The Peachum Dilemma: are emotions ethically significant?

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The Peachum Dilemma: are emotions ethically significant?


The ethical significance of the emotions is a potentially enormous and difficult topic. Some of the positions that can be maintained include:

1 No moral judgements (either positive or negative) can legitimately be made of emotions.

2 Emotions are subject to moral praise or blame in just the same way (or, analogous to the way) that acts are.

3 Emotions are subject to moral praise or blame, but in a very different way from acts.

4 Emotions are the primary carriers of value, while rationality is purely instrumental (‘reason is a value-neutral technique’); therefore moral judgement should properly concern itself only with the emotions, their origins and effects.

The issue

The issue is ambiguously, and hence interestingly, stated by Brecht in Der Dreigroschenoper. Polly Peachum, who is trying unsuccessfully to resist the emotional and sensual spell of Macheath, sings the soulful “Barbara-Song”, including in the first stanza the line

“Ja, da muss man kalt und herzlos sein.” [Indeed, one must be cold and heartless]

(Note “man“; Polly here is trying to state a general truth, not (yet) directly applying it to herself.)

Since we (and Macheath) know that he cares little about Polly in the way she would like to be cared for, can we say that Macheath’s emotional attentions to her are unethical? Or not? On what basis?

Two arguments that there is no ethical significance to the emotions

Before proceeding to the analysis, we must consider two possible arguments against the thesis that emotional states are subject to any moral praise or blame at all. If they are not, then that is the end of the discussion, or rather, it is the beginning of a different discussion.

I believe these arguments fail, but the reasons why each fails point the way to understanding why and in what way the emotions do have ethical significance.

First argument

The first argument is this:

(a) An act (including failure to act) can be subject to moral praise or blame only to the extent that it directly or indirectly affects (harms or benefits) the agent himself, or a moral patient (up to and including Nature as a whole), or if the agent could reasonably (as a moral agent) have anticipated this effect.

(b) However, by this definition the ethical significance of the act lies only in its actual or possible consequences, and in the intentions and beliefs held by or ascribed to the agent concerning them. The agent’s emotional state of mind is immaterial.

(c) Therefore, moral judgement should ignore whatever the agent’s emotional state might have been at the time he acted or failed to act.

There are several things wrong with this first argument. First, it assumes that emotions can be cleanly disentangled from intentions, motives, and beliefs. Now as the common understanding and law both acknowledge, motives of an act are important, sometimes decisive, in making judgements as to whether or not an agent has acted rightly or wrongly. This is why we distinguish murder from manslaughter, and accidents from intentional acts. And second, emotion, particularly strong emotion, can move us to act, as when anger moves one to commit an act that one could never bring oneself to do ‘in cold blood’. Emotional states can function as behavioral catalysts.

But at this point, it still remains possible to assert that only the physical consequences are to count in ethical judgement, not the emotional states that may have moved one to act.

We can counter this objection by pointing out that this first argument assumes that there cannot be any purely emotional consequences of an act (even if there are emotional causes), but only physical consequences that have no meaningful emotional content, even if they are accompanied by emotion. If I shout at you in anger, but do not hit you, no harm has been done. If I shout a warning that you are about to walk into quicksand which I mistakenly believe to be present, exactly in the same way no harm has been done.

This line of reasoning appears to be based on too narrow a view of the nature of human beings, not to mention of other beings, vide the cowering dog who has never been hit. It appears that an agent’s emotions (which are physical expressions) can have the kind of physical consequences in the patient that we would call ’emotional’, in addition to any physical consequences that may or may not have an emotional component.

Therefore the first argument fails, but has contributed the observation that emotions in the agent can have both emotional and physical consequences in the patient. If an agent can be praised or blamed for the consequence, then he can be praised or blamed for the cause.

— But there is a second argument that holds that even if emotions can have these consequences, the agent is still neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy for them. It goes like this:

Second argument

(a) Our emotions arise from forces beyond or beneath our conscious control; it is for good reason that they are called ‘the passions’. Therefore we are not responsible for our emotions in any moral sense. If anger, for instance, leads us to commit a crime, it is the crime itself that deserves condemnation, not the anger, because the anger is not ‘ours’. In a quite literal sense, we do not ‘own’ our anger.

(b) It follows that to the extent that a passion can be held to ’cause’ (in some sense) behavior, then to that extent the results of our behavior are less deserving of moral judgement, either favorable or unfavorable, than those of someone who is not under the influence of a passion.

