Thursday, 28 July 2016

Are Emotions Rational? An Interview with Aaron Ben-Ze'ev

In this post Matilde Aliffi, PhD student at the University of Birmingham, interviews Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, and President of the European Philosophical Society for the Study of the Emotions. Aaron (pictured above) works in the philosophy of psychology and published extensively on emotions and love.

MA: What are the objectives of the European Philosophical Society for the Study of the Emotions?

AB-Z: Emotions punctuate almost all the significant events in our lives, but the nature, causes, and consequences of the emotions are among the least well understood aspects of human experience. In recent decades there has arisen a significantly greater interest in the study of emotions by scholars in various fields. Such an interdisciplinary interest and interaction are crucial for the understanding of emotions. Nevertheless, I believe that there is room for more intensive discussions among scholars about specifically philosophical issues within the broad area of the study of emotions.

The European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions is a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering the philosophical study of emotions by providing a forum for exchanging views, so as to increase the interaction or collaboration among its members. The Society will make a special effort to involve young philosophers in its activities. Although the title of the Society refers to European philosophers, the Society is open to people from other countries, as well as to those who are not philosophers by profession, but have an interest in interacting academically with philosophers.

MA: Nowadays the study of the emotions is an interdisciplinary enterprise. What is the contribution that philosophy can offer to this field, and what kind of methodology philosophers should adopt?

AB-Z: Philosophy is not limited to its subject matter, but merely to the level of complexity and abstraction of the issues discussed. Thus, we can speak about the philosophy of physics, philosophy of geography, and philosophy of emotions. The question of whether a woman is more likely to be more jealous if her partner has an affair with a beautiful woman or with a wise woman is basically a psychological issue. (The answer to this question depends on how central external appearance and wisdom are to the woman’s self-image.) 

The difference between jealousy and envy is an issue of discussion for both philosophers and psychologists. Philosophers are concerned with issues such as “what is an emotion?” and the role of emotions in morality. Collaborations between philosophers and psychologists (and other scientists) are always welcome—the extent and usefulness of these depends on the abstractness and complexity of the issues. There are various methodologies that philosophers use in studying the emotions: for example, conceptual analysis, reference to general views of classical philosophers, and discussing empirical findings that support or weaken a general philosophical claim. Combining all these and other such methodologies can be very fruitful.

MA: Your work on the emotions has been particularly influenced by Aristotle, Kant and Spinoza. How can the classics inform a contemporary theory of emotion?

AB-Z: My work on emotions has mainly been influenced by Aristotle and Spinoza—more so by the former. Emotions have been central to human life for thousands of years, and so we can learn much from previous philosophers. Their writings indicate that some emotional features are universal and not culturally dependent. If we can understand and accept what Aristotle or Shakespeare wrote about romantic love, it may imply that certain aspects of romantic love are not an invention of capitalist society, but rather have some universal features. This is not to deny that romantic love, and especially its manifestation and generation, may be influenced by a given society, context and character.

MA: In your book The Subtlety of Emotions, you challenged the idea that emotions are irrational in nature and that they disrupt normal functioning. Could you tell us why you think that emotions may help sustain our normal functioning?

AB-Z: Along with the tradition that considers emotions to be irrational, there is a tradition that views emotions as disorganized interruptions of mental activity and as impediments to normal functioning. Some even consider emotions to be a kind of disease that we need to cure, since to neglect these illnesses would be little short of suicidal. I believe that this negative view is unfounded and that in fact emotions are the optimal response to many circumstances associated with their generation, such as when we face a sudden significant change in our situation but have limited and imperfect resources to cope with it. The major functions of emotions are: (a) an initial indication of the proper manner in which to respond, (b) a quick mobilization of resources, and (c) a means of social communication. Emotions are typically very useful in our everyday life.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Paradox of Forgiveness

This post is by Lucy Allais (pictured above). Lucy teaches philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and the University of California in San Diego. She partly works in the history of philosophy, on the work of the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (mostly on his metaphysics but she is increasingly interested in his moral and political philosophy), and partly on some topics in moral philosophy and moral psychology, such as forgiveness, resentment, and related moral emotions. In this post she writes about her research on forgiveness

Augustine once said that he knows exactly what time is until anyone asks him, and it seems to me that something similar can be said about forgiveness. It is a concept we are pretty confident we understand, until one tries to give a philosophical account of it, at which point it seems to start dissolving, to the point that a lot of philosophers have thought it to be paradoxical and impossible to make sense of.

