You don’t really care for music, do you?

17 juni 2010 | In Emotion theory Moral Psychology Psychology Psychopathy | Comments?

One of the topics that interests me concerning psychopathy is the relationship between the near absence of moral values and the possibility of presence of other values, like aestethic ones. One of the main charachteristics of psychopaths is ”shallow emotions”, but shallow emotions is clearly emotions to, and might be sufficient to develop at least the beginnings of a value system. The difficulties they have with emotional learning, however, suggests that these value systems may lack some features that we find in the normal population (whether constancy or flexibility, presumably qualified as being of the ”right kind”. These will turn out to be tricky matters to cash out without normative terms). Further investigations into these issues should be revealing both concerning the nature of psychopathy and the relation between moral and other values.

It also got me thinking about ”local” psychopathy. I have at least some situationist leanings and wouldn’t rule out the possibility that most people might be psychopathic under certain circumstances. While drunk, say, or while under stress.
If psychopathy is a distinctively moral affliction, could one be a local psychopath with regard to some other set of values? Could tone deaf people be described as ”musical psychopaths”? I. e. they can identify good music and even derive some pleasure from it, but still they’re not quite getting it, and they cant predict or join in in the same almost intuitive sense that musical people can. I believe the analogy could be informative, in particular with regard to the distinction between genetic, psychological and environmental factors in shaping the relevant abilities.

Moral Babies

8 maj 2010 | In Books Emotion theory Moral Psychology Naturalism parenting Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?


The last few years have seen a number of different approaches to morality become trendy and arouse media interest. Evolutionary approaches, primatological, cognitive science, neuroscience. Next in line are developmental approaches. How, and when, does morality develop? From what origins can something like morality be construed?

Alison Gopnik devoted a chapter of her ”the philosophical baby” to this topic and called it ”Love and Law: the origins of morality”. And just the other day, Paul Bloom had an article in the New York Times reporting on the admirable and adorable work being done at the infant cognition center at Yale.

Basically, we used to think (under the influence of Piaget/Kohlberg) that babies where amoral, and in need of socialization in order to be proper, moral beings. But work at the lab shows that babies have preferences for kind characters over mean characters quite early, maybe as early as age 6 months, even when the kindness/meanness doesn’t effect the baby personally. The babies observe a scene in which a character (in some cases a puppet, in others, a triangel or square with eyes attached) either helps or hinders another. Afterwards, they are shown both characters, and they tend to choose the helping one. Slightly older babies, around the age of 1, even choose to punish the mean character. Bloom’s article begins:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

In a further twist on the scenario, babies (at 8 months) where asked to choose between still other characters who had either rewarded or punished the behavior displayed in the first scenario. In this experiment, the babies tended to go for the ”just” character. This is quite amazing, seeing how the last part of the exchange would have been a punishment (which is something bad happening, though to a deserving agent.) It takes quite extraordinary mental capacities to pick the ”right” alternative in this scenario.

If babies are born amoral, and are socialized into accepting moral standards, something like relativism would arguably be true, at least descriptively. Descriptively, too, relativism often seem to hold: we value different things and a lot of moral disagreement seems to be impossible to solve. In some moral disagreement, we reach rock-bottom, non-inferred moral opinions and the debate can go no further. This is what happens when we ask people for reasons: they come to an end somewhere, and if no commonality is found there, there is nothing less to do.

A common feature of the evolutionary, biological, neurological etc. approaches to morality is that they don’t want to leave it at that. If no commonality is found in what we value, or in the reasons we present for our values, we should look elsewhere, to other forms of explanations. We want to find the common origin of moral judgments, if nothing else in order to diagnose our seemingly relativistic moral world. But possibly, this project can be made ambitious, and claim to found an objective morality on what common origins occurs in those explanations.

If the earlier view on babies is false, if we actually start off with at least some moral views (which might then be modulated by culture to the extent that we seem to have no commonality at all), and these keep at least some of their hold on us, we do seem to have a kind of universal morality.

We start life, not as moral blank slates, but pre-set to the attitude that certain things matter. Some facts and actions are evaluatively marked for us by our emotional reactions, and can be revealed by our earliest preferences. Preferences can be conditioned into almost any kind of state (eventhough some types of objects will always be better at evoking them), so its often hard to find this mutual ground for reconsiliation in adults and that is precisely why it’s such a splendid idea to do this sort of research on babies.

