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The most recent book of Robert Roberts Emotions in the Moral Life is probably the most important work about emotions published in the last year. I will give two reasons for believing this. Firstly, the book introduces research on the narratives of emotions in philosophy and psychology that in the last years has conquered an important space in the field. Secondly, it contextualizes emotions in a certain space and time in relation with social agents. Thanks to these two points, philosophy can help in studying emotions in psychology, and offers a great tool to analyze emotions in social (and moral) life.
Robert Roberts is Distinguished Professor of Ethics at Baylor University and he is widely known in Philosophy (and in many other disciplines) for his previous work on emotions: Emotions: an Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (2007) among other books. In the book we review here, he continues his research on emotions as "concern-based construals" in moral life. He explores the ways in which emotions can be a basis for moral judgments in our lives and how we perform these emotional accounts as deeper moral identity of our actions in different context, like for example in personal relationships (friendship, enmity, collegiality, parenthood, etc.).
Nine chapters compose the book, all of them of interest for several reasons. They each present new ways of presenting emotions through examples from different perspectives, sources and point of view.
The book starts with "Studying virtues". This first chapter is a rich and solid introduction to emotions in human virtues. Roberts reviews affective/motivational states from moral psychology and ethical philosophy, and introduces the idea of "structure" to understand any dispositional mechanism that regularly produced virtues. From Hursthouse's view (1999) this structure of the ethical evaluations of human beings is a model that resembles that of a sophisticated social animal with differences because of being not only social but also rational. In this context, Roberts explains how emotions have a big impact on our lives, because they show the seriousness of the consequences of actions in moral life. Roberts presents a moral framework composed of a number of independent ideas like acting, thinking and feeling. For him, human beings have evolved over long periods of time in particular moral communities and it's for this that their moral framework evolves in the course of moral use. This is an innovation for the discipline, because it avoids the existential artificiality of many moral theories. The thesis statement for this chapter is that moral frameworks will differ from one another because they different places to analogous concepts. Roberts underlines that his moral framework is completely different to moral theory. While the former is a set of concepts and practices belonging to a community, the latter is a hierarchical regimentation of concepts, most of which will have originated in one moral framework. In following his line of reasoning, this book avoids moral theory!
The second chapter "The roles of emotions: an overview" is one of the most important chapters of this book to understand what emotions mean. This chapter begins with the Stoics's view on emotions, or the small place that emotions occupy in moral life. For them, emotions are a basic opposition to reason, and thus to be morally perfected is to be tranquil, disinterested, objective, detached, in a ideal state of character, like apatheia (passionlessness). For Roberts, emotions play a variety of important roles in moral life. For example, they play a crucial role in the motivation of our actions, giving reasons both morally good and bad for action in interpersonal relationships. Through fine examples, Roberts introduces the concepts of epistemic, intrinsic practical, consequential, relational, eudaimonistic, aretaic and intrinsic values. But the key point in this chapter is that people very often figure in our emotions: "When we fear, envy, get angry, rejoice, or hope, it's often people we fear or for whom we fear, people we envy, people we're angry at or on whose behalf we're angry, people we rejoice over, people we hope for or on whose behalf or in whom we hope" (Roberts, 2013:33). Human beings are sensitive to other people's emotions in which we figure and track the values of the world. One of the last points of this chapter is to present the virtuous person as an emotionally well-formed person. An agent whose actions are more than excellent behavior because they are well motivated, where emotions are constitutive of excellent relationships.
Another main chapter to understand the book's thesis statement is "Emotions, perception, and moral judgment". Emotions, as we have seen in the first two chapters, are somehow the normative basis of moral life. They are a kind of perceptual state that involves sensory experience. Each emotion has a package of concepts: "When a person fears something, he perceives (feels, understands) the situation as having the form expressed in the above defining proposition, and typically wants the situation changed in a way suggested by the propositional form as integrated with the basic concern, that is, concern for the wellbeing of Y" (Roberts, 2013:47). In this sense, emotion is a concern-based construal as a perception that is" colored" in value. This coloration derives from the integration of the concerns is affect. Affect is the way the concern-based construal feels to the person experiencing the emotion and it makes the construal feel like an emotion and like the particular type of emotion that it is and the particular emotion that it is. As a result, affect is the qualitative experiential difference between an emotion and a non-emotional construal. It's an intelligent idea to introduce affect in an epistemic way. A good example to understand this framework is the following: "Indignation matches injustice because the concern basic to indignation is a concern for justice, and the main concepts that indignation trades on are offend (against justice) and culpable or blameworthy (of injustice)" (p.54). Thus emotions are situational construals with qualitative character of affect and are a pre-eminent way in which the mind is occupied with an object: "This is why anxiety about a sick child can distract a person from moral reasoning, but it is also why an emotion with moral content can concentrate the mind in reasoning about its object" (p.63). Thus social context matters in moral reasoning as well. To conclude this chapter, Roberts says emotions are testing instrument in our lives and can be used in the production of self-knowledge.
