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I'll try to make this concise, but will probably fail. Many ancient philosophers

I'll try to make this concise, but will probably fail. Many ancient philosophers across numerous cultures recommended moderation or even elimination of the desires and passions as a/the way to deeper understanding or, in the case of Buddhism, enlightenment, whatever that is. I'll assume that the panelists here will be familiar with at least a handful of examples, such as Socrates, Pyrrho, Epicurus, Siddhartha Gautama, Lao Tzu, etc. I apologize for listing several questions, but as they're so closely related I hope that their number will help triangulate on exactly the point I'm hoping to learn about: Is this advice still relevant for modern humans? Is there any reason to pay heed to this aspect of ancient philosophy, other than as an academic topic? Is there any evidence to support the claim that the control, reduction or elimination of desires and passions leads to greater happiness or deeper subjective understanding of the nature of the human experience? Many thanks in advance and in hopes of getting...

What a wonderful question! You are right about there being a long tradition of sage advise on moderating desire. There is an excellent review of this tradition in the west along with some very insightful observations in the book Emotion and Peace of Mind by Richard Sorabji (Oxford University Press, 2002). He considers philosophical projects of moderating desires and the more radical projects of seeking the complete eradication of passion/desire. Not all philosophers have cautioned us about acting on passion; Pascal, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and others seem rather immoderate in their advice and lives. But in any case, I suggest that the case for moderation goes hand in glove with the case for the virtue of integrity and freedom. Having sufficient self-mastery and self-understanding to know when one's anger is way out of proportion to the event at hand seems essential for personal integrity. Similarly, one may lose one's ability to think freely and deliberately about one's action if one is consumed with a passionate, but blind lust or jealousy or an unchecked seemingly limitless desire for drink and drugs, and so on. So, I suggest the good of moderation is as important today as in the teaching of the ancient Greco-Roman moral philosophers. In any case, check out Sorabji's fascination book. Good wishes, CT

I think that anyone who knows how to hold a grudge knows what it's like to wish

I think that anyone who knows how to hold a grudge knows what it's like to wish to remain angry at someone. I mean something like the following: 1. You're angry at someone. 2. Since you're angry, you'd like to punish or otherwise get back at this person. 3. But you know that this can't happen if your feelings cool and you lose your edge. 4. So part of your plan for revenge consists precisely in remaining angry. 5. In this way, anger takes itself as an objective. Accordingly, there is an odd feeling of disappointment you get when you inevitably calm down ("Don't give up! Stay mad!"). Is there something irrational about thinking this way?

Fascinating line of reasoning! One thing to question is premise two. Granted if you are angry at someone, it follows that you are judging that the person has done something wrong (wether to you or to someone or something you identify with or value). But it does not follow that you would like to see the person punished or seek to "get back at this person." Imagine you love the person you are angry with and all you really want is an apology or a request for your forgiveness or perhaps you desire a material compensation (the person smashed your car and you want compensation plus replacement of the car). Also, the link between 2 and 4 may need some re-considering. We typically distinguish between revenge and retributive justice. The latter is measured and impersonal: so, in retributive justice when someone wrongfully causes a given harm, there is a proportional penalty (so, assault may call for one year of incarceration and lots of communiity time afterward). But revenge is often personal and without proportion: in a case of revenge, someone who has been midly wronged may actually desire to torture and kill the wrong-doer and his family and maybe even his villiage. So, I suggest that you can wind up with your conclusion that it is good to stay mad only if revenge is good. But revenge seems to not at all be a virtuous or good.

But perhaps two qualifications need to be added: Maybe a commitment to justice requires anger, though not one that seeks revenge. We might think a people are not at all deeply committed to justice unless injustice makes them angry or passionate about the wrongs done. In that sense, maybe we do have a reason to sustain anger. Another time we might see value in sustaining anger is in the case of a victim who has so low a view of her or himself that they are constantly being taken advantage of, even violated in a criminal manner. I am thinking of the abused wife or child who submits to the abuse without resistance. It may be good for that person to sutain anger as part of their sustaining their self-respect and integrity. Perhaps the anger will lead them to report the abuse to police or to otherwise escape the trap they find themselves in.

What role can emotions, principles and personal (or borrowed) convictions play

What role can emotions, principles and personal (or borrowed) convictions play in a philosopher's reasoning process when approaching a specific issue? What role can they play in a philosopher's way of seeing things, or even in a given philosophical trend in which a number of philosophers share similar ideas about a certain number of issues? Is it possible to be completely or at least reasonably neutral when approaching a subject, in spite of your own personal background? If not, then, is it still a good idea for philosophers to try to be neutral? What happens, for example, if you as a philosopher are not aware of the fact that some of your arguments, or thoughts, are being "influenced" by something other than reason, like fear or rage, for example? Are the conclusions of such influenced ways of reasoning, something that you can refute (or at least recognize as "impure") in the long run through uninfluenced (if possible) or at least reasonably uninfluenced reasoning? And finally, are there any known...

Although philosophers are in the rationality business, well, many of them are, they are no more rational than anyone else about assessing their motives when it comes to themselves. Often we wish to beat someone else in an argument because we want to beat them, not establish the truth, and much motivation for writing books is to be found in promotion and increased pay, rather than pushing the boundaries of knowledge on a bit. This will not come as news to those in the profession.

Is there evidence that our personal opinions play into our arguments? Almost every philosopher of religion I have read has a particularly favorable attitude to his or her own religion. When they elucidate its theology they find remarkable similarities with philosophical positions of which they approve. Perhaps the best example of all here is Hegel and his argument that the development of rational religion achieves its apex in what just happens to be his own variety of religion.

I don't think this is surprising, we are after all human, all too human.

I recently read Louis Menand's article in "The New Yorker" entitled "Head Case."

I recently read Louis Menand's article in "The New Yorker" entitled "Head Case." In it, he asks this question: "[W]hat if there were a pill that relieved you of the physical pain of bereavement--sleeplessness, weeping, loss of appetite--without diluting your love for or memory of the dead? Assuming that bereavement 'naturally' remits after six months, would you take a pill today that will allow you to feel the way you will be feeling six months from now anyway?" Is this a philosophical question? If so, how would you respond to it?

Menand asks whether we would/should choose to be relieved of the physical feelings of bereavement if we could do so without diluting our love for or memory of the dead. Greenberg claims that (a) thoughts, not feelings, are what is essential to emotions (the feelings being merely contingent accompaniments to those thoughts in humans), and (b) thoughts, not feelings, are what matters to us about emotions; thus, he would take such a pill on the assumption that it would not affect the thought component of bereavement.

Even if we were to agree with Greenberg's first claim, about what is essential to emotion, we could still disagree with his second claim, about what matters about emotion. We could value the painful feelings that happen to accompany our thoughts because they serve to remind us of our humanness, because they force us to spend more time with thoughts that are important, or because they increase our capacity for handling other types of pain, for example.

I disagree with Greenberg's first claim, however, and I think that he oversimplifies the options. Instead of regarding emotions as just feelings, or just thoughts, or some "halfway house" between the two, I view emotions as internalized actions -- as ways to retain and work through impulses that cannot (or should not) be immediately discharged. In the case of bereavement, for example, grief keeps our longing (and not just our fond thoughts of a loved one) alive; in the case of anger, destructive impulses can be developed and worked through (not just intellectually, but viscerally) in ways that integrated our outward actions more deeply into our lives as a whole. If we lose the feeling part of emotions, we do not just lose our human sensations; we lose a crucial bond between our thoughts and our actions.

Is a person responsible for their emotions, for the way they feel? Can they

Is a person responsible for their emotions, for the way they feel? Can they ever be held accountable for feeling a certain way?