Psychopath College

6 maj 2010 | In Emotion theory Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Neuroscience Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

What is wrong with psychopaths? Seriously? I’m not asking in a semi-mocking, Seinfield-esque ”what is the deal with X” kind of way. I’m seriously interested in finding out. Is there something they’re not getting, or something they don’t care about? And is caring about something really that different from understanding it? (In the Simpsons episode ”Lisa’s substitute” Homer, trying to comfort Lisa, memorably says ”Hey, just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand”).

As most people interested in philosophy, I’ve been accused of being ”too rational” and, by implication, deficient in the feelings department. And, like most people interested in philosophy would, I’ve dealt with this accusation, not by throwing a tantrum, but by taking the argument apart. To the accusers face, if he/she sticks around long enough to hear it. When people tell me I’m a know-it-all, I start off on a ”This is why you’re wrong” list.

So, when it happens that someone compliments me on some human insight or displayed emotional sensitivity, I tend to make the in-poor-taste-sort of-joke ”Psychopath College can’t have been a complete waste of time and money, then”.

Psychopath College, you see, is a fictional institution (Aren’t they all? No.) that I’ve made up. It refers to the things you do when you don’t have the instincts or the normal emotional and behavioral reactions, but still want to fit in. You learn about them by careful observation, you try to find a rationale for them, a mechanism that will help you understand it. In the end, you manage to mimic normal behavior and make the right predictions. (Like all intellectuals, led by the editors of le monde diplomatique, I learned to ”care” about football during the 1998 world cup, not in the ”normal” way, but for, you know, pretentious reasons.)

It’s commonly believed that psychopaths ability to manipulate people depends on precisely this fact: they don’t rely on non-inferred keen instinct and intuition but actually need to possess the knowledge of what makes people behave and react the way they do. And this knowledge can be transferred into power, especially as psychopaths are not as betrayed by unmeditated emotional reactions as the rest of us are.

A recent study reported in the journal ”Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging” told that psychopathic and non-psychopathic offenders performed equally well on a task judging what someone whose intentions where fulfilled, or non-fulfilled would feel. But when they do, different parts of the brain are more activated. In psychopaths, the attribution of emotions is associated with activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, believed to be concerned with outcome monitoring and attention. (This said, the authors admit that the role of the OFC in psychopathy is highly debated) In non-psychopaths, on the other hand, the attribution is rather correlated with the ”mirror-neuron system”. In short, psychopath don’t do emotional simulation, but rational calculation, and the successful ones reach the right conclusions.

The task described in the paper (”In psychopathic patients emotion attribution modulates activity in outcome-related brain areas”) is a very simple one, and offers no information on which ”method” performs better when the task is complex, or whether they may be optimal under different conditions.

Since knowing and caring about the emotional state of others is, arguably, at the heart of morality, studies like these are of the great interest and importance. What, and how, does psychopaths know about the emotional state of others? And might the reason that they don’t seem to care about it be that they know about it in a non-standard way? Jackson and Pettit argued in their minor classic of a paper Moral functionalism and moral motivation” that moral beliefs are normally motivating because they are normally emotional states. You can have a belief with the same content, but in a non-emotional, ”off-line” way, and then is seems possible not to care about morality. Arguably, this is what psychopaths do, when they seem to understand, but not to care.

As Blair et all (The psychopath) argues, one of the deficiencies associated with psychopathy is emotional learning. This makes perfect sense: if you learn about the feelings of others in a non-emotional way, you don’t get the kind of emphasis on the relevant that emotions usually convey. Since moral learning is arguably based on a long socialization process in which emotional cues plays a central part, no wonder if psychopaths end up deficient in that area.

What can Psychopath College accomplish by way of moving from knowing to caring? It is not that psychopaths doesn’t care about anything; they are usually fairly concerned with their own well-being, for instance. So the architecture for caring is in place, why can’t we bring it to bear on moral issues? Perhaps we can. Due to the emphasis on the anti-social in the psychopathy checklists, we might miss out on a large group of people that actually ”copes” with psychopathy and construes morality with independent means.