The first problem is that these two aspects of the second argument seem to be at odds with each other. For example, (a) would lead us to conclude that there is no such thing as a ‘hate crime’, while (b) would allow the possibility of hate crimes, but that people who commit them are less culpable than those who act ‘kaltlich und herzloslich’.

But the real problem with the second argument lies in the assumption that we are less responsible for our emotions than for our thoughts or acts, because we are (observably) usually less in control of them. This belief has an honorable pedigree, going back at least to the ancient Greeks who were said at times to be in the frenzied grip of a god, and dating forward to “the devil made me do it”. With the demise of gods and devils, there is no one else to blame for our emotions, and after Freud there is nowhere to search for their origin except within us.

Therefore the second argument fails, but from it we can draw the conclusion that our emotions are attributable to ourselves as agents, and that if they have effects, then these effects can be subjected to the same kinds of moral judgements that pertain to acts (although perhaps not in the same way).

Polly applies the lesson to her own situation

By the second stanza, Brecht’s Polly has moved from being a philosopher of the emotions to applying her advice to her own situation:

“Ja, da mu§ ich kalt und herzlos sein”, she sings. [Indeed, I must be cold and heartless.]

This is of course to be interpreted as grim determination in the face of a losing struggle.

The emphasis on the ego (Freud: Ich) as the focal point of ethics has a long history. As Nussbaum (1994) has pointed out, the Hellenistic philosophers were more concerned with “how shall I live” than “how shall I treat others”, almost to the exclusion of the latter. Emotionally, this translates into “have the emotions that will make things go best for me”. Just as acts toward others can be justified by how much they benefit the agent, so emotions toward others are justified by how much they benefit the agent and contribute to the building of character. Spinoza also focused on the self and its needs, the striving (conatus) for continued life and maximum freedom (see Deleuze 1988, p71f, Garrett 1996b p308, and Harris, page 89).

The question these views provoke is this: “Can an emotion experienced alone, with no patient affected, have any ethical significance other than the therapeutic? And, is therapeutic benefit really ethical at all?” To bring this down to practical terms, for example (a) “Is it wrong of you to hate black people if no-one else is affected by your hatred?” or (b) “Is it a kind of sexual harassment to lust after someone ‘in your heart’ who you know would reject advances from you if made in person?”

In spite of appearances, these two questions are different in kind. Spinoza would hold that it is wrong to hate black people. But since he holds that all hatred is wrong, he would really not be saying anything morally interesting in applying the principle to a specific group. Lust, however, in the polite guise of titillation (titillatio), occupies a more ambiguous position in Spinoza’s thought

“Titillation is pleasure which, in so far as it is related to the body, consists in one or more of the body’s parts being affected more than the rest. The power of this emotion can be so great as to … hinder the body’s ability to be affected in numerous other ways. So it can be bad.” (Spinoza, p178)

Many of us would regard lust, as least in some contexts, as a kind of laetitia, and hence praiseworthy.

It is well known that Jesus answered an ancient version of question (b) ‘yes’. But the answers are not at all clear here, and cannot be got around by saying something like “Your emotions affect your acts in ways you may not understand, so there are really no ‘agent only’ emotions.” This observation may be true, but its relevance is to psychology rather than to philosophy.

In order to explore these questions, I will introduce our old friend The Brain In The Vat. Brain, you will recall, believes he is living a full life but in fact is just — a brain in a vat, fed by tubes of nutrients and participating in an illusory world generated by philosophers concerned with problems of the self.

Let us now disconnect Brain from his illusory world such that he now has nothing but his own mind as company. Brain can think, and Brain can experience emotions.

Can Brain now do anything that has any conceivable moral significance? If Spinoza and the Hellenistic philosophers are right, the only kind of thing that Brain can do that has moral significance involves experiencing his own emotions as agent-patient; Brain’s only other option, rational thought, has no ethical significance as such, because no rational decision of Brain’s can affect the world outside the vat, hence cannot produce a result subject to ethical judgement.

In his newly deprived environment, Brain can still be virtuous or have character, and can experience laetitia or tristitia. He can therefore still be a moral being, even if he cannot affect anything or anyone else. If this still sounds plausible, consider: if we were now to give Brain a body and set him loose in the real world, virtue and character will still be his only mor.............

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