When I was young, a new trend of music sprang up, where teenagers sang about suicide, confessions of deep emotions, and so forth. This kind of music was called Emo. I didn’t find it particularly compelling; neither did some of my peers. Even though I wasn’t so fond of “Emo” music, it caught my attention, even at the age of fourteen, how folks considered it less valid as an art form due to its “emotional” nature. Instead of criticizing the singer’s immature or unsophisticated emotional depth, where he glorifies suicide after breakup, many of the “wangster” or “athletic” teens railed against its tendency to embrace “deep emotions.” Many men who’ve grown up near old-school parents may remember hearing phrases like, “It’s not manly to cry” or “It’s girly to be swayed by your emotions.” Accordingly, feminists and the sensible populace have risen up to meet the challenge of blatant sexism.
Such views of undermining the importance of emotions can be found outside of immature teenagers. I recall passages from Plato indicative of similar sentiments, describing art as precarious due to its power to cloud reason. During the eighteenth century, Kant described reason as the basis for autonomy, shoving emotions away. Is it truly then the case that emotions are treacherous? Do they, in fact, play no significant role in forming our preferences or autonomy? In this essay, I’d like to scrutinize such philosophical questions and cultural sentiments. First, I will spell out the philosophical tradition of regarding emotions as insignificant in forming valid preferences or moral obligations. This position will be referred to as Veto Emo. Then, I will criticize Veto Emo with reference to recent psychology and Antonio Damasio. This critical stance will be denoted as Vito Emo. Finally, I will delineate some of the implications Vito Emo will bring to moral discourses. The ultimate aim of my project is to apply scientific studies as well as philosophy of mind to ethics.
Plato, in The Republic, considers a poet as someone who “implants a bad constitution in the soul of each individual, by gratifying that unthinking part.” (The Republic, 31) His criticism of art continues along the same vein of thought, as he suggests the enterprise of art an imitative one; it strays away from the path of the truth, which includes the Good. This conclusion is akin to the act of vetoing emotions. Hence, I term this position Veto Emo.
Immanuel Kant reinforces Plato’s notion of the Good in Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. He claims that principles of moral duty are a priori, prior to experience. Contrary to a posteriori faculties as passions or senses, reason, according to Kant, taps into the realm of a priori. He argues for this in Critique of Pure reason by pointing out how a priori concepts such as time and space could be grasped by reason. “We can never imagine or make a representation to ourselves of the non-existence of space” (Critique of Pure Reason, 111). “Time is neither an empirical conception” (Pure Reason, 120). “To attempt an empirical deduction of either of these (time and space) classes would be labor in vain, because the distinguishing characteristic of their nature consists in this, that they apply to their objects, without having borrowed anything from experience towards the representation of them. Consequently, if a deduction of these conceptions is necessary, it must always be transcendental” (Pure Reason, 213). Accordingly, Kant asserts that mere passions or empiricism do not allow us to infer “apodeictic laws” (Groundwork of the metaphysics of Morals, 45). Since “the deduction of actions from principles requires reason,” one must adhere to reason in moral judgments (Morals, 53).
Many moral theories and schools of thought originated from this notion, where reason determines our moral principles. Examples of these would be right libertarianism and contractarianism. Objectivism is a school of philosophy—not popular amongst academic philosophers—that flexes its muscles in political discourses. It is praised by many republicans and libertarians and contributes to many of our policies, thereby crossing into moral discourses. Right libertarianism is quite a radical offspring of Kant’s. Right libertarians uphold the categorical imperative derived from Kant, described by as “treating (rational beings) persons as ends, rather than means” (85). Robert Nozick, one of the most prominent figures of libertarianism, developed a political theory, according to which, a minimal government would best allow the freedom of rational agents.
Contractarians like Gauthier claim that “if one is rational, and among rational others in circumstances in which agreement is both possible and beneficial, then rationality requires that one abide by the terms of the contract.” Unlike Nozick’s libertarianism, contractarianism is compatible with egalitarianism and leftist political values. John Rawls, a prominent figure of contractarianism advocates a welfare state administered by the veil of ignorance, according to which one should think of how would it feel like to be thrown into a world behind a veil that disregards all social and genetic traits that come with birth.Would our society plagued by wealth inequality and racism be a fair one? Would I have a good chance of winning the birth lottery behind the veil? If not, then we are not “free and equal.”
