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3.3 Emotions and judgements

As I suggested above, I am adopting Martha Nussbaum's view of emotions put forward in her dialogue ‘Emotions as judgements of value’ (Nussbaum, 1998). In the introduction she writes: ‘When you put a position in the mouth of a real person, especially the person you love you have to make it real’. She is suggesting that, if you do not write dialogue, then something different and abstract emerges. Her dialogue illustrates this since it is in the form of a lecture by Anna (a thinly disguised Martha Nussbaum) with lengthy interjections of a conversation between Anna and her mother and, later, her father. The topic of the text is emotion and its relationship to ethical judgements, and I will present her argument below.

Activity 13

A limited preview of the text is available online, but there are copyright restrictions in place that may make it difficult for you to access the material. If you do gain access to that (or to a printed version – you will find the bibliographical details in the ‘References’ section at the end of this unit), you might like to have a look at the text just to get a feel for the style of presentation, with particular focus on pages 35 (opening and scene-setting), 36 (comments about the project, presented as part of the dialogue) and 37–38 (where the philosophical result of the arguments is presented in a nutshell).

In Martha Nussbaum's view, one important point about emotional reactions is that they can be quite valuable in helping people to identify what matters to them, even though this can be a bit of a disquieting idea. In her dialogue she advances the thesis that emotions are forms of judgement, so she plants them fairly and squarely in the field of judgement and, hence, ethics. Nussbaum takes her lead from the Stoics, and that leads us back to the Ancient Greeks as a starting point.

The Stoics had a twofold perspective on emotions. First of all they saw them as a type of evaluative thought, a way of evaluating things, even though they are potentially unreliable and inaccurate. However, the Stoics’ view, and that's why we use the word ‘stoical’, was that the emotions should be suppressed. We should strive to suppress our emotions as our lifetime's quest. Their argument was that, once emotions are suppressed, rationality will come through. But Nussbaum rejects that second part of this argument, the one referring to suppression. Instead, she wants to recognise the contributions emotions make to our knowledge of things, suggesting that we need to learn how to integrate the experience of emotions into well-considered judgements.

As engineers, designers or programmers, we've got theories, regulations, rules of thumb, prototypes, experiments, opinions of others, all sorts of things, and somehow those different bits and pieces never quite fit together, and some of them only fit rather roughly to what we may be intending to do. Since we experience emotion while considering all of these things, emotions are useful in that they provide an umbrella for the overall experience.

Nussbaum says that ‘emotions are not simply ways of seeing an object but they're beliefs about the object, especially those we're unsure of and cannot influence.’ She is saying that emotions can be a guide to those things that seem to be important, yet intangible or difficult to grasp. The kind of objects she is talking about are not concrete objects, but things like theories, documents, opinions, assertions and assumptions, and the people who articulate those things. For instance, she suggests that, if we experience anger, then that expresses a thought about potential harm or damage. Since we are talking about ethics, then, clearly, it is worth while reflecting on that. We may experience anger but afterwards reflect upon it, and perhaps we will be able to identify the harm or damage felt, possibly subconsciously, that caused the anger.

Nussbaum saw these emotions as being rather unreliable and suggested that we should scrutinise and rationalise them. In other words, we should formulate a reason for the emotion. This is a kind of reflection, one that hopefully brings a sense of proportion and adjustment to enable the otherwise ill-defined experience to be constructive and, crucially, be used in an ethical argument. Adopting Nussbaum's view provides grounds for recognising the bursts of anger and delight, and the responses to them, responses which always alter the course of development of technological projects.

Following from that is the idea that, if we ignore our emotions, then we neglect something, an authentic thought, about an authentic rather than imagined situation. If we work with our logic, then we are always modelling situations. Emotion, however, is much closer to a situation than our reasoning about it. The consequence of ignoring emotions, Nussbaum would suggest, is that our judgements are poorer and deficient. And this is not an uncommon view when you come to investigate philosophical writings.

