Nick Treanor was here last week for our Young Philosophers Lecture Series. I’ll be posting those talks over at Young Philosophers sometime within the next week.

In his introductory level talk, he presented a view about emotions, according to which emotions could be rational or irrational. That talk was the inspiration for this argument.

Treanor’s talk led me to think that if this view about emotions is correct, we could get an interesting argument for against moral skepticism. Here are some claims that Treanor defended in his talk.

Some Emotions Are Rational
It seems obvious that some emotions are rational to have and other emotions are irrational to have. For example, it is rational to get angry when someone steals money from you. It is not rational to get angry simply because there are an odd number of pebbles in the fish bowl.

Emotions Are Not Feelings
Emotions are not simply feelings. When you are angry you might have a certain feeling, but the anger is something distinct from the feeling. Nick Treanor gives several reasons in his talk.

Here’s one I came up with. Sometimes people think you do something bad and get angry only to discover that you didn’t actually do it, or they become convinced that the thing you did is not bad – either way they might truthfully say that they are not angry with you anymore, but the feeling the comes with anger might remain.
Emotions Involve a Belief
Emotions might be associated with a feeling or always come with a certain feeling, but emotions are about something. For example, when you’re angry – you’re angry about something. Anger for example, involves an awareness of some state of affairs and a judgment that that state of affairs is bad.

Rationality of Emotions Explained By Rationality of Beliefs.
It seems that if emotions are going to be rational, then the best explanation of this will have to be that they are rational in virtue of the rationality of the beliefs included in the emotion. Why is it irrational to get angry that there is an odd number of pebbles in the fishbowl? Because it’s irrational to believe that this is a bad states of affairs. Why is it rational to get angry at someone who steals money from you? Because you’re rational in believing that this is a bad state of affairs.

This explanation of what makes emotions rational in conjunction with the other assumptions is what would get you from the fact that emotions are sometimes rational to the conclusion moral skepticism is false. Here’s the argument, the support for each of the premises comes from the considerations offered above.

Argument From the Rationality of Emotions Against Moral Skepticism

  1. A rational instance of anger is rational in virtue of the rationality of the judgment (included in the anger) about the badness of some state of affairs.
  2. Some instances of anger are in fact rational.
  3. If some instances of anger are rational and a rational instance of anger is rational in virtue of the rationality of the judgment (included in the anger) about the badness of some state of affairs, then some judgements about the badness of some states of affairs are rational.
  4. Therefore, some judgments about the badness of some states of affairs are rational.

OK. So there’s the argument, and even though Treanor’s talk was not directly about moral skepticism – it seems that a lot of what he motivated in his talk could be used to motivate this argument. I’ll post his talk over at the young philosophers lecture series site soon. I’ve also got some possible objections to this. One obvious objection might be a kind of question begging charge. I’ll address that later. For now I’ll stop and let readers chime in if they want.

8 Responses to “Emotions and Moral Skepticism”

  1. Justin Snedegar

    Here are 3 responses that I can think of; I’m not sure which is better, or if either are any good:

    The Error-Theorist Response:
    Deny (2). We can accept (1), that if an instance of anger is rational, it can only be rational in virtue of the judgment about the badness of the state of affairs. It just so happens that no judgment about the badness of a state of affairs can be rational.

    An Emotivist type of response:
    Deny (1), at least as stated. We can accept
    (1′) A rational instance of anger is rational in virtue of the rationality of the judgment (included in the anger) about how some state of affairs accords with someone’s tastes (or something). I don’t think this response is all that good, actually. It seems to be saying “An instance of S’s anger about P is rational if S gets angry about P”. This seems false; there can be irrational instances of anger, as you said.

    A more sophisticated Error-Theorist response:
    (Maybe this one is the best.) Accept the argument, but deny that it establishes anything about moral skepticism. All we have is that some judgments about badness are rational. We can just say that some judgments can be rational, but mistaken. In fact, this is true. Lots of examples in epistemology seem to turn on this fact. A very good George Bush impersonator delivers a speech in front of congress. Everyone acts as though it is really George Bush (maybe they’re fooled too). I see the speech on C-Span, and judge that George Bush is giving a speech in front of congress. This judgment is rational, but mistaken.

    Now, this response doesn’t work if you hold a form of moral skepticism that says we are never RATIONAL in making moral judgments. But, for a different form of moral skepticism, which says, perhaps, that we are never correct in making moral judgments, or even that we are never justified in making moral judgments (maybe something like Gideon Rosen’s view), this response to your argument seems OK. We just have to tell some story about how a judgment can be rational, but unjustified. I don’t know if there’s a good story to tell, but maybe something involving reasons and beliefs will work.

  2. Andrew Cullison

    Hi Justin,

    First response seems like a way to go, but there will be some explaining to do – I think.

    When I talk about this with students – they’ll be pretty quick to say that moral beliefs aren’t justified, but pretty quick to also say that when they get angry about actions – this anger is not irrational.

    I hope this argument at least shows is that there is a tension between these two intuitions.

    I agree with you on the second response.

    Regarding the third option, I suppose if one could be rational in believing a proposition and not justified in believing it, then there is some wiggle room here. These seem like the same thing to me, but I think Clayton Littlejohn has argued against this identity.

  3. Richard

    Very interesting! I think the emotivist response could be improved. Perhaps, e.g., anger merely involves a judgment that someone is violating your core (reflective) values. That makes it possible to be irrationally angry, since we sometimes get angry over things that – on further reflection – we decide don’t really merit such a response.

  4. Andrew Cullison


    That’s good. I think that’s an excellent way to strengthen the emotivist response.

    To respond we’d need a case where someone was angry with something that violated their core (reflective) values, and it was clear that they were still being irrational. But that seems pretty difficult to come up with. I’m going to try, though.

  5. Ecce Homo

    My irrational, hysterical, ad hominem polemic on this topic can be found here:

    You guys really need to read William James. Right now, you are all an embarrassment to the philosophical enterprise.

  6. 3 Quarks Daily Final « Grundlegung

    […] Wide Scope: Emotions and Moral Skepticism […]

  7. Scott Tougas

    My perspective is that ALL emotions are irrational. Anger, love, jealousy, and happiness are all physiological reactions to an over-abundance of stimuli.

    I think there are two fronts to each emotion. 1. the feeling. 2. the reaction or response. The feeling is always irrational.

    Alluding to your anger example regarding the wallet, it is understandable to be upset about having your wallet stolen, but anger does not bring back your wallet. Thus, being angry is a rational response, but the anger itself is irrational.

    Just because a feeling is typical, doesn’t make it rational. This is a great example to show how human-being are irrational creatures.

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