One thing that interests me with psychopaths, who clearly care about themselves and, I believe, care about being treated fairly and with respect is this: Why can’t they generalize their emotional reactions? This is highly relevant, seeing how a classic argument for generalising moral values when there is no relevant difference, at least from Mill, Sidgwick and memorably by Peter Singer, is held to be a pure requirement of rationality. The thought is that you establish what’s good by emotional experiences, and then you realise that if it’s good for me, there is no reason why the same experience would not be good for others as well. So the justification of generalisation is a rational one. But the mechanism by which this generalisation gets its force is probably not, and depends on successfull emotional simulation, a direct, non-considered emotional reactivity (then again, whether you manage to ”simulate” animals like slugs or, pace Nagel, bats, might be a matter of imagination, not rationality or emotionality).

So what does this possibility say about the epistemic status of our moral convictions, eh?

Reasons and Terracotta

3 maj 2010 | In Emotion theory Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?


(Not friends of mine)

Terracotta, the material, makes me nauseous. Looking at it, or just hearing the word, makes me cringe. Touching it is out of the question. One may say that my reaction to Terracotta is quite irrational: I have no discernable reason for it. But rationality seems to have little to do with it – its not the sort of thing for which one has reasons. My aversion is something to be explained, not justified. It is not the kind of thing that a revealed lack of justification would have an effect on, and is thus different from most beliefs and at least some judgments.

The lack of reason for my Terracotta-aversion means that I don’t (and shouldn’t) try to persuade others to have the same sort of reactions Or, insofar as I do, it is pure prudential egotism, in order to make sure that I won’t encounter terracotta (aaargh, that word again!) when I go visit.

So here is this thing that reliably causes a negative reaction in me. For me, terracotta belongs to a significant, abhorrent, class. It partly overlaps with other significant classes like the cringe-worthy – the class of things for which there are reasons to react in a cringing way. The unproblematic subclass of this class refers to instrumental reasons: we should react aversely to things that are dangerous, poisonous, etc. for the sake of our wellbeing. But there might be a class of things that are just bad, full stop. They are intrinsically cringe-worthy, we might say. They merit the reaction. (It is still not intrinsically good that such cringings occur, though, even when they’re apt – the reaction is instrumental, even when its object is not).

Indeed, these things might be what the reactions are there for, in order to detect the intrinsically bad. Perhaps cringing, basically, represents badness. If we take a common version of the representational theory of perception as our model, the fact that there is a reliable mechanism between type of object and experience means that the experience represents that type of object.

Terracotta seems to be precisely the kind of thing that should not be included in such a class. But what is the difference between this case and other evaluative ”opinions” (I wouldn’t say that mine for Terracotta is an opinion although I sometimes have felt the need to convert it into one), those that track proper values? Mine towards terracotta is systematic and resistent enough to be more than a whim, or even a prejudice, but it doesn’t suffice to make terracotta intrinsically bad. Is it that it is just mine? It would seem that if everyone had it, this would be a reason to abolish the material but it wouldn’t be the material’s ”fault”, as it where. Is terracotta intrinsically bad for me?

How many of our emotional reactions should be discarded (though respected. Seriously, don’t give me terracotta) on the basis of their irrelevant origins? If the reaction isn’t based on reason, does that mean that reason cannot be used to discard it? This might be what distinguishes value-basing/constituting emotional reactions from ”mere” unpleasant emotional reactions . Proper values would simply be this – the domain of emotional reactions that can be reasoned with.

How do I get happy?

4 februari 2010 | In Emotion theory Happiness research Psychology Self-indulgence | 1 Comment

If you want to sell a book about happiness research/positive psychology, or anything even remotely related to that area, you better be prepared to answer this question. Or at least claim that you are, and then subtly change the subject and hope that no-one notices.

Basically, the answer is this: find out what happiness is, and then, you know, go get that. .

Sometimes when you want something, the best strategy is to find out how people who got it behave, and copy that behavior. This works reasonably well for things like getting in shape, making a bargain, learning how to ride a bike, etc. It does not work as well if what you want is to be tall. It doesn’t help to copy the behavior of tall people, or to wear their clothes or go on the rides only they may ride at the amusement park. If you want to be as good a writer as Oscar Wilde was, to copy every word Oscar Wilde wrote won’t exactly do it (That is not to say that it wouldn’t do anything, I’m sure there are worse ways of learning the style).