Despite their differences, these two theories rest upon the notion that morality revolves fundamentally around the rights of rational beings—reason. I’m not interested in denouncing individual rights or moral desert completely. In fact, I’m interested in scrutinizing the assumption that we must ground morality from pure reason, or that one must satisfy the intrinsic rights of only rational agents. The implications of these notions have far-reaching influences. One of them is an explicit argument that falls under the domain of philosophy of mind by addressing questions about the self:
- Faculties that are a priori form free will and preferences.
- Emotions are a posteriori.
∴ Thus, emotions cannot form free will and preferences.
If it were the case that reason was the only force capable of deriving moral principles, then Kant and Plato would be correct. If it were not the case, it would be untenable.
I’d like to criticize Veto Emo by referencing Damasio’s discoveries on brain-damaged patients that emotions, in fact, hold a fundamental role in forming our preferences, including moral ones. In order to demarcate my position rather humorously, I’ve termed my critical stance as Vito Emo, an allusion to Marlon Brando’s role of Vito Corleone, a mafia boss. I’d like to show that emotions occupy a central role, akin to Vito Corleone’s role in his mafia family, in moral intuitions.
In his book, Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio, opens up with the case of Phineas Gage, who survived an accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying much of his brain’s left frontal lobe. The injury’s effects were described to have been so profound that his friends considered him as “no longer Gage” (Damasio, 8). This provided the first evidence for the importance of the frontal lobe on decision-making and social conduct. Damasio then speaks of other similar patients who exhibit similar behaviors (Descartes’ Error, 53-54). These patients have damages, particularly to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), which resulted in inability to organize and plan behavior, learn from previous mistakes, and behave in a socially appropriate manner (56). Furthermore, these patients, due to the severe impairment in social and personal decision-making, made harmful friends and partners as well as partaking in unhealthy activities.
These patients were shown to have retained their ability to remember, pay attention, of language comprehension and expression (55). The part they seemed to miss was feeling and expressing emotions. “The patient was neither happy nor sad, and his pleasure and pain both seemed short-lived” (58). Interestingly, their lack of emotions inhibited their decision-making processes, as simple as ordering a menu in a restaurant. Without, emotions, it seemed as if they were unable to have preferences or make decisions. These findings led Damasio to conclude that emotions and feelings ultimately give rise to our preferences and decisions, rather than intellect or reason, thereby rebutting the argument that only reason could form preferences and decisions.
According to Patricia Churchland, we assign values to certain things, subject to physical and mental constraints. Hence, we may have many short term and long-term desires or goals. To Churchland, free will is not the ability to be free from constraints, but rather the ability to self-control. This is the ability to inhibit costly impulses, prioritize significant goals, and find constraints. If emotions have a role in shaping self-control, then it would certainly have a role in free will. Martha Nussbaum in Upheavals of thought: The Intelligence of Emotions argues —using the studies of brain-damaged patients— argues that a more fruitful discourse of morality may take place, if we were to take seriously the “intelligence” of emotions or emotional thoughts15. According to Nussbaum, emotion-cognitions are ways of seeing an object as invested with value or importance (27, 30).15 For example, when my uncle passed away, my emotions met an “upheaval” of grief that signified his value (76). In the face of Nussbaum and Churchland, the argument that autonomy or preferences come from reason alone becomes untenable.
In Self comes to mind, Damasio claims that the self could be explained vis-à-vis feelings and emotions. Given the importance of feelings in decision-making, as seen from Descartes’ error, we know that the cerebral cortex has much to do with emotions. Nevertheless, Damasio further observes that the neural basis of feeling states is not to be found only at the level of the cerebral cortex. We know now that complete destruction of the insula (a region in the brain deep in the cerebral cortex) in both cerebral hemispheres does not abolish feelings, since patients have been observed to still feel pain and pleasure after the damage (Damasio, 65). This indicated that feelings probably start at the level of the brain stem in nuclei, which bring together at any moment information about the ongoing state of the body and can elaborate on that information (Damasio, 66). There also exist children born without the cerebral cortex who show signs of emotions (Self comes to mind, 68). Hence, Damasio suggests that the brainstem provides the most basic level of feelings — primordial feelings — whose modification would give rise to emotional feelings (Damasio, 82).
