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No Need to Get Emotional? Emotions and Heuristics


Many believe that values are crucially dependent on emotions. This paper focuses on epistemic aspects of the putative link between emotions and value by asking two related questions. First, how exactly are emotions supposed to latch onto or track values? And second, how well suited are emotions to detecting or learning about values? To answer the first question, the paper develops the heuristics-model of emotions. This approach models emotions as sui generis heuristics of value. The empirical plausibility of the heuristics-model is demonstrated using evidence from experimental psychology, evolutionary anthropology and neuroscience. The model is used then to answer the second question. If emotions are indeed heuristics of value, then it follows that emotions can be an important and useful source of information about value. However, emotions will not be epistemically superior in the sense of being the highest court of appeal for the justification of axiological beliefs (the latter view is referred to as the Epistemic Dependence Thesis, or EDT for short). The paper applies the heuristics-model to celebrated cases from the philosophy of emotions literature arguing that while the heuristics-model offers a good explanation of typical patterns of emotional reactions in such cases, advocates of EDT will have a hard time accounting for these patterns. The paper also shows that the conclusions drawn from special cases generalize. The paper ends by arguing that skepticism about the metaethical significance of emotions is compatible with a commitment to the importance of emotions in first-order normative ethics.

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  1. 1.

    Of course, some may doubt EDT without accepting the heuristics-model. I believe that some of the arguments to be put forward in the following will appeal to these people as well.

  2. 2.

    Other basic heuristics are “representativeness” and “anchoring”, see Sunstein 2003, 752 summarizing the seminal works on the subject by Kahneman and Tversky.

  3. 3.

    So this usage leaves room for a more elaborate taxonomy of different sub-categories of heuristics (see Weber and Ancker 2005, 563): narrative heuristics, affective heuristics, etc.

  4. 4.

    There is room for debate about how essential these characteristics are. For example, reflective thinking can be extremely fast and sometimes quite effortless and spontaneous.

  5. 5.

    However, it is important to steer clear of two potential pitfalls. First, heuristics-based thinking should not be contrasted with consequentialist or utilitarian thinking. A consequentialist or utilitarian approach can be heuristics-based or use reflective reasoning, and so can a deontological approach. The distinction between the two kinds of thought-processes is content-neutral. Second, whether a thought-process is rule-governed or not is orthogonal to whether it is heuristics-based or reflective. Heuristics can be rules, but need not be. And conversely, reflective thinking can rely on rules and principles. An important consequence of this is that moral principles are not necessarily heuristics, pace Bartsch and Wright 2005.

  6. 6.

    It may be objected that this example is problematic because the feeling of guilt more often follows the belief that I have done wrong than the other way round. I seriously doubt whether this true as a matter of empirical fact. Whatever the case may be, as I make it clear in Section 3.1 below, the heuristics-hypothesis can easily accommodate the fact that emotional reactions sometimes follow upon evaluative judgments rather than precede them.

  7. 7.

    Naturally, the relationship between empirical emotion research and the philosophy of emotion is a two-way street, see Prinz 2004, 26–30; De Sousa 2010; Perler 2011, 11–13.

  8. 8.

    This view is sometimes referred to as the affective primacy paradigm. It is important to note that the heuristics-model defended here is not dependent on the truth or falsity of this paradigm. I will come back to this point later on.

  9. 9.

    How would this causal explanation go in this particular case? It could be the case that when people experience fear they generally tend to switch to heuristic thinking. This is because feeling the emotion creates a sense of emergency or at least urgency prompting the shift from the reflective to the heuristic thought-process. Such causal explanations can be plausibly given for other emotions as well. They amount to general motivational explanations of the causal link between emotions and heuristics. However, consistent with this general link, there may also be specific causal connections between emotions and certain heuristics such as the availability heuristic as noted in the main body of the text above. For example, it could be argued that experiencing fear on a certain occasion increases the availability of past frightening events in one’s memory. This in turn could lead one to overestimate the significance of such events and lead one to conclusions one would reject upon reflection. For the discussion of a similar hypothesis about a putative causal link of this kind between experiences happiness and sadness, on the one hand, and specific heuristics, on the other, see Schwarz and Clore 1983, 518.

  10. 10.

    Lazarus (1984) argues that emotions are always consequent upon such judgments. By contrast, the claim above is only that this is sometimes the case. Note that in those cases too when emotions are consequent upon judgments, the former can be said to play a heuristic role. Emotions have a back-up function in such cases serving to corroborate the evaluative judgment.

  11. 11.

    See esp. Schwarz and Clore 1983 explicitly addressing the question whether affect merely prompts reliance on certain cognitive heuristics, e.g., the availability-heuristic, or has a direct “informational function” as well. The conclusion reached is that affective states can themselves function as heuristics (see esp. 518). Admittedly, the article cited focuses on moods rather than emotions, but there is no reason not to extend its conclusions to emotions proper as well.

  12. 12.

