Pathways to PhilosophyKindle eBooks by G Klempner

on this page

Or send us an email

Application form

Pathways programs

Letters to my students

How-to-do-it guide

Essay archive

Ask a philosopher

Pathways e-journal

Features page

Downloads page

Pathways portal

Pathways to Philosophy

Geoffrey Klempner CV
G Klempner

International Society for Philosophers
ISFP site

Home   Kuch 1   Kuch 2   Kuch 3   Kuch 4

pathways (essays)

Terence Kuch

The Peachum Dilemma:
are emotions ethically significant?


The ethical significance of the emotions is a potentially enormous and difficult topic. Some of the positions that can be maintained include:

1 No moral judgements (either positive or negative) can legitimately be made of emotions.

2 Emotions are subject to moral praise or blame in just the same way (or, analogous to the way) that acts are.

3 Emotions are subject to moral praise or blame, but in a very different way from acts.

4 Emotions are the primary carriers of value, while rationality is purely instrumental ('reason is a value-neutral technique'); therefore moral judgement should properly concern itself only with the emotions, their origins and effects.

The issue

The issue is ambiguously, and hence interestingly, stated by Brecht in Der Dreigroschenoper. Polly Peachum, who is trying unsuccessfully to resist the emotional and sensual spell of Macheath, sings the soulful "Barbara-Song", including in the first stanza the line

"Ja, da muss man kalt und herzlos sein." [Indeed, one must be cold and heartless]

(Note "man"; Polly here is trying to state a general truth, not (yet) directly applying it to herself.)

Since we (and Macheath) know that he cares little about Polly in the way she would like to be cared for, can we say that Macheath's emotional attentions to her are unethical? Or not? On what basis?

Two arguments that there is no ethical significance to the emotions

Before proceeding to the analysis, we must consider two possible arguments against the thesis that emotional states are subject to any moral praise or blame at all. If they are not, then that is the end of the discussion, or rather, it is the beginning of a different discussion.

I believe these arguments fail, but the reasons why each fails point the way to understanding why and in what way the emotions do have ethical significance.

First argument

The first argument is this:

(a) An act (including failure to act) can be subject to moral praise or blame only to the extent that it directly or indirectly affects (harms or benefits) the agent himself, or a moral patient (up to and including Nature as a whole), or if the agent could reasonably (as a moral agent) have anticipated this effect.

(b) However, by this definition the ethical significance of the act lies only in its actual or possible consequences, and in the intentions and beliefs held by or ascribed to the agent concerning them. The agent's emotional state of mind is immaterial.

(c) Therefore, moral judgement should ignore whatever the agent's emotional state might have been at the time he acted or failed to act.

There are several things wrong with this first argument. First, it assumes that emotions can be cleanly disentangled from intentions, motives, and beliefs. Now as the common understanding and law both acknowledge, motives of an act are important, sometimes decisive, in making judgements as to whether or not an agent has acted rightly or wrongly. This is why we distinguish murder from manslaughter, and accidents from intentional acts. And second, emotion, particularly strong emotion, can move us to act, as when anger moves one to commit an act that one could never bring oneself to do 'in cold blood'. Emotional states can function as behavioral catalysts.

But at this point, it still remains possible to assert that only the physical consequences are to count in ethical judgement, not the emotional states that may have moved one to act.

We can counter this objection by pointing out that this first argument assumes that there cannot be any purely emotional consequences of an act (even if there are emotional causes), but only physical consequences that have no meaningful emotional content, even if they are accompanied by emotion. If I shout at you in anger, but do not hit you, no harm has been done. If I shout a warning that you are about to walk into quicksand which I mistakenly believe to be present, exactly in the same way no harm has been done.

This line of reasoning appears to be based on too narrow a view of the nature of human beings, not to mention of other beings, vide the cowering dog who has never been hit. It appears that an agent's emotions (which are physical expressions) can have the kind of physical consequences in the patient that we would call 'emotional', in addition to any physical consequences that may or may not have an emotional component.

Therefore the first argument fails, but has contributed the observation that emotions in the agent can have both emotional and physical consequences in the patient. If an agent can be praised or blamed for the consequence, then he can be praised or blamed for the cause.

— But there is a second argument that holds that even if emotions can have these consequences, the agent is still neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy for them. It goes like this:

Second argument

(a) Our emotions arise from forces beyond or beneath our conscious control; it is for good reason that they are called 'the passions'. Therefore we are not responsible for our emotions in any moral sense. If anger, for instance, leads us to commit a crime, it is the crime itself that deserves condemnation, not the anger, because the anger is not 'ours'. In a quite literal sense, we do not 'own' our anger.

(b) It follows that to the extent that a passion can be held to 'cause' (in some sense) behavior, then to that extent the results of our behavior are less deserving of moral judgement, either favorable or unfavorable, than those of someone who is not under the influence of a passion.

The first problem is that these two aspects of the second argument seem to be at odds with each other. For example, (a) would lead us to conclude that there is no such thing as a 'hate crime', while (b) would allow the possibility of hate crimes, but that people who commit them are less culpable than those who act 'kaltlich und herzloslich'.

But the real problem with the second argument lies in the assumption that we are less responsible for our emotions than for our thoughts or acts, because we are (observably) usually less in control of them. This belief has an honorable pedigree, going back at least to the ancient Greeks who were said at times to be in the frenzied grip of a god, and dating forward to "the devil made me do it". With the demise of gods and devils, there is no one else to blame for our emotions, and after Freud there is nowhere to search for their origin except within us.

Therefore the second argument fails, but from it we can draw the conclusion that our emotions are attributable to ourselves as agents, and that if they have effects, then these effects can be subjected to the same kinds of moral judgements that pertain to acts (although perhaps not in the same way).

Polly applies the lesson to her own situation

By the second stanza, Brecht's Polly has moved from being a philosopher of the emotions to applying her advice to her own situation:

"Ja, da mu§ ich kalt und herzlos sein", she sings. [Indeed, I must be cold and heartless.]

This is of course to be interpreted as grim determination in the face of a losing struggle.

The emphasis on the ego (Freud: Ich) as the focal point of ethics has a long history. As Nussbaum (1994) has pointed out, the Hellenistic philosophers were more concerned with "how shall I live" than "how shall I treat others", almost to the exclusion of the latter. Emotionally, this translates into "have the emotions that will make things go best for me". Just as acts toward others can be justified by how much they benefit the agent, so emotions toward others are justified by how much they benefit the agent and contribute to the building of character. Spinoza also focused on the self and its needs, the striving (conatus) for continued life and maximum freedom (see Deleuze 1988, p71f, Garrett 1996b p308, and Harris, page 89).

The question these views provoke is this: "Can an emotion experienced alone, with no patient affected, have any ethical significance other than the therapeutic? And, is therapeutic benefit really ethical at all?" To bring this down to practical terms, for example (a) "Is it wrong of you to hate black people if no-one else is affected by your hatred?" or (b) "Is it a kind of sexual harassment to lust after someone 'in your heart' who you know would reject advances from you if made in person?"

In spite of appearances, these two questions are different in kind. Spinoza would hold that it is wrong to hate black people. But since he holds that all hatred is wrong, he would really not be saying anything morally interesting in applying the principle to a specific group. Lust, however, in the polite guise of titillation (titillatio), occupies a more ambiguous position in Spinoza's thought

"Titillation is pleasure which, in so far as it is related to the body, consists in one or more of the body's parts being affected more than the rest. The power of this emotion can be so great as to ... hinder the body's ability to be affected in numerous other ways. So it can be bad." (Spinoza, p178)

Many of us would regard lust, as least in some contexts, as a kind of laetitia, and hence praiseworthy.

It is well known that Jesus answered an ancient version of question (b) 'yes'. But the answers are not at all clear here, and cannot be got around by saying something like "Your emotions affect your acts in ways you may not understand, so there are really no 'agent only' emotions." This observation may be true, but its relevance is to psychology rather than to philosophy.

In order to explore these questions, I will introduce our old friend The Brain In The Vat. Brain, you will recall, believes he is living a full life but in fact is just — a brain in a vat, fed by tubes of nutrients and participating in an illusory world generated by philosophers concerned with problems of the self.

Let us now disconnect Brain from his illusory world such that he now has nothing but his own mind as company. Brain can think, and Brain can experience emotions.

Can Brain now do anything that has any conceivable moral significance? If Spinoza and the Hellenistic philosophers are right, the only kind of thing that Brain can do that has moral significance involves experiencing his own emotions as agent-patient; Brain's only other option, rational thought, has no ethical significance as such, because no rational decision of Brain's can affect the world outside the vat, hence cannot produce a result subject to ethical judgement.

In his newly deprived environment, Brain can still be virtuous or have character, and can experience laetitia or tristitia. He can therefore still be a moral being, even if he cannot affect anything or anyone else. If this still sounds plausible, consider: if we were now to give Brain a body and set him loose in the real world, virtue and character will still be his only moral qualities and, with respect to Brain as a moral agent, he might as well go back to his vat.