This is a deep and important question, that goes to the heart of both our understanding of emotions and of responsibility.

There seem to be conflicting intuitions about this question. On the one hand, it seems natural to think that an agent is only responsible for what she does, or for what is under her control, yet emotions--often also known as passions--seem to be events that happen to us, and therefore are not under our control, and so it would seem that we are not responsible for our emotions. On the other hand, we often do hold ourselves and other responsible for their emotions: one might worry about the fact that one is happy about a friend's failure, or that one laughs at a sexist joke, and we often expect others to feel certain ways.

In this respect, emotions are very different from sensations, such as pain or hunger. Although one can cause oneself to feel pain--say, by deliberately striking one's hand with a hammer--normally, pain is a natural response to damage to one's body. Hunger, too, is arguably a sensation that represents the fact that the body needs food. And while one can hold someone responsible for being hungry, such as when one is hungry on a hike because one neglected to eat before starting out, or to bring food along, in such cases, as in the case of being responsible for the pain that one feels when one strikes one's hand with a hammer, one's responsibility for the sensation is, as it were, indirect: one is responsible for bringing it about that one feels the sensation. Responsibility for emotions, is, by contrast, more direct: one doesn't hold someone responsible for being the kind of person who laughs at a sexist joke, one holds him responsible for laughing; and when one is disappointed that a friend doesn't sympathize with one's failure on an exam, one is disappointed at the fact that the friend isn't feeling the appropriate emotion, not that the friend has failed to cultivate the appropriate dispositions that would lead her to sympathize with one. All this suggests that perhaps the intuition that agents are only responsible for what they control is too coarse-grained to account for responsibility for emotions; perhaps the intuition derives from thinking of certain paradigms of responsibility, such as intentional action, which are of course quite different from emotions (and other passive mental states for which agents are responsible, such as judgments that an action is wrong or cruel, which do not seem to be states that are under the direct control of an agent any more than emotions are).

So perhaps what accounts for the tension between our pretheoretical intuitions about responsibility and emotions is a slide from the phenomenal passivity of emotions--the fact that emotions, like sensations, seem to happen to agents--to the fact that therefore they are not the proper candidate for responsibility. One way to reconcile these conflicting intuitions would be to jettison the notion of control altogether, and to deny that responsibility requires control. Yet this intuition is so firmly embedded in our thinking about responsibility, and it seems so nicely to capture, for example, the difference between responsibility for voluntary and involuntary actions, that this seems like a bad idea. Similarly, while one might be inclined to reject the idea that emotions are passive states and instead to construe them as active states--the ancient Stoics and more recent philosophers, such as the late Robert Solomon and Martha Nussbaum, following the Stoics, take emotions to be judgments, and hence active, not passive states--this solution, too, seems unsatisfying. Not only does it do violence to the concept of an emotion, it's not even clear that most judgments are indeed active states that are up to us or under our control. (To be sure, certain judgments, such as the conclusions of practical reasoning, or intentions, might seem to be the result of deliberate intentional activity, but even they, arguably, are not directly up to us in the way that it is up to an agent to move her hand.)

One way to reconcile these apparently conflicting intuitions, and to preserve both the idea that responsibility is connected to control and that emotions are passive states, would be to rethink the notion of control necessary for responsibility. Rather than construing control along the lines of the control that one exercises over one's bodily movements, one might instead, following T. M. Scanlon in What We Owe To Each Other, take the control necessary for responsibility to consist in rational control: in other words, and very roughly, on such an account, an agent is responsible for some state (whether it be an action or a mental state), just in case that state bears rational relations to one's judgments about reasons. So one is responsible for some state, or event, just in case it reflects an agent's (conscious or unconscious) rational judgments. Hence, one is responsible for moving one's leg to kick the cat, but is not responsible for the movement of one's leg when it is struck by a doctor's hammer, because only in the former case can the action be traced back to some intention. Similarly, one is responsible for one's judgment that kicking the cat is cruel, or for one's pleasure in a friend's failure (_Schadenfreude_), because such mental states, although passive and not subject to direct intentional control, do reflect attitudes and judgments that one has, whereas, by contrast, sensations, although also not subject to direct intentional control, do not bear such rational relations--unlike emotions or intentions, they aren't reason-sensitive states. (In "Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life," Ethics 115 [2005]: 236-271, Angela Smith develops just this sort of approach, drawing on Scanlon, although without--if I remember correctly--engaging directly with emotions.)

