Thursday, August 8, 2013

Robert C. Roberts's "Emotions in the Moral Life"

Robert C. Roberts is Distinguished Professor of Ethics at Baylor University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Emotions in the Moral Life, and reported the following:
Page 99 occurs in a chapter devoted to emotional truth — the idea that what emotions tell us about the situations of our life can actually be true. Of course, it can also be false, so the questions of that chapter are, 1) How do we tell which emotions are true and which ones false? and 2) What do we and the world have to be like, such that emotions can be true or false? The first question is epistemological, the second metaphysical. This chapter is the third of three that are about the epistemic value of emotions.

The epistemic value of emotions is one of several ways that emotions contribute to the moral life. It comes into play in a scenario like the following: Two white persons are watching a documentary on the history of the civil rights movement in the latter half of the twentieth century in the USA. The video shows the horrors experienced by blacks in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, but also documents the real progress that some parts of the black community have made over the last six decades. One of the watchers responds to the clips of church bombings, mourning of the victims, and fire-hosing of the crowds by feeling such uncomfortable emotions as guilt, pity, and indignation; and he tracks with pleasant emotions of hope, joy, and gratitude the later clips of prosperous middleclass black households enjoying family fun. In contrast, the other watcher is amused by the sight of the protesters being scattered pell-mell by the powerful streams of water turned on them but feels nothing much in response to the later scenes of family happiness. Which of these two understands better the values that inhere in the situations presented in the video? I argue that emotions are a kind of perceptual state through which we can be acquainted with the values (positive and negative) that situations have. They thus play a crucial role in our epistemic wellbeing – our fitness to know and understand certain truths, and to deliberate rationally.

Other parts of Emotions in the Moral Life explore emotions’ roles in motivating action, in constituting our good and bad personal relationships, and in making for our happiness and unhappiness.
Learn more about Emotions in the Moral Life at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue