Monday, May 27, 2013

Speculation on the virtuous person's emotions

Take seriously the Socratic idea that emotional awareness is a kind of perception of normative states of affairs: pain is a perception of actual ill-being, fear of potential future ill-being, joy of present good, and so on. Aristotle seems to think that the virtuous person's emotions will be perfectly in tune with reality. The courageous person will only fear what is genuinely fearsome, and so on.

But if we take the Socratic view of emotional consciousness, then we will have reason to doubt Aristotle. For the virtuous person's emotional awareness is going to be properly functioning. But it is false that properly functioning perceptions are always veridical. Indeed, sometimes, a sensory perception must be non-veridical to be properly functioning. As Descartes notes in the Meditations, any cause that produces the same effect in our body will result in the same perception. A barn and a barn facade (seen face on) produce the same effect on our retinas, and result in the same perceptions. Moreover, when this happens, our perceptions are properly functioning, and were we to see these same effects differently, our perceptions would be improperly functioning. If the barn facade didn't look like a barn, your sense of sight would be malfunctioning. (Our senses might always produce veridical results in heaven. If so, then that is a sense in which our nature is somehow transformed in heaven.) Most of the time, we see barns, not barn facades, and our senses' proper functioning is adapted to what gets us to truth for the most part (much as according to Aquinas, the proper functioning of the reproductive faculties is adapted to what leads to the good for the most part, which is why he thinks fornication is wrong even when it does not harm children, since for the most part, fornication is bad for offspring, and therefore our nature is such that fornication is not a part of our proper function.)

It would be surprising indeed if the same weren't true of emotional awareness. Sometimes, this is true simply because of sensory illusions. If you grew up happily on a farm, the convincing barn facade gives you the same nostalgic feeling as a real barn, and if you failed to feel nostalgia, something is wrong with you. But the same can be true even where there is no sensory illusion. Sometimes, virtue requires one to to knowingly (maybe even intentionally) cause pain to another. But the knowledgeable causing of pain to another quite properly makes one feel bad about what one is doing, and this should happen even when one knows that one ought to be doing what one is doing. In such a case, the emotional awareness may be non-veridical, but it is, nonetheless, properly functioning. If one did not feel bad, then one would have a malfunctioning emotional awareness, and one would not be fully virtuous.

I remember reading that St Catherine the Great Martyr, when young, was puzzled by Christ's suffering in the garden. Wouldn't Christ welcome suffering for righteousness' sake? So she supposed that his suffering was a kind of display for our benefit. But no: It wasn't a show. A virtuous person suffers fear when contemplating a terrible death, even if the virtuous person knows that this death should not be avoided. The feeling may be non-veridical, but why should Christ have been exempt from non-veridical emotions? After all, we do not think he was exempt from visual illusions: Surely a stick in the water looked broken to him. Of course, he might well judge the emotion non-veridical, much as we judge the one about the stick, but just as the stick still looks broken, Christ would still suffer.

But perhaps this is all wrong. It all depends on just how teleological proper function is.


Scott said...

I agree that proper functioning emotions are not always veridical, but I don’t think that distinction best explains Christ’s fear in the Garden. What do you think of this line of thought? The intentional object of Christ’s fear is his future torture and death construed as sensibly harmful and difficult to avoid. That object does fit with reality. For his fear to be non-veridical seems to require the additional assumption that the intentional object of his fear include that the fearful object ought to be avoided or that its non-veridicality involves more than the intentional object. That the fearful object ought to be avoided is not part of fear’s intentional object (it seems to me), although fear does psychologically ‘move’ one away from the object of fear (at least in part because fear is unpleasant). It would have to be this affective component that grounds the non-veridicality. But I don’t see how it does. After all, his suffering and death are unpleasant. Christ reasonably judges that he ought to approach that which he rightly (and truly) feels to be harmful as a means to the good of fulfilling his mission. Does this story satisfy without appeal to non-veridical proper function?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, that is very plausible, and indeed better than what I suggested.