Admirability (etc.): reasons and getting fitting attitudes right (PEA Soup discussion of Gert’s recent article)

It is fitting or appropriate to admire the admirable (and similarly, it is fitting to value the valuable).  According the the fitting attitudes account (FA) of an action or person being admirable, admirability is nothing more than fittingness to be admired.  And according to the reasons account of an attitude being fitting (RFA), an attitude being fitting is nothing more than the balance of reasons (of the right sort) favoring having the attitude toward the object.  This gives rise the the “wrong kind of reason” problem:  we need to say which reasons are the right reasons for admiring to make for admirability because a person or action is not rendered admirable by, say, my threatening her (or God threatening everyone) should she (or any given person) fail to admire, say, children torturing cats.  Nor are these sorts of reasons relevant to it being admirable to help someone in need at some significant expense to oneself (e.g.).  

The “wrong kind of reason” problem is a hard problem that a bunch of smart philosophers are trying to solve.  It is significant because FA, and especially RFA, applied to the question of what value is, promise a reduction of value to normative reasons to respond to particular sorts of things with particular sorts of actions or attitudes (such reasons being the currently-popular, promising all-purpose foundational normative/evaluative notion).  Some folks, like Gert, are trying to dissolve the wrong reasons problem by denying RFA and providing an alternative account of FA (thus vindicating something of a different explanatory scheme for reducing/explaining admirability, value, etc., fittingness remaining as the perhaps-not-reduced normative/evaluative element).  Recently, at the PEA Soup blog, there was a discussion of Gert’s recent Ethics paper “A Fitting End to the Wrong Kind of Reason Problem.”  The discussion was started off with a critical precis by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson, the originators of the RFA (or at least the modern version of it).  That interesting discussion is closed – so here I am with it.

My purpose here is, with respect to admirability and with the PEA Soup discussion in mind (to be quoted as necessary here) is to do my best to frame the fitting attitudes thesis (FA) and say something about the prospects of doing so without recourse to normative reasons.  Having skimmed the discussion, my initial thought (and bias) is that fittingness is best framed other than in terms of reasons but that Gert’s attempt at doing so is flawed.  So I’m thinking that I’ll be taking a step or two here toward a better approach along these general lines.  I’ll more be using the PEA Soup discussion as a jumping-off point than continuing it or much addressing the specific issues raised there.

Here are some crucial passages from D’Arms and Jacobson’s critical precis of the Gert piece:

As we understand him, Gert holds that emotions are fitting when they are produced by a mechanism that is functioning properly, and that emotional mechanisms function properly when they produce the emotion in response to the inputs they are set up to be set off by.(4) Gert refers to these inputs as “external cues” or “obvious markers,” and he allows that some may be innate while others must be learned. People might be innately afraid of things that slither across the ground like snakes, but learn to fear tornados or missiles at the sound of warning sirens.(5) Gert’s notion of emotional fittingness tracks this conception of the function of an emotion. In this view, if one’s “quick–and-dirty mechanisms” of emotional response are “functioning perfectly and get us ready to act in certain [characteristic] ways,” then fear or disgust will be fitting even if there is in fact nothing dangerous or noxious present (1023)…  Let us follow Gert in using the word scary to refer to those things that bear the external cues to which it is fear’s function to respond, such as slithering movements, aggressive facial expressions, and (we are supposing) high-pitched sirens. We thus agree that some genuinely scary things (tarantulas and basking sharks) are not dangerous, and some dangerous things (carbon monoxide and certain tree frogs) are not scary. But we dispute the claim that all and only scary things merit fear. We hold a more strongly normative view of fittingness, on which it imports a kind of endorsement of the emotion that is not determined simply by whether the underlying mechanism is responding to cues it is set up to be set off by.  In other words, we think that there is a crucial difference between the scary (what people are normally frightened of in virtue of its obvious markers) and the fearsome (stipulated to be whatever merits fear). Whether something is fearsome depends on whether there is reason to be afraid, which is determined by whether the object poses the sort of threat that justifies the syndrome of focused attention, action tendencies, and prioritized goal characteristic of fear(6)…  We think that the notion of emotional fittingness that Gert employs is only tenuously normative, and his account of the emotion-linked properties or concepts is not an account of values. Being shameful or funny in his sense is not really a way of being good or bad. It is too much like a secondary quality. To be shameful or funny is to possess markers that match normal people’s shame or amusement triggers, in his view, which is similar to being such as to elicit shame or amusement. But the fact that something is disposed to elicit a response, however important this may be for certain purposes, is not the same thing as to merit that response(8)…  Gert anticipates this objection and argues that one “should not worry that my view of emotion-linked evaluative terms converts them into purely descriptive terms like ‘blue’ or ‘sour.’” (1039). He grants that blue and sour are not normative terms or concepts, even though—if we understand him correctly—he holds that blue things are fittingly seen as blue in the same sense that it is fitting to be ashamed of what is shameful. In his view, what makes shameful evaluative and blue (merely) descriptive is explained by something other than fittingness. As he (1038) puts it: “What is it that makes “shameful” normative and “blue” not?  It is important to see that it is the objector who needs to provide an answer to this question, to vindicate the charge that my account fails to make “shameful” normative.” We are unconvinced by this attempt at burden shifting, as it seems to us that if Gert accepts the distinction between evaluative concepts and descriptive ones—and locates shameful and blue on different sides of it—he needs to do more to explain why.

