Cristina Diana Craciun (UCL) - 2022-23 Students

The rationality of emotions about imagined scenarios

The ‘Myth of the passions’, as Solomon (1977) named it, highlights a belief unquestioned for centuries: that emotions are strictly separate from reason. However, recent work (both empirical and philosophical) has challenged this assumption and uncovered noteworthy links between rationality and emotions. In light of these connections, emotions can now be assessed in relation to different rationality criteria. For instance, epistemic criteria track the extent to which our emotions accurately represent and respond to the world: if a bear is running towards you, fear is an appropriate response to the danger. Indeed, on some views your fear essentially represents the bear as dangerous (Deonna & Teroni, 2012, call these views ‘evaluationist’, according to which emotions represent their objects as bearing a certain property). Additionally, emotions can also be subjected to practical rationality criteria, which measure the extent to which emotions help satisfy the goals of the agent (fear of the bear makes one run away, thus satisfying one’s goal of safety).

The question thus arises: When is an emotion justified? As already hinted, one could compile a list of norms for emotions, such as epistemological, practical, coherence-based and so on (Majeed, 2020; Scarantino and de Sousa, 2021). While applying these norms may suffice for analysing regular emotional occurrences, not all emotions lend themselves to such analyses or are as straightforwardly related to our goals. As such, in my research I will focus on more ‘problematic’ types of emotional episodes: i) emotions about imagined scenarios and, relatedly, ii) emotions about fiction. Neither of these straightforwardly satisfies the norms mentioned above. Does this mean we are irrational for experiencing them? No, or so I shall argue.

Consider the following scenario: unprompted, one begins to consider the possibility of their partner cheating on them, and they therefore feel sadness, followed by anger. Assume that their partner has not given them any reason for suspicion, nor is the relationship in a strained phase. By the time they meet, the emotions have ceased and the couple’s behaviour towards one another remains unaffected. How might we judge those emotions?

My novel approach is to explore the possibility that these emotions evaluate and re-affirm our deeper selves. By deeper self I understand, roughly, the totality of values and preferences we harbour. If that is the case, emotions about mere possibilities do not require useful outcomes to be deemed rational. Instead, we need to focus on what they seek to express in relation to our deeper selves. In our example, the subject’s sadness and anger are justified because they express and re-affirm love for the partner. As such, our tendencies to frequently consider alternative possibilities (even highly unlikely or absurd possibilities like transforming into a rat) are not as irrational as they may seem. Indeed, they help maintain awareness of our valuation systems and re-confirm beliefs we may doubt, such as whether we still love our partner. Of course, allowing oneself to be swayed by such emotions may lead to undesirable outcomes, but that is external to their rationality qua expression.

Thus, this project will provide a basis for understanding the rationality of emotions about possibilities that is i) not based on their external consequences, and ii) more explanatory than mere fittingness to their object. In other words, this project will provide an explanation for an all-too-common psychological phenomenon.

Primary supervisor: Dr Rory Madden, UCL
Secondary supervisor: Prof. Lucy O’Brien, UCL

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