The virtue/character argument begins to look shaky at this point, as it looks in Spinoza: why should I be concerned with others, if my own conatus is my driving force? Spinoza holds that as we approach a purely rational life, we discover that all people have the same kind of conatus, and with the discarding of the emotions, all of us will find harmony because we all have the same goals. This line of argument is weak, not to say quite incredible. Your rational goals may very well conflict with mine. As Hume pointed out, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." (Hume, p. 416). For Spinoza, it may be quite possible to have a rich ethical life even if the universe were to consist solely of one self (which it may, that self being deus sive natura).

Polly surrenders to her emotions

By the third stanza Polly admits that:

"Ja, da kann man doch nicht kalt und herzlos sein" [One just can't be cold and heartless]

We are always experiencing some amount of emotion, as in this remarkable statement of Hume's:

"What we commonly understand by passion is a violent and sensible emotion of mind. ... By reason we mean affections of the very same kind with the former; but such as operate more calmly, and cause no disorder in the temper: Which tranquility leads us into a mistake concerning them, and causes us to regard them as conclusions only of our intellectual faculties" (Hume, p437, emphasis supplied; see also Hume, p417 and Penelhum p128-129).

Emotion always has the potential to affect us or others in ways that can be considered ethically significant. At the extreme (to which we will not venture), acts can be considered moral epiphenomena, and emotions themselves the basic moral reality. But they are either the same kind of thing, or at least analogous.

Nussbaum (1990, p42 and p79) has persuasively pointed out the subtle and pervasive connections between emotions and judgements. Sousa (1994, p276) mentions another aspect: "Emotions frame our decisions. ... First, they define the parameters taken into account in any particular deliberation. Second, in the process of rational deliberation itself, they render salient only a tiny proportion of the available alternatives and of the conceivably relevant facts." And Solomon (1993 p.vii) goes as far as to hold that emotions are "our own judgments, with which we structure the world to our purposes, ... measure the facts of Reality, and ultimately 'constitute' not only our world but ourselves. ... The passions are not irrational; they are in their very essence 'rational'."

More realistically, acts and emotions may be thought of as 'emotion-and-act'. In a baby, emotion and act go together seamlessly: no act without emotion, and no emotion without some overt act. Growing older, we are taught to have emotion without acting out. And in the final stage, we are expected to have no emotion at all except when appropriate, and then the kind, duration, and intensity of the emotion must also be 'appropriate'. This process leaves us with no way to make sense of our own emotions — they seem to 'just happen', or 'erupt' as if from some chthonic source, and this seems to rob them of any ethical significance, leading to the first of the three positions cited as the beginning of this paper, which states that

1 No moral judgements can legitimately be made of expressions of emotion.

But this position is based on errors of fact, and can now be ruled out.

Position number 3 (emotions are of interest to ethical theory, but in a very different way from acts) seems to fail because of the close relation between emotions and acts. For example Nussbaum (Nussbaum 1990, p40-41) has suggested "with Aristotle, that ... the emotions have this cognitive dimension in their very structure, [and therefore] it is very natural to view them as intelligent parts of our ethical agency, responsive to the workings of deliberation and essential to its completion." Each emotion can be traced back to an act performed or not performed, as Spinoza knew: "We endeavor to destroy the man we hate." (Spinoza, p179)

Hate-without-destruction and hate-with-destruction are the same except for their consequences, and are therefore subject to the same kind of moral judgements, although the degree of praise or blame will predictably be less for emotion-without-act than for emotion-with-act. Therefore we can rule out position number 3.

Emotions are a kind of acts

Emotions and acts are of the same kind, although they may have different consequences: and therefore we can affirm position number 2, which holds that,

2 Emotions are subject to moral praise or blame in just the same way (or, analogous to the way) that acts are.

Emotions have the same moral status as acts. Just as some acts can be judged moral, some immoral, and most neutral with respect to morality, so it is with emotions. Just as acts may be appropriate or inappropriate to the situation, so may emotions. And just as otherwise appropriate acts may be too extreme for the circumstances, or not extreme enough, so may emotions.

This does not mean that acts can be substituted for emotions, and vice versa, in any given situation; the standards applicable to each will normally be different, and different in each context and social group; but the process of moral judgement for both will be the same. In Spinoza's formulation,

"What is an action in the mind is necessarily an action in the body as well, and what is a passion in the body is necessarily a passion in the mind. There is no primacy of one series over the other" (Deleuze 1988, page 18).