Just copying behavior statistically demonstrated to be exhibited by happy people is probably not the best idea (that would be Cargo Cult Science): If we are to learn from the habits of others, we better learn how to generalize correctly, and in order to do that, we need to understand how happiness works. In order to be happy, it’s probably not sufficient to get the things/habits/relations that happy people got. An educated guess is that the relevant factor is that they got things/habits/relations that they like, and so should you. Or you should like the things you’ve already got. Whichever is most convenient.

Parachuters may be the happiest people alive, but the excitement of jumping might upset, bore or kill you. You should do the things that does for you, what parachute-jumping does for them. And note that even ”excitement” might be a wrongly generalized category: maybe excitement is not for you. Maybe you’re a sofa kind of person. It might still be possible for you to be a person for whom excitement or even parachute-jumping is rewarding, but that requires a completely different kind of neural rewiring.

Possibly, what happy people got is the disposition to like what they get, or to find something to like in everything they get and that disposition, rather than the things that they, or you, like, is what you should get. Of course, if you are disposed to like everything, you might stop and appreciate the glorious spectacle of a runaway train moving towards you at speed, and that, you know, would be bad. You shouldn’t have that disposition. Further qualifications are needed, for strategic and individual reasons. This is why we should be very careful when we try to translate science into advice.

As to the neural rewiring: reading about happiness-research might bring about some of the required changes. Learning does occasionally occur as a consequence of reading, after all. But it is likely to do as much good for your happiness as a class on Newtonian mechanics would do for your billiard-playing skills.

Now, about this response-dependency thing

3 december 2009 | In Emotion theory Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Naturalism | Comments?

I am a fan of keeping options left open, and of not leaving open options left undeveloped.  When we find ourselves with conflicting intuitions in situations where intuitiois our only ground for theoretical decisions, it is basically an act of charity to develop a theoretical option anyway, in case someone will find it in their heart to – as we so endearingly say in philosophy – entertain the proposition. (My attitude here, you might have noticed, is a bit counter to my lament about a certain trope in the post below.)

Store that in some cognitive pocket (memory, David, it’s called ‘memory’ ) for the duration of this post.

Response-dependency. Some concepts, and some properties, are response-dependent. That means that the analysis of the concept, and the nature of the property, is at least partly made up by some response. To be scary, for instance, is to have a tendency to cause a fear-response. There is nothing else that scary things have in common. Things are different with the concept of danger: Dangerous things are usually scary too, but that is not their essence. Their essence consist in the threat they pose to something we care about,  or should care about. Fear is usually a reasonable response to danger; fear is usually how we detect it. Danger might still be response-dependent, but then fear is not the crucial response.

Response-dependency accounts have been developed for many things. Quite sensibly for notions such as being disgusting. Famously by Hume for aesthetic value. And arguably first and foremost under the name ”secondary qualities” by Locke, and unceasingly since by other philosophers, for colours.  Morality, too, has been judged response-dependent , and a great many things have been written about whether this amounts to relativism or not, and whether that would be a point against it.

Response-dependency accounts of value and of moral properties has a lot going for it. Famously, beliefs about moral properties are supposed to involve some essential engagement of our motivational capacities. And if the relevant property is one our knowledge of which is dependent on some motivational response, say an emotion, this we’re all set. Further, if these concepts/properties are response dependent, it would account for many instances of moral disagreements – we disagree on moral issues when our moral responses differ, and when the difference is not accountable by a difference in other factual beliefs and perceptions. If we accept that responses are all there is to moral issues, we might have to learn to live with the existence of some fundamental disagreements between conflicting responses, and moral views. Relativism follows if there is nothing that moral respones (for the most part, the moral response involved is some kind of emotion) track. What the account gives us is a common source of evaluative meaning in located in the fact that we all share the same basic type of responses. We just disagree in what causes those responses, and about what objects merit the response.

If we insist on locating the value (moral or otherwise) in the object/cause of the response (note that the object and the cause might be different things – we might project an emotion of something that did not cause it. This happens all the time), the response-dependency account results in a form of moral relativism. If one finds relativism objectionable, and there is no way to provide firm moral properties in the cause/object structure of typical moral responses, one might therefore  want to reject response-dependency wholesale. I think this is mistake. If we agree that there is such a thing as a moral/evaluative response, and this response is something that all conceptually competent evaluators have in common, we have our common ground right there, in the response. It is not the kind of relativism where we find that seemingly disagreeing parties are actually speaking about different things altogether. In fact, there is a common core evaluative meaning, and that meaning is provided by the relevant response.