    At least it need not involve any sort of conscious, conceptual processing. As LeDoux (1995) makes it clear, however, this does not mean that emotions involve no processing whatsoever. They can still involve sensory information processing and “processing that occurs in complex association areas of cortex in the frontal lobes or hippocampus.” (225) LeDoux warns, however, that “just because emotion involves information processing this does not mean that emotion is cognition.” (226)

  13. 13.

    For a detailed account of the neural organization of the fear system, see LeDoux 1995.

  14. 14.

    As Damasio would certainly agree, see for example Damasio 1994, xii.

  15. 15.

    Russell (1992) argues persuasively for the need to distinguish between justificatory requirements for token emotional responses as opposed to justificatory requirements (if any) for general emotional dispositions.

  16. 16.

    As Damasio would, once again, agree: “At their best, feelings point us in the proper direction, take us to the appropriate place in a decision-making space, where we may put the instruments of logic to good use.” Damasio 1994, xiii.

  17. 17.

    The final sentence […] which pronounces characters and actions amiable or odious […] depends on some internal sense or feeling.” [my italics].

  18. 18.

    And thus we have another demonstration of the general claim repeatedly made in Kahneman 2011 (364, etc.) that the performance of the non-reflective cognitive “System 1”, of which affective heuristics form an important part, is not “reality-bound.”

  19. 19.

    The reason for the confusion on this point in D’Arms and Jacobson 2003 (an article to which this paper is of course very much indebted otherwise) is that they misdescribe the relevant belief. For example, the relevant belief in the case of homesickness is not that one is “really at home”, but rather that it is “best to be at home” or some other evaluative belief like that. In other words, there is confusion here between the “material object” and the “formal object” of the emotion (see Mulligan 2010, 478f. on this distinction). Once the confusion is cleared up, it is easy to see that recalcitrant homesickness is very much possible.

  20. 20.

    Which is precisely what D’Arms and Jacobson do for example, see D’Arms and Jacobson 2003, 144–145.

  21. 21.

    This prediction is consistent with the role of affect observed in other contexts as well. Take, for example, the explanation of the so-called “mere exposure effect”, that is, an account of why mere repetition of a stimulus generates mildly positive affect towards that stimulus. As Robert Zajonc, who discovered this effect, puts it: “The consequences of repeated exposures benefit the organism in its relations to the immediate animate and inanimate environment.” (quoted in Kahneman 2011, 67—my italics).

  22. 22.

    Further support for this conclusion could come from cases of vicarious feelings of guilt as when a citizen of Germany feels guilty about the Holocaust today. A possible complication is that these may well turn out to be feelings of shame rather than guilt—and such shame, some people would say (in my view incorrectly), is appropriate while guilt is not. In any case, it has been argued that the basis for such emotions felt on behalf of others is a perception of similarity between the other person and oneself and a resulting sense of solidarity (see Feinberg 1970, 64). If this is correct, then the phenomenon of vicarious emotions could also be read as confirming the heuristics-model of emotions: once again, what prompts the emotion are morally-speaking contingent factors such as physical proximity, similarity and subjective salience from the first-person perspective.

  23. 23.

    Compare and contrast Williams 1973a and Marcus 1980, and see also Gowans 1987, 15. Note that McConnell (1978), an outspoken opponent of moral dilemmas, also describes the relevant kind of emotional experience in a moral dilemma as regret. The relevant emotion is sometimes also labelled as remorse, but in this context remorse is probably meant to be synonymous with guilt.

  24. 24.

    Incidentally, this worry looms large for friends of moral dilemmas as well, i.e., for those who think that there can be situations in which no course of action is all-things-considered justifiable. What is perhaps the most influential argument for the existence of moral dilemmas is at bottom sentimentalist and runs as follows: since Sophie would feel guilt appropriately no matter which course of action she were to choose (sacrificing one child, or the other, or not accepting the offer letting both die), she is in a moral dilemma (see Williams 1973a; Marcus 1980). However, this emotion-based argument for moral dilemmas only goes through provided that what Sophie feels really is guilt. But how can we be sure that this is indeed the case?

  25. 25.

    A positive implication of all this is that we can continue to treat hard cases as important for moral theorizing. Thus Sunstein (2005) is wrong to discount exotic cases such as Sophie’s Choice as largely irrelevant to ethics.

  26. 26.

    Unless of course we are prepared to give up realism about axiological properties. But that is not the way sentimentalists discussed in this paper want to go (see explicitly Tappolet 2000, 5).


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The author is grateful to the Hungarian Innovation Office research project “What it is to be human?” (BETEGH 09) for supporting the preparation of this article. Special thanks to Wlodek Rabinowicz, audiences at the University of Lund and the University of Geneva as well as two anonymous reviewers for insightful comments and helpful criticisms.

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Correspondence to András Szigeti.

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Szigeti, A. No Need to Get Emotional? Emotions and Heuristics. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 16, 845–862 (2013).

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  • Emotions
  • Heuristics
  • Sentimentalism
  • Metaethics
  • Value