While I find this approach to responsibility for emotions congenial, it nevertheless leaves open questions. Perhaps it works for certain higher-order, or thought-laden emotions, but what about emotions like the startle response, or more 'primitive' emotions, of the sort shared by human beings and animals? One possible response is that 'primitive emotions' are merely homologous in human beings and animals, and that actually they are quite different. But this doesn't seem right. The 'primitive' emotions don't seem to be sensitive to reasons in a way that higher-order emotions are. That is to say, whereas one's anger at having one's foot stepped on will dissipate when one learns that the person who stepped on one's foot was pushed, it's not clear that such rational considerations can affect the startle response or the feeling of disgust. Even if one knows that the dog's bark is worse than his bite, and that, in fact, it's just a little yapper without much of a bite at all, one may nevertheless feel fear and be on edge when one hears the yapping as one walks by the dog's yard. So perhaps some emotions are more like sensations after all, and not only not under our direct control, like all emotions, but aren't reason-sensitive states either. Perhaps one can't, after all, simply say that agents are responsible for their emotions; perhaps one should, instead, say that agents are responsible for certain kinds of emotions. But then one wonders what accounts for this difference. And given that human beings are continuous with other animals, and, consequently, that there isn't a sharp distinction between those emotions that we share with other animals and those that are the province of rational animals alone, then, one might wonder, what relation, if any, is there between 'primitive' and more refined emotions?

All this is to say that the question of responsibility for emotions goes very deep indeed, and opens up both new aspects of responsibility, as well as new questions about emotions themselves.

If a person fails to feel pain or suffering for events which usually bring such

If a person fails to feel pain or suffering for events which usually bring such things about - if they don't miss their family or home while away, or if they don't grieve for dead relatives or pets, or if they don't get upset when they fail an exam or lose their job - is it sensible to hold them somehow for flawed, or to claim that they are inhuman? Is emotional numbness or indifference a moral wrong?

Great question! You have definitely (in my view) described a disturbing emotional indifference or numbness, but this may not be due to any moral wrong. People might be in such a condition because they have suffered some great trauma or brain injury through no fault of their own. Philosophers have differed in terms of their view of how natural it is for us to empathetic or have sympathy for one another --Aristotle and Locke think we are desposed to care for one another whereas Hobbes almost sees friendship as something we are drawn to for reasons of prudence and self-concern (caring for others is a kind of strategy for us to avoid premature violent death). In natural law theory, lack of concern for the dead or an indifference to personal failure or failing to honor family may be seen as failures to exercise important human virtues (whether or not this is due to a vice or an innocent injury). But some philosophers in ancient Greece taught that we should try to give up desires and attachments --not all Stoics did, but some saw this as an important goal. Even so, the person you are describing may not so much be in the grip of a philosophical theory, as much as they are suffering from a disorder that has an organic or chemical base.

Can you be blamed for not loving someone? For instance, it's not uncommon for

Can you be blamed for not loving someone? For instance, it's not uncommon for children to accuse their parents of not loving them--and here, the claim is not simply that the parents didn't act appropriately (though this is typically part of the problem), but that they don't possess actual feelings of love or affection or care. While it's easy to appreciate the force of complaints like this, I wonder whether it's ultimately impossible to choose who you love, so that one cannot be blamed for failing to love another.

