Once again, it's my great pleasure to welcome you to another edition of the Featured Philosophers. I hope you all will welcome Justin D'Arms and Daniel Jacobson!
Thanks very much to the editors of PEA Soup for this opportunity, and thanks in advance to any Soupers who are willing to put their brainpower to work on our project for bit. We have been only occasional participants here over the years, because it is a struggle for us to operate at the speed of Soup. But we admire those of you who do, and we’re excited to have a chance to try out some ideas on this excellent group of philosophers. So we’ll do our best to keep up for a little while.
We are working on a book, Rational Sentimentalism, about a class of values that we call sentimental values. These are values like shameful, funny, disgusting, and fearsome, which have an essential connection to natural emotions: emotions such as shame, amusement, pride, etc. which we contend are pan-cultural psychological kinds that can be characterized independently of the values we want to use them to explain. We defend a sentimentalist theory of these values, which will be familiar to most of you as a form of fitting attitude theory, on which the emotions are amenable to rational justification. Roughly: to think something F (shameful, funny, etc.) is to think it fitting to feel F (shame, amusement) toward it. Equivalently, this is to think the object merits response F. Among our goals in the book is to convince philosophers that these are important human values, which deserve more attention than they have yet received; that they require a sentimentalist treatment in virtue of their essential connection to the human emotional repertoire; and that the nature of these emotions lay down substantive constraints on what it is tenable to claim about the shameful, disgusting, funny, and so forth.
We have written a number of papers bearing on different aspects of this project, and we are happy to talk about any of them. But here we are going to try out a new line of argument on you, from a draft of one of our chapters. The argument is our response to a line of thinking that is skeptical about sentimental values. We often encounter it in discussion, and a version of it has been developed nicely by Francois Schroeter. It goes like this:
(1) The natural emotions are fast and frugal heuristics that are pretty good, but imperfect, devices adapted to track and respond to certain response-independent features of our environment that are important for our survival: things like danger (for fear), contamination (for disgust), and so on.
[D/J: We accept something like this as a functional characterization of the natural emotions and a breezy explanation of their place in human nature.]
(2) Insofar as the emotions are concerned with anything significantly valuable, it is with the dangerous, the contaminated, and so forth.
[We will ultimately accept this, but only by arguing that these concepts are covertly response-dependent.]
(3) So if the fearsome and the disgusting are stipulated to be whatever merits fear and disgust, then either they should be identified with these response-independent properties, or else they don’t matter much in comparison.
[This is the claim we reject, of course, and our purpose here is to argue against it.]
We call this line of thought shadow skepticism, because it suggests that the sentimental values are mere shadows of response-independent properties—specifically, emotion-independent properties. This challenge can be launched against sentimentalism across the board, on the grounds that the sentimental values are mere shadows of what really matter: response-independent properties, whether empirical or evaluative, to which the emotions are sensitive. But shadow skepticism seems much more tempting about some sentimental values than others, and nowhere more so than with the fearsome. Why care about the fearsome, understood as what merits fear, unless the fearsome just is the dangerous? This is a natural thought, since accounts of what fear concerns, its generic appraisal (or core relational theme), inevitably point to danger or some near synonym, such as the threat of harm. And it is generally assumed that dangerousness is independent of fear. Thus Jesse Prinz (2006: 64) claims: “Fear represents the property of being dangerous…[it] does not represent a response-dependent property.” Now the shadow skeptic can press his dilemma: If what merits fear is simply the dangerous, then it seems that the putatively sentimental value can be reduced to a response-independent one; but if it is anything other than the dangerous, then surely the fearsome is much less important.
We will argue, to the contrary, that dangerous only captures the value that matters in the vicinity of fear insofar as it is covertly response-dependent. There is no good response-independent notion of danger of which the fearsome might be a mere shadow. Hence to ask whether something is dangerous, at least in the most important sense of the term, just is to ask whether it merits fear. This comports with our general response to shadow skepticism, which we think drastically underestimates the degree to which people care about when emotional responses are and are not fitting. We aim to meet the shadow skeptic here, on what we take to be his strongest ground: fear and danger.
What is at issue between the sentimentalist and the shadow skeptic is whether there is a property to which the emotion is plausibly sensitive, and which can be characterized independently of that sentiment (and related emotional responses). In order to succeed, shadow skepticism must meet both criteria. Without independence, the theory is sentimentalist. Without sensitivity, it is a different and more radical skeptical claim, akin to the claims of the Stoics who proposed that one should ignore emotional concerns (with danger, contamination, slights, and so forth) because these are matters of indifference. On this view, one should not care about the sentimental values at all. Rather than take up this radical suggestion, here we address a form of skepticism that grants that fear, shame, and disgust track significant properties, but which aims to capture those properties in response-independent terms. We contend that it is more difficult than it appears to give a response-independent account of the dangerous, and that attempts to do so fall prey to the same problems besetting incongruity and contamination as accounts of the funny and disgusting. Schroeter’s attempt to explicate dangerousness is illustrative of the general problem. He (2006: 343; emphasis added) writes:
[S]omething is dangerous just in case it is liable to cause harm. The crucial question one needs to answer when it comes to evaluations of danger is whether an object or situation poses a threat, especially to the relevant subject’s bodily integrity.
