Can people be held responsible for their emotions? Or, why can't people be held
I agree that the idea of being held responsible for our emotions ispuzzling. It seems that in order to be responsible for X, it has tohave been up to me whether to X. Actions seem to be good candidates forresponsibility, since they seem to be something over which I havecontrol– when someone annoys me, I can choose whether to utter somecaustic remark or instead bite my tongue. But what about my feelingannoyed in the first place– do I have any choice about that? And ifnot, then can I really be held responsible for this emotional reaction?
Aristotle is very helpful on this point. While it is true that on theparticular occasion on which you feel the emotion, you can’t help butfeel it, you are nonetheless responsible for your emotion since youwere responsible for becoming the sort of person who feels this sort ofemotion. Being susceptible to bad emotional responses (i.e., having a badcharacter) is, on Aristotle’s view, like being sick.
"For neither does a sick person recover his health [simply by wishing];nonetheless, he is sick voluntarily, by living incontinently anddisobeying the doctors, if that was how it happened. At that time,then, he was free not to be sick, though no longer free once he has lethimself go, just as it was up to someone to throw a stone, since theprinciple was up to him, though he can no longer take it back once hehas thrown it. Similarly, then, the person who is [now] unjust orintemperate was originally free not to acquire this character, so thathe has it voluntarily, though once he has acquired the character, he isno longer free not to have it [now]” (Nicomachean Ethics III 5, 1114a12-23).
Aristotlebelieves that we can train our emotional responses by forcing ourselvesto act in the right way. Even if our emotions rebel at first, we willeventually come to take pleasure in the right actions. Contemporaryphilosopher Daniel Dennett suggests another strategy for taking controlover our emotions:
"Suppose I know that if I eversee a voluptuous woman walking unescorted in a deserted place I willprobably be overcome by lust and rape her. So I educate myself aboutthe horrors of rape from the woman’s point of view, and enliven mysense of the brutality of the crime so dramatically that if I happen toencounter such a woman in such straits, I am unable to do the awfulthing that I would have done otherwise" (Elbow Room, p. 134).
As Dennett assumes here, we can control at least the forceof some of our bad emotional reactions through education. Since, dearreader, you are one of the fortunate for whom being more or lesseducated is up to you, you can be rightly held responsible for many ofyour emotional responses.