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Morality and emotions

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L064-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Emotions such as anger, fear, grief, envy, compassion, love and jealousy have a close connection to morality. Philosophers have generally agreed that they can pose problems for morality in a variety of ways: by impeding judgment, by making attention uneven and partial, by making the person unstable and excessively needy, by suggesting immoral projects and goals.

The place of emotions in moral theories depends on whether they are conceived of merely as impulses without thought or intentional content, or as having some sort of cognitive content. Plato argued that emotions form a part of the soul separate from thought and evaluation, and moved, in the course of his writings, from a sceptical view of their contribution to morality to a more positive appraisal. Aristotle connected emotions closely with judgment and belief, and held that they can be cultivated through moral education to be important components of a virtuous character. The Stoics identified emotions with judgments ascribing a very high value to uncontrolled external things and persons, arguing that all such judgments are false and should be removed. Their cognitive analysis of emotion stands independent of this radical normative thesis, and has been adopted by many philosophers who do not accept it.

Modern theories of emotion can be seen as a series of responses and counter-responses to the Stoic challenge. Descartes, Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche all accepted many of the Stoics’ normative arguments in favour of diminishing the role played by emotions in morality; they differed, however, in the accounts of emotion they proposed. Focusing on compassion or sympathy, Hutcheson, Hume, Rousseau, Adam Smith and Schopenhauer all defended the role of some emotions in morality, returning to a normative position closer to Aristotle’s (though not always with a similarly cognitive analysis).

Contemporary views of emotion have been preoccupied with the criticism of reductive accounts that derive from behaviourist psychology. By now, it is once again generally acknowledged that emotions are intelligent parts of the personality that can inform and illuminate as well as motivate. Philosophers’ views have been enriched by advances in cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis and anthropology. Feminist accounts of emotion differ sharply, some insisting that we should validate emotions as important parts of moral character, others that emotions shaped by unjust conditions are unreliable guides.

Citing this article:
Nussbaum, Martha C.. Morality and emotions, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L064-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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