Parvizi and Damasio argue in Consciousness and the brainstem that consciousness is fundamentally linked to the brain stem. “The first is the fact that damage to the upper brainstem is a known cause of coma and persistent vegetative state, the disease states in which consciousness is most severely impaired. The second line of evidence originates from classical experiments, which suggested, either through lesions or electrical stimulation that a part of the brainstem known as the reticular formation is associated with the electrophysiological pattern commonly found in wakeful and attentive states” (136). In Self comes to mind, as the title suggests, Damasio argues that the self comes as a psychological narrative to unfold the preferences of our primordial feelings. He substantiates this claim by mentioning how an autobiographical or psychological self has had a crucial role in the way culture and civilization produced some of our greatest works. For example, Homer’s Odyssey is a work typical of a being capable of an autobiographical self, where characters go through trials, emotions, and errors in a unified story. Damasio believes that language and art, which showcase a mind capable of symbolic processing, also require a mind capable of recording facts and events as well as weaving a story from the past (Damasio, 218-220). If emotions are not only linked to our preferences but also our “consciousness” or “selves” as well, then where does that leave Veto Emo? Could we truly call ourselves rational beings?
I find the arguments of Veto Emo unsound, since it does not correspond to these studies. If reason were truly the means by which we formed our moral intuitions and preferences, then the lack of emotions shouldn’t have impaired Damasio’s patients’ moral intuitions and rational preferences (Damasio, 47). These patients were able to do language comprehension, remember, pay attention, and do mathematics—a domain of Kant’s pure reason—did not seem to have been affected by the lack of emotions, yet they still had impaired moral judgments (Descartes’ error, 169). It must then follow that Veto Emo is not sound, since the presence of pure reason did not result in deriving moral principles. Thus, I prescribe to Vito Emo — the notion that emotions hold a more central role than reason in forming our preferences— for it is more compatible with these studies.
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” David Hume
As David Hume suggested centuries ago, it appears that reason does indeed serve passion — even consciousness. Emotions, then, like Vito Corleone who pulls the strings of politicians and mobsters, must pull our strings as well. What would some of these strings be? How would our discourses change, if we were to apply Vito Emo to morality or the Good?
Vito’s pull on moral cognition
Recently, many psychologists have begun to pay much attention to the weight of emotions on our preferences—especially moral cognition. Psychologists Paul Bloom et al. have conducted experiments that show how “one’s proneness to disgust is associated with intuitive disapproval of gay people.” Such influence of disgust on morality was also observed amongst children, where they’ve shown disgust towards various immoral behaviors. Related to Damasio’s claim that primordial feelings allow us to make decisions effectively, Jonathan Haidt brings in the notion of moral emotions. “All emotions are responses to perceived changes, threats, or opportunities in the world.” Michael Spivey et al. support Haidt by showing how one’s gaze could affect one’s moral decisions. According to Spivey, “If you’re wavering on this decision, something as subtle as the waiter walking up to the table at the moment that your eyes happened to be momentarily resting on the chicken cacciatore menu item (and not on the pasta primavera) could be what sways you into ordering a meal that conflicts with a moral belief you’ve embraced. If that waiter had arrived half a second earlier or later, our vegetarian may have been fixating on the pasta at that moment and ordered it.” Feelings like disgust, and arbitrary circumstances like one’s gaze, highly influence our moral decisions. In effect, widening the scope of moral causal factors—from just reason to emotions as well—has begun to provide a more complete picture of morality.
Vito’s family of animals
Shifting our attention away from only reason—a single member of a family of moral sources—carves up space for radical interpretations of previous moral convictions. In lieu of treating others well for their rational capacities, we broaden our moral community to the disabled, lesser intelligent animals, and perhaps all sentient beings. As long as they can feel, it could be argued that they possess primordial preferences. Some of these preferences seem to manifest as moral behaviors strikingly similar to our own.
