The role of emotion in moral agency: some meta-ethical issues in the moral psychology of emotion
This thesis aims to elucidate an apparent paradox about the role of emotion in moral agency. A number of lines of concern suggest emotion may have serious negative impact on moral agency. On the other hand, there are considerations that suggest emotion also plays a crucial role in motivating, informing and even constituting moral agency. Significantly, there is a strong connection between participant reactive attitudes and ascription of moral status as agent or subject. Nonemotional agents could not hold such attitudes. Also, removing participant reactive attitudes imposes a peculiar and incoherent form of solipsism about moral agency. Given this necessary role for emotion, can we give an account of emotion that will also meet the worries? I examine, as crucial examples, three recurrent lines of concern about emotion - that it threatens our capacities for objectivity, rationality, and autonomy - to tease out the descriptive assumptions about emotion, and the normative assumptions about moral agency, that these objections are based on. I then offer three lines of argument towards resolving these worries. The first addresses the worries directly, and the other two shift blame off emotion. First, then, I argue that the normative concerns can largely be met by a descriptive account that views emotion as cognitive. However, “judgementalist” cognitive accounts that assimilate emotion to belief may make emotion metaethically respectable at the cost of making it meta-ethically redundant. Also, such accounts are descriptively less than plausible. A better approach, I argue, is to allow that belief may play a significant role in emotion but to also allow at least a quasicognitive role to the distinctively affective element in emotion: feeling. I also argue for a hrther revision of cognitive accounts to emphasise that emotions reflect features of those who feel them. If we were different, our emotions would be different. So, secondly, I argue that a number of the features that power worries about emotions have their sources in what those who feel them are like, rather than in emotions as such. However, both human nature and emotion are capable of significant plasticity and diversity. We are also capable of a considerable - but not infinite - degree of self-determination both about what we are like and what our emotions are like. Finally, I argue that the normative assumptions that power the objections to emotion are themselves in need of revision - and in some tension with each other. This leads to a McGufin-theory of emotion in moral agency: Problems with emotion’s place in moral agency serve as indicators of unresolved tensions in our thinking about moral agency, rather than just indicators of problems with emotion as such. In view of this, I also argue for caution in any attempts to change emotion to fit particular ideals of moral agency.