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Dr Tom Roberts (University of Exeter), Emotion Regulation and Responsibility

Abstract:Often, we hold individuals responsible for the emotions they undergo - for instance, we criticize a person for finding a racist joke amusing, and we praise someone for feeling righteous anger when she encounters injustice. Two competing approaches to the nature of emotional responsibility have emerged in the literature, whose defining disagreement is over the extent to which a subject must exert voluntary control over her emotions in order to be an appropriate target of praise or blame for them. On the one hand, Aristotelian accounts hold that a person's responsibility lies in the cultivation of character traits over time - the (often deliberate and self-conscious) development of emotional tendencies and responses over the course of a life. On the other hand, reasons-responsiveness views hold that what matters is the agent's rational sensitivity to appropriate kinds of reason, a sensitivity that reveals or discloses her values and identity. For example, a person is responsible for episodes of fear just when these states respond in a suitable way to dangers or threats. On theories of this kind, the historical provenance of an individual's emotional capacities, and the extent to which she has exerted voluntary control over them, is largely immaterial to the question of whether she is responsible for their outputs.I argue that these two approaches to understanding the nature of emotional responsibility have paid insufficient attention to our powers of emotional self-regulation, which offer a degree of short-term voluntary control over our affective states that is not the same as the long-term cultivation of character promoted by Aristotelian views, and which is not captured by reasons-responsiveness as typically understood. Our capacities of emotion-regulation come in several forms, including situation-selection and modification; cognitive change; attention-direction; and modification of expression. These powers permit us to modulate, suppress, initiate, or encourage emotional states in the course of our moment-to-moment affective responding. Regulatory powers can be exercised in such a way as to be in opposition to the subject's rational assessment of her situation (for instance, she can control her fear even though she takes herself to be in peril), or they can be deployed in order to bring her emotional response into line with that assessment (for example, to bring forth her grief at the loss of a loved one). Self-regulation contributes to our emotional responsibility, then, by offering ways of voluntarily affecting our emotional states that do not rely on long-term cultivation of character, and which do not always align with our rational assessment of relevant reasons. A thoroughgoing theory of emotional responsibility must attend to self-regulation.

A Department of Sociology & Philosophy seminar
Date17 March 2014
Time15:00 to 17:00
PlaceAmory B315


Amory B315