The difficulties start because most people agree that forgiveness should be distinguished from excusing and justifying, as where there is an excuse or justification there is nothing to forgive. Many philosophers start from the view that the resentment or hurt that forgiveness overcomes is warranted or justified: this is precisely what follows from the view that forgiveness comes into play in relation to culpable wrongdoing. Since forgiving does not involve changing your mind about whether the wrong was really wrong (in which case it would be justifying or accepting), it seems that it does not change your view of the wrong as attaching to the wrongdoer. Yet the way we often use the term suggests that forgiving involves a change in your emotional orientation to the wrongdoer in which you no longer see it the wrongdoing as attaching to them or reflecting on them—you somehow wipe the slate clean.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

A Prescription for Psychiatry

In today's post, Peter Kinderman introduces his new book ‘A Prescription for Psychiatry: Why We Need a Whole New Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing’, which is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

I am professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool and President-Elect of the British Psychological Society. My research interests are in psychological processes underpinning wellbeing and mental health. I have published widely on the role of psychological factors as mediators between biological, social and circumstantial factors in mental health and wellbeing. I have been awarded (with colleagues) a total of over £6 million in research grant funding (from the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the NHS Forensic Mental Health Research and Development Programme, the European Commission and others). My most recent grant, awarded in 2015, was for a total of over £1m from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), to lead a three-year evidence synthesis programme for the ‘What Works Centre for Wellbeing’, exploring the effectiveness of policies aimed at improving community wellbeing. You can follow me on Twitter as @peterkinderman.

My most recent book, A Prescription for Psychiatry, offers a radical new ‘manifesto’ for mental health and well-being. It argues that services should be based on the premise that the origins of distress are largely social. The guiding idea underpinning mental health services needs to change from an assumption that our role is to treat ‘disease’ to an appreciation that our role is to help and support people who are distressed as a result of their life circumstances, and how they have made sense of and reacted to them.

This also means we should replace ‘diagnoses’ with straightforward descriptions of problems. We must stop regarding people’s very real emotional distress as merely the symptom of diagnosable ‘illnesses’. A simple list of people’s problems (properly defined) would have greater scientific validity and would be more than sufficient as a basis for individual care planning and for the design and planning of services. This does not mean rejecting rigour or the scientific method – quite the reverse. While psychiatric diagnoses lack reliability, validity and utility, there is no barrier to the operational definition of specific psychological phenomena, and it is equally possible to develop coherent treatment plans from such a basis.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Deontological Confabulation

Emilian Mihailov (pictured below) is the Executive Director of the Research Centre in Applied Ethics (CCEA) and a teaching assistant at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest. Currently he is working on the implications of experimental moral psychology and neuroscience for normative and applied ethics.

I will present some ideas I developed in my paper “Is deontology a moral confabulation?”, recently published in Neuroethics.

Here is a provoking thought. What if the effort of philosophical theorizing is an exercise in moral confabulation to polish off track emotional responses, admitingly hard to resist given their evolutionary roots? Joshua Greene speculates that if you mix the fact we are largely driven by strong emotional responses with the tendency to make up plausible sounding stories to justify or explain these responses, you get deontological moral philosophy.

As a philosopher who has done some work in the Kantian tradition, was I confabulating? I the paper I argue, hopefully in a non-motivated way, that the evidence used by Greene does not support the confabulation hypothesis, and that even if we accept it we should not be too worried.

One suspicion I start with is that paradigmatic cases of confabulation do not seem to fit the relevant model for Greene’s ambitious attack on deontology, namely what I call alarm-like emotion based confabulation. Since established cases tend to favour a neutral model, which is not committed to a particular content of behavioural causes (cognitive/emotional), it is puzzling to expect outright alarm-like confabulations in philosophical theorizing.

This puzzle leads to a deeper reason as to why the confabulation hypothesis is problematic. Why is the case that paradigmatic cases are not driven by alarm-like emotions? By looking at the conducive conditions for confabulation, I argue that there is an inherent resistance on the part of alarm-like emotions to be subject to confabulation. A confabulation is likely to occur when stimuli are not salient and are not plausible causes of belief or action. And vice versa, a confabulation is unlikely to occur when stimuli are salient and plausible causes.