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Dissertation Defense: What Makes an Emotion Moral?

Mara Bollard
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
11:00 AM-1:00 PM
1164 Angell Hall Map
Daniel Jacobson (chair)
Sarah Buss
Peter Railton
Chandra Sripada

From the standpoint of both philosophers and psychologists, the study of moral psychology has undergone an affective revolution over the last three decades. This revolution has generated substantial interest in the role of the emotions in moral talk, thought, and behavior. Further, it has been claimed that some emotions are distinctively moral in nature. However, what it means for an emotion to count as moral and which emotions count as the moral ones are issues in need of further elucidation. My dissertation addresses these questions in three connected chapters, with a particular focus on two emotions often but obscurely referred to as “moral”: disgust and anger.

In chapter one, “Is There Such a Thing as Genuinely Moral Disgust”, I defend a novel, skeptical view about moral disgust. In so doing, I reject a widely-held, albeit largely implicit, assumption in the moral disgust literature that there exists a distinctive psychological state of moral disgust. To give a positive answer to what I call the ontological question about moral disgust, thereby vindicating its existence, I propose that a given psychological state must be shown to bear sufficient resemblance to the familiar, generic version of disgust, yet be distinguishable from it in virtue of its distinctively moral nature. I argue that existing accounts of moral disgust fail to satisfy these conditions. Further, I contend that we should be skeptical about the general prospect of giving a positive answer to the ontological question, because the empirical evidence that can be invoked in favor of moral disgust’s existence is too equivocal to properly distinguish (putatively) moral disgust from other psychological states, particularly anger.

In chapter two, “What Makes an Emotion Moral?”, I develop a novel, empirically-informed answer to the general version of the ontological question that was raised in chapter 1 with respect to moral disgust: how can we vindicate the existence of a distinctively moral emotion? I examine two contemporary, representative accounts of the “moral” emotions, one that type-identifies the moral emotions based on their effects, and another that defines the moral emotions as those that are constituted by specifically moral judgments. I argue that the former defines the moral emotions too broadly, and thus fails to draw a substantive distinction between the moral emotions and the non-moral ones, whereas the latter defines the moral emotions too narrowly. Informed by the problems with these accounts, I introduce a motivational theory of moral emotion, which defines the moral emotions as those with distinctively moral action tendencies and goals.

Finally, in chapter three, “In Defense of Genuinely Moral Anger”, I defend the claim that there is a distinctively moral subtype of anger. I argue that moral anger is a genuine form of anger that is differentiable from generic anger primarily in virtue of its action tendencies, which are typically triggered by perceived injustice and aim to satisfy two moral goals: a communication goal, and a sanctioning goal. With this account, I offer an empirically-supported account that constitutes a positive answer to the ontological question about moral anger, thereby demonstrating that it is possible to vindicate the existence of a genuinely moral emotion while making sense of the idea that the moral emotions should be understood as a recognizable subset within the general class of the emotions.
Building: Angell Hall
Event Type: Other
Tags: Philosophy
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Department of Philosophy