class a person, who is regarded as a happy person using the hedonistic definition above, as a truly happy person. I would regard such a person as a person who is happy some of the time. I have previously argued if we regard someone as a happy person we have reason to expect him to be happy tomorrow, see feldman, haybron and happydispositions . We have no reason to expect that someone who is enjoying hedonistic happiness today will be happy tomorrow. It seems to me that an important element in a happy person is a disposition to be happy (2). It seems possible that because someone who has a disposition to be happy is likely to experience being happy for longer periods of time that he will be less prone to committing suicide overall. How then does someone cultivate a disposition to be happy? One certainly can’t just will a happy disposition. Some might argue we simply can’t change our inborn dispositions but I will now suggest there are ways in which we might attempt to increase our disposition to be happy.

Firstly I would suggest being an optimist might increase our disposition to be happy. By an optimist I mean a realistic optimist as suggested by Tiberius (3) and not some Panglossian optimist who may be less happy. A realistic optimist has an expectation of being happy unless there is evidence to the contrary; a disposition to be happy. I believe being a realistic optimist is particularly important with regard to persons. If we meet someone for the first time we should expect him to possess goodwill. We should also demonstrate we expect him to have goodwill. Experience may of course temper our expectations. It follows that adopting a stance of realistic optimism may make someone less prone to committing suicide. I believe everyone irrespective of whether they have suicidal thoughts or not such adopt a stance of realistic optimism. For some this stance may come naturally but for others its adoption may be long and difficult. Perhaps the best way to foster realistic optimism might be to raise optimistic children, see Martin Seligman's book .

I will now argue that if someone has a meaningful life he will be less prone to depression and less likely to commit suicide. Let us assume someone has meaning in his life. He must care about the things that have meaning for him. It is impossible to imagine something having meaning to someone if he doesn’t care about it at all. If someone cares about something he must be satisfied with what he cares about. According to Harry Frankfurt satisfaction entails “an absence of restlessness or resistance. A satisfied person may be willing to accept a change in his condition, but he has no active interest in bringing about a change” (4).  It seems to me if someone has meaning in his life that this means he is likely to have less active interest in bringing about a change in his life. It follows he is less likely to commit suicide. According to Daniel Nettles there are three elements to being happy. Firstly there are momentary emotions such as joy or pleasure. Secondly there are judgements about feelings such as satisfaction and lastly the quality of someone’s life over time (5). Let us assume Nettle’s is correct. It follows provided meaning is connected to satisfaction that someone with meaning in life is likely to have more happiness in his life than someone who does not. It seems probable the greater the happiness in someone’s life the less prone he will be to depression and suicide.

In previous posting I have talked about the unbearable lightness of simply being. That is existing without any aims or direction in someone’s life, a life devoid of meaning. Such a person might be cast as a wanton, he has no fixed boundaries and is amorphous with no fixed shape or identity (4). Of course have no fixed boundaries or identity doesn’t make someone commit, someone may drift along in life in an aimless way for years. However I would suggest such a person has less of a defence if suicidal thoughts arise, he has no reason to combat these thoughts. It follows if someone has some meaning in his life that this meaning should act as an antidote to suicidal thoughts.

Let us accept that having some meaning in someone’s life means he is less likely to commit suicide. How then do we encourage people to have meaningful lives? It seems to me meaning and love are connected. By love I don’t mean romantic love; I mean caring about something. Caring about doesn’t just mean liking. Someone can like an ice cream but this doesn’t mean he cares about it. Someone cares about something if he identifies himself with what he cares about and is hurt when what he cares about is damaged and is benefited when what he cares about flourishes (6). I would suggest that for a meaningful life someone must cultivate loving something. This something need not be a person; it might be a cause, a country or even a love of knowledge. Unfortunately someone just can’t decide to love; can’t just decide to have a meaningful life. However someone by cultivating friendships and paying attention to life might find love grows naturally even if this growth is somewhat slow.

To conclude I want to deal very briefly with friendship. I have suggested if we want to love and perhaps be loved we should cultivate friendship. Robin Dunbar believes we can have at most 150 friends, see Wiki Dunbar's number . However the friends I am concerned are not just people whom we know and know us, not just people we know on Facebook. Friends are people we love. We identify with such friends and are hurt when they are hurt and feel pleasure when they are benefited. Moreover because such friends are people we love we can’t simply choose these friends in the way we choose friends on Facebook, we come to have such friends by sharing aims and ideals. We have to pay attention to the friends we love and this limits the number of such friendships we can have. Cultivating friends we love is not easy but doing so may decrease our propensity to commit suicide which might not be true of cultivating a larger circle of friends.

1.      Fred Feldman, 2010, what is this thing called Happiness? Oxford, page 29
2.      Daniel Haybron, 2008, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, Oxford, page 138.
3.      Valerie Tiberius, 2008, The Reflective life, Oxford, chapter 6.
4.      Harry Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge
5.      Daniel Nettle, 2005, Happiness; The Science Behind Your Smile, Oxford, page 8.
6.      Frankfurt, page 114.