So, to the suggestion then, our theoretical option left open for development: that moral/whatever value is in the response, not in the object of the response. This seems to be the obvious solution once we’ve established that the value is metaphysically dependent on the response, and there is no commonality to what causes the response. If the responses themselves can is something that seemvaluable, and emotions usually do, we should develop that option, and disregard the fact that we tend to project value to the object of mental states. (If we keep on, as I do, and argue that the evaluative component of any emotion consists in it valence, and valence is cashed out in terms of pleasantness – unpleasantness, we have a kind of hedonism at our hands, but this option is open for any response you like).

Nothing is metaphysically more response-dependent than the responses themselves, and yet, this move avoids any objectionable form of relativism, while explaining the appearance of relativism. And, given that the response is motivationally potent, we have an inside track to the motivational power of moral/evaluative properties/beliefs. This, I’d say, makes it a theoretical option worth pursuing.

Going Through the Emotions

29 oktober 2009 | In Emotion theory | Comments?

Here are some words that, stringed together, are bound to make you gasp and salivate with anticipation (thus supporting the James-Lange/Tex Avery theory of emotion): The Non-Conceptual Representational Content of Emotions.

Emotions are tricky things. But what kind of tricky things are they? ”Cognitivists” believe that emotions are at least partly constituted by judgments, wereas non-cognitivists typically claim that emotions are mere experiences, uncommitted to any propositional content.

One problem for cognitivists is that judgments seem to require concepts, and we might want to say that creatures incapable of housing the relevant concepts might nevertheless experience emotions. This depends on what you require from your concept possessors: we can lower the bar, so that most animals have at least some concepts needed for certain emotions. Or we might want to exclude non-humans from the world of full-fledged emotions. Cog and Non-Cog may not disagree over the facts, but only about the terms, and the implied policies.

The problem for non-cogs is that we sometimes treat emotions as justifiable, and it is hard to see what that amounts to if emotions are not judgments. The case is analogous to perception.

Emotions can’t just be judgments since for every judgment , something could be that judgment and yet not be an emotion. I.e. even though emotions might have conceptual content, they are not exhausted by that content. We need more in order to differentiate emotions from states having the same content as an emotion.

Now, representation is a great notion to invoke here, since it’s eminently flexible: to represent somehing is a relational, i.e. non-intrinsic, feature. In order to represent something, even something propositional, you need not yourself have a propositional nature. So an emotion might be something like a pure experience, and still have non-conceptual, representational content – the ”meaning”, as it were, of the emotion, is not intrinsic to the emotion, but derived from its function. When what is represented by the emotion is a judgment, or something to that effect, we can treat it as justifiable. Analogously, again, perceptions represent things as being a certain way, but in order to represent a judgment, it need not itself be a judgment. The fear of a snake is a mental state that represents the snake as being dangerous, but it is not itself the judgment that the snake is dangerous.

Is representation essential to what you feel?  Representations according to Dretske-influenced theories (Tye, Schroeder, probably Prinz), are causal, functional affairs, and it might not be obvious to you what caused your current mental state, or what function that mental state plays. In fact, seeing how one and the same mental state might represent/be caused by different things, it might not even be introspectable what you are feeling. The feeling is obvious to you, but what the feeling is saying need not be.

Are we left with enough to identify and individuate emotions? It seems not. It is not surprising that emotions have the function to represent, since practically all mental states have that function. But that is not all it does. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to believe that emotions are not exhausted by their function, either, let alone the strictly informational one-

I believe that ”emotion” is a usefully vague notion, but that all emotions have a hedonic component. They are either positively or negatively valenced. Also, any mental state having a hedonic constituent deserves consideration as an emotion. When they are prompted by judgments, or followed by judgments, or just associated with judgments, it makes sense to assess them accordingly. In addition, you may be held responsible for an emotion, even if that emotion is not something you can directly choose to have or not too have: you might be responsible for the judgment that prompts the emotion.

This post was inspired by reading this book, which I’m sure will prompt (and thus then be represented by) more posts over the next few weeks):

Jesse Prinz: the Emotional Construction of Morals

Jesse Prinz: the Emotional Construction of Morals