“Feeling you know” is not the same as empirically knowing: Emotions distort perception and reason


In order to properly understand the big picture, everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.
Xunzi(c.312 BC-c.230 BC, Chinese Confucian philosopher)

Guided reading and extracts from: Emotion, Reason and Virtue, Peter Goldie, University of Manchester, Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, D. Evans and P. Cruse, eds, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, pages 249-67.

Emotions can distort perception and reason.

Do emotions enable us to see things in their true light, as we would not be able to do if we were not capable of experiencing emotion? I think that our intuitions tend to draw us in two apparently opposing directions. On the one hand, we are inclined to say that emotional experience can sometimes tell us things about the world that reason alone will miss. That, one might think, is why we evolved as creatures capable of emotion.

Yet, on the other hand, we are inclined to say that our emotions can and do profoundly distort our view of things: in anger or jealousy, for example, when the red mist comes down over the eyes, and we can feel the blood pulsing in the temples, things look other than the way they are, and, accordingly, our emotions can mislead us profoundly; literature is replete with examples.

Intellectually virtuous

A cheap resolution of these competing intuitions would be to say that there are cases and cases: sometimes our emotions help us to gain empirical knowledge, and sometimes they hinder us. No doubt this is true so far as it goes, but I think there is more to be said than just that. In a nutshell, what I want to argue for here is as follows. If our emotions are to yield empirical knowledge, then it is necessary for us to have the right emotional dispositions, prudential and moral, that will properly attune us to the world. Having such dispositions is part of what is involved in being prudentially and morally virtuous.

If we do not have the right dispositions, then, I will suggest, our emotions can distort perception and reason so that the world seems to us other than it really is: as I will put it, the emotions skew the epistemic landscape. The intellectual virtues ought to help here: we ought, when (and only when) the occasion requires, to introspect, and ask ourselves what emotions we are experiencing, and whether, and in what way, those emotions are skewing the epistemic landscape, so that corrections can be made.

Being appropriately disposed to do this, relying to a considerable extent of non-conscious processes, is part of what is involved in being intellectually virtuous.

Introspectively and extraspectively

Now, the epistemology of the emotions looks in two directions: introspectively, towards our own mental and physical condition; and extraspectively, towards the world beyond the bounds of our mind and bodies. It is not always possible to have reliable introspective knowledge about our own emotional condition, so, if we are less than fully virtuous prudentially and morally, we will not be in a position to know whether, and in what way, our emotions are distorting perception and reason. It is a consequence of this that we will not be able to do what we know we ought to do: we know it is part of being intellectually virtuous to check, when (and only when) the occasion requires, whether our emotions are distorting perception and reason. But we cannot reliably do this. And this leads me to two conclusions.

The first conclusion is that we cannot be intellectually fully virtuous unless we are also prudentially and morally fully virtuous.

The second conclusion, which is much more speculative, concerns the scope of proper accountability and blame.

It is a fact that we are held accountable and blamed for our unjustified emotions, and for the way these emotions distort perception and reason, and for our ignorance that this is what is happening. Moreover, we are held accountable and blamed for the lack of virtue (prudential, moral and intellectual) which lies behind these failings. But can we be properly held accountable and blamed (by others and by ourselves) when these failures to comply with norms are not voluntary or within our control?

Blame can be justified, even though what we are blamed for is not voluntary

I want to suggest that blame here can be justified, even thought what we are blamed for is not voluntary: the scope of proper blame extends beyond action and omissions and whatever else is within our control.

….Empirical thinking is ‘answerable to experience’ in the sense that perceptual experiences can themselves provide reasons for empirical belief and judgement. The content of our perceptions—our perceiving things to be thus and so—are, however, only prima facie reasons for the related empirical belief, the belief that things are indeed thus and so.

A prima facie reason is a consideration that appears at first sight to be a reason (using the term ‘reason’ in the standard normative sense), but which may turn out, in fact, not to be a reason. For example, your seeing something as red or as square is a prima facie reason for believing it to be red or to be square. But if you were wearing distorting lenses that made blue things look red or rectangular things look square, then your seeing something as red or as square is not a reason (that is, not a good reason) for believing it to be so.

It is not, however, necessary that the content of each particular perceptual experience should be held in suspense pending a check on one’s perceptual mechanisms or any other sort of second-order reflective endorsement. The epistemic requirement, rather, is the commonsense one that we need only consciously seek to satisfy ourselves that the deliverances of a particular perceptual experience are as they should be if there is good reason to do so on that occasion.

To be justified

…it is typical of emotional experience to consider one’s emotion, and one’s perception of the object of one’s emotion as having the emotion-proper property, to be justified. So far so good. But what if, without your knowing it, your emotion is unjustified, and the object of your emotion does not have the emotion-proper property that it seems to have? (Perhaps you think you have the right emotional disposition but you do not; or perhaps your mind is subject to other undue influences that you are not aware of.)

In such cases, one’s emotions can distort perception and reason by skewing the epistemic landscape to make it cohere with the emotional experience: referring back to the diagram, the epistemic landscape tends to be skewed downwards, so to speak: we seek out and ‘find’ reasons—reasons which are supposed to justify what is in reality the unjustified ascription of the emotion-proper property, and which, at the same time, are also supposed to justify the emotion. The emotion, and the related perception of the object as having the emotion-proper property, tend to be idées fixes to which reason has to cohere. The phenomenon is a familiar one: when we are afraid, we tend unknowingly to seek out features of the object of our fear that will justify the fear—features that would otherwise (that is, if we were not already afraid) seem relatively harmless.[1] This is surely part of what is behind the commonsense intuition that our emotions can mislead us: they are passions, which, like idées fixes, we can be in the grip of.

Example of “Jim”

Consider this example. Jim lacks the emotional mean-disposition for anger, tending to become angry without what we would consider to be good reason, especially when he takes his status or moral worth to be impugned. He is like this in part because he thinks rather too highly of himself.

One day, very much in character, Jim takes a harmless remark made at a meeting to be a deeply personal insult to his integrity. Now, further assume that Jim has stood back, as he should on this occasion, and asked himself if his emotion is skewing his epistemic landscape. He determines that it has not; he thinks his anger to be a fully justified righteous indignation.

We blame him for being angry on this occasion, and for the lack of moral virtue which explains his being angry. We blame him for his ignorance that his epistemic landscape is being skewed, and for his lack of intellectual virtue, which lack explains his ignorance. According to this approach, blame is appropriate in all these respects, regardless of whether or not the failures were in his direct or indirect control.

Moreover, not only is our blame appropriate, Jim ought to blame himself once he comes to realise the insidious way that his anger, and his overweening self-regard, are distorting his perception and reason.

Confusing and difficult emotional life

…at the end of all this we are left with a picture of the emotions that shows how they can enable us to get things right, whilst accepting that they can sometimes be deeply misleading; and I hope to have explained how both of these are possible.

Whilst we would not want other than to be creatures capable of emotion, we must not lose sight of just how messy, confusing and difficult emotional life can be for those of us who are less than fully virtuous.


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