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Emotional ReasonReview - Emotional Reason
Deliberation, Motivation and the Nature of Value
by Bennett W. Helm
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Review by Simon Kirchin, Ph.D.
Feb 17th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 7)

When we judge that charity-giving is good and that we should give, how should we characterize the judgement? Does the world have ethical properties of goodness and the like and are our judgements attempts to describe it and its properties? Or, instead, does the world have no value really and are we merely expressing attitudes towards it, doing something essentially the same, although more sophisticated, as saying 'Mmmm!' or 'Yuk!' when we taste sprouts?

This is the central question in metaethics. Everyone thinks that ethical values appear to exist. But do they really exist? What is their nature? And what is really going on when we ethically judge? These questions have far more than a narrow ethical or metaphysical interest. In developing a plausible position one must draw heavily on philosophy of mind and ideas about the emotions and human psychology. If ethical judgements are attempts to describe the world, then they are matters of cognition and our moral mental states are representational. If they are expressions of attitude then it means that our mental states are conative and desire-like.

This is the traditional way of setting the debate up: that, roughly, we must choose one or the other and develop it as an explanation of what is going on when we make ethical judgements. However, in recent years the distinction between the cognitive and the conative has been challenged by a few people, most notably by John McDowell and David Wiggins. Why think that these are the only options? Might there not be a third option that is, in some sense, some interesting combination of both? Bennett Helm aims to develop a comprehensive account of what this type of mental state might be in this new book. It is a penetrating analysis of the way the debate is usually set up, it is lucid and Helm defends his position well. I should confess that I am favourably disposed to the position anyway, but Helm should be complemented on making good his aim to detail a position that is often only gestured at.

Why think there is a problem anyway? Helm argues that the assumption that cognitive states are distinct from conative ones (the 'cognitive-conative assumption') results in an inability to offer satisfactory resolutions to two fundamental problems. First, when we judge that charity-giving is good, and that we should give right now, we are often moved to act. But sometimes we are weak-willed or listless and fail to act. How can we explain the fact that sometimes the connection exists and that we have rational control over our motivation but also that sometimes the connection does not exist? What is going on in our moral psychology? Conceiving of our ethical mental states as wholly cognitive and representational is problematic since it seems hard to bridge the gap between judging and being motivated. How can an essentially representational state have any rational affect at all on our motivations? Similarly, conceiving of ethical mental states as being wholly conative seems wrong. We lose the connection between our ethical mental states as picking out reasons that we have to act; all we are doing, essentially, is expressing desires. And, by definition, if ethical mental states are desire-like then they will always result in motivation of some strength. But how do we explain listlessness, the fact that sometimes we make ethical judgements ('proper' ethical judgements, not merely the mouthing of ethical terms) and feel no motivation at all? One could have a hybrid view such that some ethical mental states are cognitive whilst others are conative. Helm argues forcibly that, instead, it is possible to have a general explanation that conceives of all ethical mental states in the same way. Briefly, such states would be both representational and motivationally efficacious where such aspects are not seen as separate elements in one state but essentially entangled together. This is possible only if one rejects the cognitive-conative assumption.

The second fundamental problem is one of deliberation. Helm is concerned not so much with deliberation about moral values but centrally with what sort of person we should be and what we should do. He claims that there are both subjective and objective aspects to such deliberation. It is subjective because to some extent it is up to us to choose what sort of person we should be and invent ourselves. The idea of wholly external norms and constraints on who we should be makes little, if any, sense. This lends weight to conceiving of mental states where we decide what to do as desire-like: 'what do I want to be like?' Yet, such deliberation is also objective in that we choose who we are for a reason, and we think that there are better and worse reasons and that people can go wrong in how they choose to act and live. There seems some amount of rational discovery and this supports the idea that such deliberation is representational. There is clearly a clash. Helm again argues that the way to avoid the clash is to reject the cognitive-conative assumption.

The two opposing camps presented above - that ethical judgements are representational or that they are desire-like - have been developed in sophisticated ways. However, Helm is right in my view in thinking that holding to the cognitive-conative assumption means that the two problems above retain their force despite such developments. Helm's own view is that we must tread a middle, third path. One can understand the notion of a good reason, and what it is important for us to do and be, only with reference to what we find important. But, we are not free to find anything important. Our evaluations are constrained by what is in the world. Neither ethical properties in the world, such as goodness, nor our judgements of them are ontologically prior to the other. Helm extends this general idea with respect to emotions, preferences and values. Within this analysis he resolves the motivational problem by offering an alternate view outlined in the third paragraph above.

The debate that Helm discusses is one of the most interesting and sophisticated in modern philosophy. The general, non-specialized reader should, therefore, be wary as although Helm explains things well, it might not be the place to look for an introduction to emotion and moral psychology generally. Yet, Helm's book should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand fully current debates in metaethics, and how our claims about the world and our conceptions of what we should become are linked with our emotions and motivational impulses.

© 2002 Simon Kirchin

Simon Kirchin is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol, U.K.


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