In chapter 4 "Objections to the perception thesis", the author introduces the idea of situation to treating perception. Because people experience their emotions as directly about situations, and not as about situations as indicated by the states of their bodies. To return to the previously example on indignation: "As indignation arises in the hearer or reader of the narrative, the injustice emerge as a new quality of the situation" (p.79). This narrative is a good example of a situation where emotions range over this whole continuum and acquire power from convention and linguistic and cultural context. Emotional perceptions are here reliable belief producers about justice situations. This is a key reason to appreciate emotions in Roberts' perspective.
In "Emotional truth", chapter 5, Roberts introduces two questions: 1) How can we tell which emotions are true and which are false?, and 2 ) What makes some emotions true and other false? Firstly, it's important to know that an emotion is a representation of the situation to which it is directed. Secondly, emotions are evaluative perceptions and the virtuous person whose value-orientation to the world is reliably correct. In this sense, an emotions is true when it gets its object right in various ways is not to give a criterion of emotional truth. Finally, Roberts concludes this chapter said: "Emotional truth is a historically, culturally, and, perhaps even individually, local phenomenon" (p.107). Because we have an emotional truth for me, one for you, for us, for them and for now. This happens because emotions play an epistemic role in the moral life, they are first-personal construals of situations in terms of subjects' concern.
Chapter 6 concerns "Emotions and actions" with the idea that emotions are not just external origins (causal factors) of action. Actions are defined in part by their motives, and thus, by the emotions that define the motives. In short, the moral identity of an action that is motivated by an emotion is semantically tied to the emotion as a concern-based construal. Moreover actions can derive from more than one emotion. Actions motivated by the emotions are essential to the fabric of a shared life for Roberts. The moral world is a world of actions, and not just of mental states. We have seen that emotions give moral significance to actions and confer a consequential value on emotions. It's impossible in this perspective to imagine emotion disconnected from a public world and from emotion subjects' character as agents in that world.
In Chapter 7 "Personal relationships", Roberts introduces how emotions constitute relationships and a description of the variety of emotions that contribute to their moral shape. Personal relationships are a disposition of both parties to think, act, and feel in ways characteristic of the relationship. Actions often function as an expression of the emotion indicating the type or relations that can be identified in a sentence. For the author, the substance of these relationships can be found in emotions. Narratives in these relationships are constructed by episodes; these episodes might construct, for instance, friendship. They are the basis of personal relationships, and they are of three different kind: actions, thoughts, and emotions. Emotions are essential to actions and thoughts, because without them (without the right emotion), neither thoughts nor actions would be enough to constitute a friendship. Emotions constitute morally good or bad personal relationships because they are representations of self and other which are necessary for building a relationship. Personal relationships are constituted by emotions, and they maintain friendship in social contexts.
Chapter 8 "Emotions and happiness" is about happiness defined as feeling good (satisfaction) and also as wellbeing. This ambiguity in the word means that happy does not necessarily involve experiencing positive emotion, but something like felling well or in a state of wellbeing. Roberts uses different literary examples on pleasure. The author uses narratives from Dostoevsky, Dickens, Conrad, Camus and so on, formulating formal sentences which represent the form of thought characteristic of an emotion of a given type. It's the most 'narrative' chapter in this sense. The author shows four relevant measures of happiness in which emotions differ from one another: depth, import, scope, and goodness. The depth of an emotion is the depth of its ingress into our personality: "The depth of the individual's heart" (p.167). The emotion's scope is the breadth of its object in relation to one's life. But the goodness is what really matter in moral life, because good emotions tend to promote happiness. The concept of happiness in moral life is a kind of double attunement: "It may be hard or even practically impossible to adjudicate to everyone's satisfaction between deeply thought-out moral traditions" (p.179). This model of happiness depends heavily to one's nature and that of the universe and to one's circumstances.
In the last chapter "Diversity and connection among the virtue", Roberts focuses on virtues to clarify some ways in which emotions and its dispositions enter into the structure and expression of virtues. He identifies five ways in which virtues differ from one another, where emotions are expressive of these virtues.
The thesis statement of this book is that emotions make their objects normally not a thing, but a situation. Emotions are concern-based construals, perceptual constructions of complex situations, out of the elements that the situations are taken to involve. Moral emotions, and emotions, resist abstraction and invite narrative research for Robert Roberts. Narratives matter because they have a natural immediacy and memorability that fit them especially well to promote wisdom. The philosopher write narrative snapshots to illustrate her theory, but also the great novelists are great moral psychologists: "their stories embody an impressive understanding of emotions and virtues" (Roberts, 2013:20). In this sense, the philosopher can capitalize on such narrative books for his representations of the concept under investigation. He can direct his conceptual remarks to features of narrative presentations.
This study will attract a wide range of readers and researchers working on emotion theory from philosophy to psychology. It is an excellent book from which the reader will enjoy reading each page because of the author's precise narrative style and its explanatory power.
© 2014 Simone Belli
Simone Belli is Postdoctoral Researcher at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He received his PhD Doctor Europeus in Social Psychology from Autonoma University of Barcelona with the thesis ‘Emotions and language’. Sponsored by the Spanish Department of Education and Science, he worked as predoctoral fellow at Georgetown University at Washington, DC, University of Manchester, and Manchester Metropolitan University supervised by Rom Harré, Ivan Leudar, and Ian Parker, respectively. You can also see his webpage, Academia.edu page, and blog.