For instance, Alan Janik, actually a Wittgenstein scholar, noted that the enlightenment profoundly influenced attitudes towards technology in that it proselytised about progress arising from a scientific attitude to life and its technical deployment (Janik, 1995). In addition, he suggests there was a second, often forgotten, theme, a notion supported also by David Hume, that ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’ (A Treatise of Human Nature [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , Book II, Part III, Section III –.

Now, although Nussbaum's view is that emotions have a valuable role in our ethical judgements, she does not see all emotions as being productive. Clearly emotions tell us about how we value things, but we're also skilled at provoking emotions in others. I talked about that when I was talking about relationships earlier in the section. Emotions provide us with the means to impress on others the value we place on things, and we do that by striking up fears, or we can strike up pleasurable thoughts in others.

Interestingly, Socrates was actually aware of this. In Gorgias he said that speechmaking can be a form of gratification, and that is how it gets its influence. But he wanted to avoid that: he is against this kind of emotional provocation. Of course, this raises the question of whether it is right to exploit other people's emotions, either deliberately or, sometimes as we do, without forethought, for example, when our enthusiasm is contagious or our grief is infectious. If this is not ‘right’, then one thing we have to do is to strive to recognise when we are exploiting the emotions of others.

Of course there are all sorts of emotions and categorisations for these, and some indeed are presented as positive whilst some are considered negative. It might be claimed that these classifications emerge from the stoical view. From this view also emerges the notion that the scientific method is dispassionate and offers techniques that avoid emotional influences by, for example, reducing a judgement to a calculation. Nevertheless, even the most pragmatic scientist or technologist would expect to be enthusiastic or disappointed from time to time, so I am not quite sure about science as being totally without ‘passion’. Also, if Nussbaum's view holds, then it sounds as though we've got a great deal to lose by suppressing our emotions even though there are emotions that we would probably agree are wrong. In the extreme, emotional provocation is what people use to torture others, and I guess we would on the whole be against that.

Nussbaum actually picks out two emotions she regards as dangerous: shame and disgust. It is interesting that both shame and disgust are used as forms of punishment or even to justify punishment. Nussbaum's argument is that, when it comes to shame, the trouble is that it attacks the whole person, whereas if you want to castigate somebody, this should be done for a particular act. Shame aimed at the whole character is not appropriate. She also says that if you want to use shame to influence people, this is inconsistent with some ideas we have about removing shame. For example, anti-discrimination laws and rules are about removing shame that people might feel, and so there is an inconsistency in talking about shame. If you want to ‘get at somebody’, she suggests that guilt is a much more directed emotion towards particular acts, which is a view that has a long history. The trouble is that the person who is being acted upon, the person being shamed, may be missing the point and not seeing which act it is that others find offensive. This is hardly productive and potentially inhuman.

Disgust, Nussbaum says, comes from holding up a mirror to ourselves to discover that we are in fact animal in nature, and this is something that we take great pains to avoid. So, if we are talking about disgust of other people, we are trying to say that they have an animal nature and they are distant from us. This is a mode of discrimination, and often discrimination that is supported not by events, but by myths.

To summarise: I think we would find that there are emotions we would not want to exploit, or there are degrees of exploitation we would not want to use. I do not want to go through a list of emotions to see which are worthy and which are not, but I want to stress the point that, in putting an ethical case, we are liable to exploit other people's emotions, and that, in itself, has an ethical dimension. So, if you use other people's emotions and you think some of those emotions are ‘bad’ things to exploit, then the relationship-building is itself an ethical entity. As we are thinking about ethics, then emotions are really rather important, and for people like Nussbaum there is a feeling that emotions can be constructive but only if we reflect upon them and build them into our arguments. On the other hand, they are, for each of us, individually, an important indicator of how much we value things and perhaps emotions provide us with things that are not expressible in words.

Activity 14

This is quite a lot to take in, so I thought it would help you to put some of this in context with an excerpt from the group discussion that took place in the 2008 trial. Please be aware that the quality of the video and audio varies as it was recorded as a Flash Meeting and was therefore dependent on the equipment and connection speeds of the individual participants.

Download this video clip.
Discussion 2
ETHICS_1