Philosophy Knows About Emotions

David Brooks’ column about empirical research into the emotional underpinnings of moral judgment contained an oddly brief and sweeping remark about philosophy:

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people.

I really don’t think this is right. Philosophy has been interested in questions about the emotional elements of moral judgment for a long time. To cite just one famous eighteenth century author, Adam Smith wrote an important book on The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which “sentiments” are what we would call “emotions.” And Smith was part of a larger school of “sentimentalist” philosophers culminating in David Hume.

It’s true that Kant’s hugely influential moral thinking proceeds on a more-or-less exclusively rationalist basis, but latter-day Kantians like T.M. Scanlon and Christine Korsgaard who taught me this material are not blind to this issue and work to bring it into their thinking. And people working more in the Humean tradition have this even closer to the heart of their work. There’s a reason that Simon Blackburn’s main book on moral reasoning is called Ruling Passions.


But I think the main point that all modern philosophers would agree on is that one salient fact about human beings is that we have intuitive emotional moral responses to events and we also have the power to reason about those responses. A person who sees bailout funds going to a bank owned and operated by wealthy individuals and there’s an instinctive moral outrage, a desire to see the fat cats put in a bag and drowned. But that’s the beginning of a discussion about What Is To Be Done not the end. And the ensuing process of reasoning can range over empirical and theoretical issues in economics, to abstract moral principles and efforts to articulate coherent ideas about fairness and so forth. The emotional drivers are crucial, in other words, but so is the faculty of reason which can, yes, even be applied in “bookish” ways.

Of course arguably I should just tell people to read Actual Philosopher Hilzoy on this subject.