This exemplifies the shadow skeptic’s impulse to find some empirical property that our emotions evolved to respond to, and then argue that it is what matters in the vicinity. But though it seems plausible to claim that something is dangerous just in case it is liable to cause harm, what exactly does that mean? There are two issues here, concerning the concepts of harm and liability, which we will treat sequentially.
Consider what Schroeter identifies as the crucial question: does something pose a threat to the subject’s bodily integrity? Since the goal is to locate a (perhaps complex) property to which fear is sensitive, such a narrow focus on the subject and her bodily integrity will not suffice. Many other things than the subject’s bodily integrity have to count as dangers, as Schroeter (2006: 344) ultimately concedes, though he seems to consider this a minor difficulty that can be solved by extending the notion of harm to include “damage to the subject’s mental well-functioning and even to conditions which might incapacitate subjects in fulfilling important functions in their lives—as, for instance, loss of economic independence or social status.” Even this expansion is inadequate, though, since dangers need not threaten one’s basic capacities or mental functioning. We are here supposing that harm is intended to be an empirical notion, connected in the first place to something like bodily integrity and now widened to include psychological damage and even vague malfunction; but this progression in what must be allowed to count as a harm demonstrates the difficulty facing the shadow skeptic. Minor threats to bodily integrity, such as trivial pains or the loss of some hair, pale in comparison to serious threats to other things we care much more about. A broken nail is nothing as compared to a broken heart. Various misfortunes count as things that merit fear even if they do not threaten one’s independence or status, or have consequences that can be captured with an empirical notion of incapacitation.
The crucial point here is that if harm really is so circumscribed, say to mental or physical injuries—even granting that we can operationalize the notion of a mental injury—then, if danger is liability to just such harm, the dangerous no longer seems more important than the fearsome after all. Grave threats to your well-being, such as the collapse of a marriage or financial disaster, matter more than harms so understood. Moreover, the suggestion that danger must threaten harm to the subject himself is surely wrong; it can also threaten other people and things he cares about deeply. Hence the range of what can be threatened must be expanded considerably, moving away from any empirical notion of harm (or function) toward some broader category of bad things that can happen to you and the things you care about, which better captures what merits fear.
The shadow skeptic need not claim that the sentimental values are shadows of valuable empirical properties, in order to threaten sentimentalism, just that they can be given an emotion-independent explication. So for the sake of argument, let us grant the shadow skeptic a notion of self-interest that, although not an empirical notion, might take the place of harm without trading illicitly on fear. He can then say that something is dangerous just in case it is liable to significantly damage one’s interests. This comes at a cost, since the idea that fear is a fast-and-frugal detector of whatever counts as a threat to one’s interests gives up some of the intuitive (naturalistic) rationale behind the shadow skeptic’s quest for an emotion-independent notion of danger. But even if the skeptic is willing to accept this cost, we doubt that he can specify a response-independent disvalue to which fear might be responsive.
The trouble is that liability is as problematic as harm when it comes to specifying the dangerous. If liable means possible, then the claim is false; plenty of things that could possibly damage one’s interests are not dangerous—if only because anything can be bad for you under some possible circumstances. If liable means likely, that too is false; some things that probably won’t harm you, like a game of Russian roulette, are nevertheless dangerous. But if liability is neither of these things then it is not at all clear what it is, and the attempt to specify a response-independent notion of danger is in jeopardy. This is the problem to which fear can be seen as the solution. What is dangerous is whatever counts as sufficiently likely and sufficiently bad that it merits my immediate and complete attention—the control precedence that characterizes emotional motivation: for fear, the demand that one focus attention (almost) exclusively on avoiding some threat.
We see two possible responses for the shadow skeptic. First, he can reply that anything that can possibly damage your interests is indeed dangerous, though some things are much less dangerous than others. This response is not intuitively plausible, since unlikely prospects of minor inconveniences are not dangers and it makes no sense to treat them as such. This suggestion fails to capture the sensitivity constraint, because fear is not in the business of tracking merely possible setbacks. The two most commonplace criticisms of unfitting fear are that the feared prospect is either insufficiently bad (as with fear of spiders) or insufficiently likely (fear of flying). A second option seems more promising. The skeptic can reply instead that dangers are prospects that reach some threshold of expected badness. Since people routinely face small risks fearlessly while fearing greater ones, fear is evidently subject to some sort of threshold effect.