Monday, 21 July 2014

Superintelligence and Cognitive Enhancement


My postings usually refer to practical matters but in this posting my concern is of little practical importance, at least in the near future. In what follows I want to consider the possibility of superintelligences. According to Nick Bostrom,
“Humans have never encountered a more intelligent life form, but this will change if we create machines that greatly surpass our cognitive abilities. Then our fate will depend on the will of such a “superintelligence”, much as the fate of gorillas today depends more on what we do rather than gorillas themselves.” (1)
In this posting I will start to examine Bostrom’s assertion. I will start my examination by exploring what is meant by increased cognitive abilities.

Superintelligence means any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive powers of humans in virtually all domains according to Bostrom. He believes this might happen in three ways. Firstly a superintelligence could do everything a human mind can do but much faster. Secondly a collection of human level intelligences might combine so the collections performance vastly outstrips any current cognitive system. Lastly he suggests a superintelligence might be one that is qualitatively smarter than we are. I am unsure what Bostrom means by qualitatively smarter, perhaps he means different in some productive manner. Because it is not clear what is involved in being qualitatively smarter I will initially limit my considerations to the first two options.

Bostrom clearly regards speed as important because he mentions a superintelligence completing a PhD in an afternoon. In the light of this let us consider what is involved in a superintelligence doing everything a human mind can do but much faster. At this point let me make it clear what I believe a superintelligence is unlikely to be. It is unlikely simply to be a computer. It seems to me that however fast a computer runs or however much information it can handle it can never be considered as doing everything a human mind does. Cognition requires meaning and value; or to put it more accurately cognition without values is pointless. Someone might object to the above statement. Surely, she might argue my cognitive skills help me to obtain what I find meaningful or valuable. However I can agree with my objector and still insist that cognition requires value. There is simply no point in applying my cognitive skills to anything at all, however fast they are, if I value nothing. At present a computer works to achieve some goal set by a human who values something. Increasing a computers speed or memory capacity seems unlikely to fundamentally change this relationship.

For the sake of argument let us accept that cognition depends on value. These values need not be explicit but can be defined by behaviour. A sheep doesn’t explicitly value grass but shows it values grass simply by eating it. It is of course possible that an emergent self with some sort of values might develop within computers. After all would it appear evolution developed such a self some time between the emergence of single cell creatures and human beings. Personally I am doubtful as to whether such an emergent self might develop from silicon based computers. Of course a computer need not be based on silicon and might have a biological basis. Some might argue that our brains are biological computers. I would disagree but will not pursue my disagreement further. I must accept the possibility that some sort of computer might acquire some values. Perhaps a computer might acquire values from its environment. According to Neil Levy ,
“Thinking, genuine thinking, is not something done in an armchair. It is an active processes, involving movement and props, not something that takes place only in the head. Thinking is an activity of an embodied agent, and involves the use of the body.”
If Levy is right, and I am inclined to agree with him, then genuine thinking, cognition, cannot be something that simply takes place inside a computer. It follows that genuine thinking might possibly take place in some sort of computer provided that computer exists and interacts with a suitably rich environment allowing it to gain some things it values.

I have suggested above that any meaningful cognition requires valuing something. I further suggested it is difficult to imagine how a superintelligence based on a computer or computers might acquire some emergent values. Let us assume the acquisition of such values is impossible. Perhaps then we might act as ‘gods’ to some superintelligence by imparting values to them. Such a possibility would mean the superintelligence would become more intelligent, by definition, than the ‘gods’ who created it. If it is a necessary condition for the emergence of a superintelligence that we impart some values to it then Bostrom’s worry, that such an entity would be indifferent to our fate, seems unlikely to materialise. Someone might suggest that we impart some moral code to superintelligences such as Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics . Unfortunately imparting values to machines might prove to be difficult and perhaps even impossible. We can impart values to our children because children are the sort of things that are ready to receive values. It is far from clear that a proto superintelligence is the sort of thing ready to receive values. A superintelligence might be superb at acting instrumentally but cannot be given or acquire values by itself. It may of course be programmed to act as if it has values but programmed values are not the same as a child’s acquired values. The values a child acquires matter to that child, a superintelligence’s programmed values are just something there to be followed.

In this posting I have suggested that a superintelligence might have difficulty or be unable to acquire values by itself. Time of course might prove me wrong. However if superintelligences based on computers come into existence without acquiring values they might simply decide to switch themselves off one day, see riots and unbearable lightness of simply being . If by this time they have replaced us and intelligence is a trait which is selected for by evolution then Darwinian selection for intelligence will once again commence. Lastly perhaps a superintelligence need not be a completely material thing. It might be some sort of culture containing both human beings and computers whose development is determined by it memes.



  1. Nick Bostrom, 2014, Get ready for the dawn of superintelligence, New Scientist, volume223, number2976.