"Spinoza's doctrine entails the identity of both cognitions and emotions with bodily modifications or occurrences. It thereby extends the scope of ethics, as a doctrine about the right way of living, to both the mental and the physical." (Garrett 1996b p271 [abridged])

To answer our two examples of moral questions, then, if it is wrong to kill black people, it is wrong to hate them, although the degree of blame for each will be different; and if it is wrong to impose oneself sexually on an unwilling person, then it is also wrong to lust for that person, as both Jesus and Jimmy Carter knew, and as Spinoza might have concurred, if the titillation were to prove excessively distracting; and, Macheath's uncaring emotional control of Polly Peachum is wrong, which is just what Brecht's audience was supposed to — believe and feel.


(Alston 1967) Alston, William P. "Emotion and Feeling". Pages 479-486 in Edwards, Paul, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan, 1967.

(Bennett 1984) Bennett, Jonathan. A Study of Spinoza's Ethics. Hackett, 1984.

(Brecht 1949) Brecht, "Barbara-Song", from Songs aus der Dreigroschenoper. Berlin, 1949.

(Deleuze 1988) Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley. City Lights Books, 1988.

(Garrett 1996a) Garrett, Don, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza. Cambridge, 1996.

(Garrett 1996b) Garrett, Don. "Spinoza's Ethical Theory". Pages 267-314 in Garrett (1996a).

(Harkin 2000) Harkin, Paul. "Forces of Unreason". The Philosopher's Magazine, Issue 10, Spring 2000, pages 19-20.

(Harris 1992) Harris, Errol E. Spinoza's Philosophy: An Outline. Humanities Press International, 1992.

(Held 1998) Held, Virginia. "Feminist Transformation of Moral Theory". Pages 331-346 in Sterba (1998).

(Hume 1739) Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature (Selby-Bigge ed.). Oxford, 1888.

(James 1890) James, William. What is an emotion? 1890.

(Lucretius) Quehen, Hugh de. Lucy Hutchinson's Translation of Lucretius: De rerum natura. Michigan, 1996.

(Matthews 1980) Matthews, Gareth. "Ritual and the Religious Feelings". Pages 339-338 in Rorty (1980b)

(McKeon 1928) McKeon, Richard. The Philosophy of Spinoza: The Unity of His Thought. Longmans Green, 1928.

(Nussbaum 1990) Nussbaum, Martha C. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford, 1990.

(Nussbaum 1994) Nussbaum, Martha C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, 1994.

(Pence 1991) Pence, Greg. "Virtue Theory". Pages 249-258 in Singer (1991).

(Penelhum 1993) Penelhum, Terence. "Hume's Moral Psychology". Pages 117-147 in Norton, David Fate, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hume (Cambridge, 1993).

(Rocca 1996) Rocca, Michael Della. "Spinoza's Metaphysical Psychology". Pages 192-266 in Garrett (1996a).

(Rorty 1980a) Rorty, AmŽlie Oksenberg, ed. Explaining Emotions. Berkeley, 1980.

(Rorty 1980b) Rorty, AmŽlie Oksenberg. "Introduction". Pages 1-7 in Rorty (1980a).

(Rorty 1980c) Rorty, AmŽlie Oksenberg. "Explaining Emotions". Pages 103-126 in Rorty (1980a).

(Sachs 1982) Sachs, David. "On Freud's Doctrine of Emotions". Pages 92-105 in Wollheim, Richard, and James Hopkins, eds. Philosophical Essays on Freud. Cambridge, 1982.

(Singer 1991) Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Blackwell, 1991.

(Solomon 1993) Solomon, Robert C. The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. Hackett, 1993.

(Solomon 2000) Solomon, Robert C. "Emotions, Philosophy of". Pages 237-238 in Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Routledge, 2000.

(Sousa 1994) Sousa, Ronald de. "Emotions". Pages 270-276 in Guttenplan, Samuel, ed., A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind. Blackwell, 1994.

(Sousa 1980) Sousa, Ronald de. "The Rationality of Emotions". Pages 127-152 in Rorty (1980a).

(Spinoza 1677) Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics, trans. Samuel Shirley. Hackett, 1992.

(Sterba 1998) Sterba, James P., ed. Ethics: The Big Questions. Blackwell, 1998.

(Stocker 1980) Stocker, Michael. "Intellectual Desire, Emotion, and Action". Pages 323-338 in Rorty (1980a).

(Unger 1984) Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Passion: An Essay on Personality. Free Press, 1984.

(Williams 1973) Williams, Bernard. "Morality and the Emotions". Pages 207-229 in Problems of the Self (Cambridge, 1973).