Although this proposal is on the right track, we think it ultimately runs run afoul of the independence constraint, because one must appeal to an emotion—specifically to fear—in order to set the danger threshold. The question is: what level of expected disvalue does some threat have to reach in order to count as dangerous? No doubt the boundary is vague, and where it gets set in a given circumstance is surely context-sensitive in various ways. From the response-independent (“objective”) point of view, however, there seems to be no rationale for distinguishing, among the many negative changes in one’s prospects, which to count as dangers. Any specification of likelihood or severity would be arbitrary, and it would create seemingly pointless distinctions between admitted dangers that just barely rise above the threshold and putative non-dangers that fall just short. We are not unreasonably insisting that the shadow skeptic owes us an account of danger with no vagueness at its boundaries. The point is rather that we cannot see what response-independent question you are trying to answer when you wonder whether a given prospect is sufficiently likely and sufficiently bad to count as dangerous. But there is a good question that you could be trying to answer: you could be wondering whether the expected disvalue merits fear. Because fear is costly and does not scale downward incrementally, one cannot help but set thresholds in thinking about what things are worth fearing. This suggests that the threshold approach too is ultimately response-dependent and does not help the shadow skeptic meet the independence constraint after all.
Indeed, we think the problem cuts even more deeply against the shadow skeptic. From the objective perspective, the very project of identifying a class of dangers seems wrong-headed. According to rational choice theory, a decision-maker should govern his actions on the basis of expected utility, not danger. Both the focus on risk and the concern with thresholds seem gratuitous from this perspective, which sees fear as a kind of predicable irrationality. None of this implies that humans would be better off fearless, however, and that conclusion seems highly unlikely to us. Insofar as humans are also subject to other forms of predictable irrationality, such as being overly tempted by salient goods in our immediate vicinity, a form of systematic negative bias such as fear might be salutary. Even if this advantage depends on other deeply seated human characteristics that look like flaws from the perspective of pure practical rationality, nevertheless we are stuck being human. The ideal decision-maker of rational choice theory, who is unencumbered by fear and other emotions, may not be a model that humans would generally be well advised to emulate. We take the sentimental values to be anthropocentric, of no inherent interest to rational but dispassionate aliens; they are human values.
Hence we conclude that in order for the dangerous to matter as the shadow skeptic intends—for it to be “what ultimately interests us in our most important evaluative judgments” (Schroeter 2006: 346) about the objects of fear—it must be covertly response-dependent. The human concern for threats and the dangerous leads inevitably to a response-dependent account. By contrast, a thoroughly objective point of view would treat all prospects equivalently, without giving any gratuitous privilege to threats. It thus requires a far more radical revision than the shadow skeptic can accommodate: one that gives up on danger as an important evaluative concept altogether. Although this radical suggestion eventually requires a response from the sentimentalist, for now we take ourselves to have shown that the dangerous is best understood as a response-dependent property. If so then the shadow skeptic is mistaken even about his most promising case.
D’Arms, Justin and Daniel Jacobson (forthcoming). “Sentimentalism and Scientism.” Forthcoming in Moral Psychology and Human Agency: Philosophical Essays on the Science of Ethics. Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson, eds. Oxford University Press (Oxford).
Price, Carolyn (2006). “Fearing Fluffy: The Content of an Emotional Appraisal.” Teleosemantics: New Philosophical Essays. Graham MacDonald and David Papineau, eds. Clarendon Press (Oxford).
Prinz, Jesse (2006). Gut Feelings: A Perceptual Theory of Emotions. Oxford University Press (New York).
Schroeter, Francois (2006). “The Limits of Sentimentalism.” Ethics 116: 337-361.
 See Schroeter (2006). Our discussion abstracts away from some of the details of his discussion, but our treatment of these issues is indebted to his development of the challenge, which he applies not only to the fearsome but also to sentimentalism generally.
 Throughout this discussion, by response-dependent properties we mean properties that are independent of emotional responses specifically; we are not concerned with other forms of response-dependency.
 Cf. Schroeter (2006: 346): “Even if fear is one of our most important emotions, we don’t care that much about when it is appropriate: once we know whether a situation is dangerous, we typically have little interest in finding out whether it warrants fear.”
 All these terms (danger, threat, harm) have wobble. One might expand the notion of harm instead. But we will give ‘harm’ to the shadow skeptic, understood as something like bodily integrity plus psychological functioning and incapacitation. But danger must then include other threats than harm.
 This notion of self-interest might even be response-dependent, in a more capacious sense: it might appeal for instance to informed desires. Shadow skepticism about the sentimental values is committed to emotion-independence, in particular.
 In humans fear motivates not quite stereotypical action—such as fight, freeze, or flight—as it does with many lower animals, but it has a characteristic action tendency that is not fully plastic: not every kind of action that can be seen as threat avoidance can be taken out of fear. This is not to say that it is impossible for humans to calmly negotiate with some threat when that has the best prospects for success; the claim is rather that this cannot be done out of fear but must be done by overcoming fear and its motivational urge. Cf. Price (2006).
 Of course not all fear of spiders or of flying is unfitting. When there are deadly spiders around, or conditions are especially unsafe for flying, then such fear can be fitting. These examples are chosen because they are common phobias: dispositions to unfitting (and often recalcitrant) fear.