Patricia Churchland in her book Braintrust: What neuroscience tells us about morality alludes to the findings of Paul MacLean, from which he’s observed mammals show behaviors of parental care, nursing, playfulness, separation vocalization, and mate attachment. Furthermore, Churchland draws from Barry Keverne, Jaak Panksepp, and Antonio Damasio by noting that mammals have expanded the domain of the brain that manages well being10. Due to the crucial role of sociality in mammals, the expansion was necessary to encompass others such as offspring, mates, pack members, and in our case members of the tribe. The particular factor that drives these compassionate tendencies seems to correlate with the release of oxytocin. When oxytocin is released, mammals decrease defensive postures; increase levels of trust; autonomic arousal decreases; and signal safety. Given these findings, animals do form communities based on compassionate instincts and forego their own interests for their offspring or mate. By shifting away one’s attention from solely paying attention to the ways reason enables moral judgments, we’ve gotten a fuller picture of not only our own moral intuitions, but also the mechanisms whereby other animals form preferences and exhibit moral behaviors.
This shift to Vito Emo challenges philosophers like Cohen who justify animal cruelty on the basis that rationality is required to form a moral community. If preferences and moral behaviors were firmly grounded by emotions, then those who possess emotions deserve a moral standing. It seems like they are grounded by emotions and the position that animals deserve cruelty for the sake of human beings, as Peter Singer has put it, reeks of “speciesism.”
Nussbaum has already addressed how delicate and influential of a role emotions occupy on our day-to-day lives. They affect important survival needs like food as well as trivial things such as raging over video games. Due to the prevalence and strength of emotions, we must pay attention to its upheavals as much or even more than the rationalizing that buzzes our minds. Hence, emotions deserve much attention and cultivation—alluding to projects taken on by the stoics and artists like Proust or Joyce. Among the powerful emotions that need cultivation, Nussbaum goes after compassion particularly. For instance, she asks for mercy or lenient punishment in the judicial system, since drenching ourselves in killing others systematically do not help us cultivate our compassion. Thus, she encourages compassion to people by asking them not to be too quick to assume that someone is substantially and inexcusably “at fault” for his or her own suffering and is thus undeserving of compassion (311-15).
I’m sympathetic to this view, inasmuch as it coincides very much with my own project. Nietzsche once observed that the intoxicating nature of art joined folks together in ways unforeseen. In my own life, music has served as an emotional crutch for a socially awkward teenager with a lot of problems; it was therapy, a family, and a friend. The mysterious and ecstatic emotions I’ve felt during my youth via music has evoked me to embark upon a journey of becoming a musician in lieu of a career solving global poverty and animal cruelty with Peter Singer. Due to the intoxicating nature of emotions evoked by music, we’ve seen soldiers cease war to sing carols together. I’m not advocating a hippie’s dream, where all wars come to a halt in the presence of LSD and music. Instead, I’m advocating an intimate and healthy cultivation of our powerful and intimate emotions.
Vito Emo seems to fare better than Veto Emo in the face of new scientific discoveries. It does not advocate sentimentalism, according to which we must only listen to emotions when making moral decisions. Here is a famous quote by Adam Smith, which brilliantly captures the strength of reason in making good moral judgments:
“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he were a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster, which could befall himself, would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity; it is not that feeble spark of benevolence, which Nature has lighted up, in the human heart that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.”
Without question, reason does hold an important place in our moral lives. Its horsepower has been witnessed by many in philosophy as well as the humanities and sciences. However, Vito Emo doesn’t threaten or banish the role of reason. Instead, it ends its narcissism. With Vito Emo (ViE), we allow reason to wake up in the morning and not look only at itself in the mirror; and ViE would not allow reason to protect rational beings for reason’s sake. Thus, Vito Emo, in fact, enables a more useful and wiser application of reason, whereby reason interacts and lives with its family—emotions, rather than living in solitude and loneliness. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Nussbaum once said:
“Being a human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. When that is too much to bear, it is always possible to retreat into the thought, “I’ll live for my own comfort, for my own revenge, for my own anger, and I just won’t be a member of society anymore.” That really means, “I won’t be a human being anymore.”
