Isabel Kaeslin

Title | Organization: 
Job Candidate & Graduate Student | Ph.D. program in Philosophy

Area of Specialization:  

Philosophy of Mind, with important connections to Philosophy of Psychology, Theories of Rationality, Normative Epistemology, and Ethics

Website: (with short bio)

Dissertation Abstract:

Should we let ourselves be guided by our emotions when we make ethical or moral decisions? We can find various responses to this question in the history of philosophy.[1] Today, several philosophers reply affirmatively. However, I argue that these affirmative responses have not gone far enough. They assign normative roles to the emotions merely in virtue of emotions being belief-like or cognitive (Nussbaum[2]), imbued with reason (McDowell[3], Sherman[4]), or as a second-best and fast way to decide whenever there are no better options (Brady[5]).[6] By contrast, I consider the normative role of a non-cognitive kind of emotion, a kind that is basic or primitive, and ask whether even such basic, non-cognitive emotions can guide moral and ethical decisions. I call these basic, non-cognitive emotions ‘emotional responses’, while I call the other ones ‘sophisticated emotions’. I ultimately leave it open whether the sophisticated emotions entail some sort of cognition, belief, or reason, while I specifically deny this for basic emotional responses.

For basic emotional responses to play a normative role, I argue, they must be object-directed. In defending my position, I thus address a fundamental issue in the theory of the emotions, namely, I need to show that emotional responses can be object-directed and yet not cognitive. If my argument is compelling, then this combination of object-directedness and non-cognitiveness is possible. I take this to be a significant result. Building on this result, I then show how this object-directedness is sufficient for the basic emotional responses to play a unique role in normative guidance, namely by giving us negative reasons to act against established beliefs and habits.
[1] The very different responses Aristotle and Kant give, as well as disagreements among ancient thinkers, have received much attention. Cf. Engstrom and Whiting (eds.), Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[2] Nussbaum M., Upheavals of Thought. CUP (2001).
[3] McDowell J., “Deliberation and Moral Development in Aristotle’s Ethics.” In: Stephen Engstrom and Jennifer Whiting (eds.), Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 19-35.
[4] Sherman N., The Fabric of Character. Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue. OUP (1989).
[5] Brady M., Emotional Insight. OUP (2013).
[6] There is also an influential view in psychology to the same effect: appraisal theory. According to Richard Lazarus, we first assess a situation cognitively, in ways that are automatic and unconscious, and emotion occurs in a second step. (Richard Lazarus, “From Appraisal: The Minimal Cognitive Prerequisites of Emotion.” In: What is an Emotion? Edited by Robert C. Solomon. OUP (2003)).