This conclusion seems right.  Gert’s account seems to render secondary qualities (or their concepts) as normative in the same way that admirability (or the concept of this) is normative.  And that does not seem right:  the latter seems to be normative in a not-merely-proper-functional way that the former is not.  But rather than focus on the apparent inadequacy of Gert’s proposal (and his further responses to it and their adequacy), I want to draw attention to what I take to be a relevant, fruitful distinction between:

(a) response R being a functionally appropriate response to stimulus S (that tends to produce end-state-of-significance E) and

(b) response R being a functionally appropriate response to stimulus S (and in fact producing end-state-of-significance E).

On my understanding (and I have not read Gert’s original article), Gert’s proposal is that fittingness is a version of [a] that does not have the ‘that tends to produce end-state-of-significance E’ part.  That the account is missing this part should make one question whether the proposed account can really explain any normativity that is not merely of the functional or proper-functional sort (that we can equally attribute to ‘blue’ as to ‘admirable’).  But it seems that we get different flavors of not-merely-functional normativity from [a] and [b] given the relation to realizing or promoting some item E of significance to the agent (roughly the subjective as against the objective).  One of the points that D’Arms and Jacobson are making is that concepts like ‘admirability’ refer to an objective normative feature, not to a subjective one as Gert seems committed to (‘merit’ is an objective concept).  This seems right as far as it goes (most cases in which it is intuitive to use ‘fitting’ in this sort of context seem to refer to the objective property – as an objective, factual matter, it is not admirable for the child to torture the cat).  But it also seems that both of [a] and [b] are normative relationships with potential explanatory power.  And perhaps each, in different contexts, are referenced by saying that one is admiring (fearing, valuing) a fitting object.

But here’s the thing:  I’ve just sketched functional, but not merely functional, accounts for two different sorts of (putative) normative properties of the broad fitting-to-admire type that don’t reference reasons at all.  All you have is a pattern of response that realizes or tends to realize (and functions to realize) some relevant item of significance to the agent (perhaps just the pattern itself is the item of significance, though I’m not sure how plausible this is in the case of admirability).  In this way, the fittingness of fitting attitudes might take its place alongside normative reasons (and perhaps other things) as basic normative/evaluative elements, something like the above being a reductive explanation of fittingness.

(In [a] and [b], ‘significance’ is a fudge.  If you are a Humean about normativity, interpret this in terms of desire and you get a reduction of something normative to something non-normative.  If not, interpret in terms of value or something else at the cost of not being able to use FA to reduce/explain value or whatever else normative/evaluative here is doing the explanatory work.)

What is wrong with this sort of fitting attitudes account of admirability (or value or shamefulness or whatnot)?  Part of the issue here, surely, is that the term ‘normative reasons’ is vague or ambiguous and we need to precisify or disambiguate in a way that makes good explanatory sense.  But if normative reasons are things that you might cognize and reason from, then there is good reason not to use the language of reasons to explain fitting admiration.  For we don’t, and probably can’t, directly reason well to an emotion (there is no good step of reasoning that terminates in the production of an emotion).

Suppose that something like this approach is right.  Is there a problem analogous to the wrong kind of reasons problem nevertheless – maybe a “wrong state of significance” problem?  I suppose there is, but somehow the problem seems demystified once reasons-talk is abandoned.  It is much more plausible that admiration is fitting, when it is, due to it being of significance to the agent to exhibit the relevant pattern (or even due to something more functionally relevant of significance being produced or tending to be produced) – rather than, say, because I am threatening to cause the agent in question great pain unless she greatly admires the sicko torturing the cat.  (For sure, there is some work to be done here to specify the relevant states of significance and the relevant close-in-enough functional relationships.)  So maybe, if we get things right, there is not even a “son of wrong kind of reasons” problem?

(This is a first draft response to a discussion of a recent treatment of FA and RFA.  I’m probably wrong or off-base at some points, perhaps many.  Much gratitude if you can tell what is wrong (or what is unclear or needs further explanation)!)

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