You see people doing that today where they feel that society has let them down, and they can’t ask anything of it, and they can’t put their hopes on anything outside themselves. You see them actually retreating to a life in which they think only of their own satisfaction, and maybe the satisfaction of their revenge against society. But the life that no longer trusts another human being and no longer forms ties to the political community is not a human life any longer.”
If living a human life entails communality and sociality, then ViE —by making it interact with emotions—seems to bestow reason and moral discourses a breath of life—un souffle de vie.
“Animal Experimentation.” Intervention and Reflection Basic Issues in Bioethics. 8th ed. N.p.: Wadsworth Pub, 2007. 79-86. Print.
Baejekal, Naina. “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.” Time. Time, 24 Dec. 2014. Web. 7 May 2015. <http://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/>.
“The Birth of Tragedy.” Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Ed. Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. 222-232. Print.
Bloom, Paul, and Judith Danovitch. “Children’s Extension of Disgust to Physical and Moral Events.” Emotion 9.1: 107-12. Print.
“The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research.” Intervention and Reflection Basic Issues in Bioethics. 8th ed. N.p.: Wadsworth Pub, 2007. 86-91. Print.
Churchland, Patricia Smith. “Free Will, Habits, and Self-Control.” Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. W. W. Norton, 2013. Print.
Churchland, Patricia Smith. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2011. Print.
Cudd, Ann, “Contractarianism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/contractarianism/
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Inbar, Yoel ; Pizarro, David A. ; Knobe, Joshua & Bloom, Paul (2009). Disgust Sensitivity Predicts Intuitive Disapproval of Gays. Emotion 9 (3): 435– 43.
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 Wannabe gangster
 Mack, Eric, “Robert Nozick’s Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/nozick-political/>.
 Cudd, Ann, “Contractarianism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/contractarianism/>
 Wenar, Leif, “John Rawls”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/rawls/>.
 Churchland, Patricia Smith. “Free Will, Habits, and Self-Control.” Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. W. W. Norton, 2013. Print.
 Nussbaum appears to use “thought” and “cognition” synonymously; by “cognitive,” she means, “nothing more than ‘concerned with receiving and processing information'” (23).
 Rational in the sense of “It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence, which could support this.” Bertrand Russell
Russell, Bertrand. “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish.” Unpopular Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950. Print.
 Treatise. Section III.
 Inbar, Yoel ; Pizarro, David A. ; Knobe, Joshua & Bloom, Paul (2009). Disgust Sensitivity Predicts Intuitive Disapproval of Gays. Emotion 9 (3): 435– 43.
 Bloom, Paul, and Judith Danovitch. “Children’s Extension of Disgust to Physical and Moral Events.” Emotion 9.1: 107-12. Print.
 Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.),
Handbook of affective sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.(pp. 852-870).
 Spivey, Michael, Daniel Richardson, Peter Johansson, Lars Hall, Christian Balkenius, Daniel Richardson, and Jonathan Haidt. “Biasing Moral Decisions by Exploiting the Dynamics of Eye Gaze.” PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112.13 (2015). PNAS. PNAS. Web. 7 May 2015. <http://www.pnas.org/content/112/13/4170.abstract>.
 Gregoire, Carolyn. “If You Thought Your Morals Were Unshakeable, This Study Proves Otherwise.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 7 May 2015.
Churchland, Patricia Smith. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2011. Print.
 “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research.” Intervention and Reflection Basic Issues in Bioethics. 8th ed. N.p.: Wadsworth Pub, 2007. 86-91. Print.
 “Animal Experimentation.” Intervention and Reflection Basic Issues in Bioethics. 8th ed. N.p.: Wadsworth Pub, 2007. 79-86. Print.
 Nussbaum, Martha Craven. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
 “The Birth of Tragedy.” Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Ed. Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. 222-232. Print.
 Baejekal, Naina. “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.” Time. Time, 24 Dec. 2014. Web. 7 May 2015. <http://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/>.
 Smith, Adam, and Knud Haakonssen. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.
 Popova, Maria. “Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Live with Our Human Fragility.” Brain Pickings RSS. Brain Pickings, 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/14/martha-nussbaum-bill-moyers-world-of-ideas/>.