I think you are right, we cannot be forced to love someone and so cannot be blamed for not doing so. On the other hand, love is not necessarily a sudden emotion but can be acquired over time and both strengthen and weaken. So one might be justly blamed for not having taken the necessary steps to develop the appropriate emotion for someone, especially a child or spouse.

There are some children who cannot be loved even (or especially) by their parents, but those children would at least have the right to demand that the parents try!

Why is it that, in music, major chords, by themselves, isolated and without any

Why is it that, in music, major chords, by themselves, isolated and without any musical context, sound bright and happy, while minor chords are dark and sad? How can arbitrary collections of frequencies elicit distinct emotions from people?

Even if the chords are not presented in the context of a music piece, they are heard in the (more backgrounded) context of music one has heard. Our associations with those pieces of music prime us to hear major versus minor chords in particular ways.

There is also a physical reason for finding major chords to be more settled or stable than minor chords: the wavelengths of a major third match the overtones of the root of a chord more closely than do the wavelengths of a minor third . When we hear a C, for example, it is already producing secondary wavelengths that are those of an E (at a higher octave); the addition of a nearby E thus seems to fit in without added strain.

My teacher claims that he is utterly emotionless; according to him, he isn’t

My teacher claims that he is utterly emotionless; according to him, he isn’t clouded by emotions of any form, and has no emotional desire. He argues that any emotions he appears to possess are simply superficial occurrences, with the purpose of manipulating others. He argues that he is utterly objective and consequently, completely exclusive from any form of bias. My question is that surely somebody who objectively chooses to use logic over any form of emotional guidance and has “no emotional desire whatsoever”, is therefore exhibiting a desire in itself? Surely, if one assumes logic as their only form of reasoning, the logic must be based upon basic desires and principles, therefore denoting an emotional presence? I would be grateful if somebody could enlighten me!

I worry that framing the question this way begs the question -- you seem to assume that any 'choice' comes from or out of 'desire', but isn't that precisely what's at issue? I think we'd need to get a lot clearer on what a 'desire' is before we could answer the question in a satisfactory way ... For example, you seem to consider 'desire' a kind of 'emotion', but philosophers of mind typically would distinguish the two in various ways -- perhaps desires share a kind of 'qualitative character' or 'qualia' with emotions, but desires are typically characterized by having an object or content, one often expressible in words, in a way emotions are typically characterized as 'raw feelings' that may or may not have a specific object or content -- Once you separate desires from emotions, you then need to define desire in such a way as to make it clear that every choice comes from some desire ..... (Charles mentions Spock -- consider this thought. Suppose you could program a computer to do all sorts of complex tasks, including navigating its environment successfully. Maybe it's a robot that's programmed to explore the surface of Mars and send back data. That robot seems to have to make all sorts of 'choices' -- as it navigates its terrain, taking samples of some things, not others -- but do you want to say it has any desires? If not, why must all human choices come from desire?)


Is the feeling that God exists a sufficient reason to believe in God? Is there

Is the feeling that God exists a sufficient reason to believe in God? Is there anyway of analyzing such a feeling to determine its validity? Can feeling ever give us profound truths about the world?

Generally, feeling that something is true is a reason to believe that it is true (since our feelings are frequently based on true observations and ideas), but it is not a sufficient reason (since our feelings may arises from wishes rather than observations, and since there are many observations and ideas that are not reflected in our feelings).

Insofar as you want to arrive at a warranted belief, rather than trying to analyze your feeling (which is extremely difficult to do honestly, and well), you should consider a wider range of feelings, and observations, and ideas in relation to each other. This is not something that can be done in a moment, and it cannot be done according to a rule; but it is the only way to be fully reasonable about your beliefs.

It is certainly possible for feelings to reveal profound truths -- even if their truth cannot be established or confirmed by feeling alone. A feeling of horror, for example, may reveal the deep immorality of certain treatments of animals -- treatments that have plausible intellectual justifications. Establishing the immorality of such treatments, though, will depend on collecting and articulating relevant observations and concerns, and comparing them to competing considerations.