Nussbaum Notes

Emotion can be rational or irrational, based on belief. According to Nussbaum, the ancients in general did not view reason and emotion as opposites: they assessed emotions as rational or irrational depending on the situation. For them, “all emotions are to some degree ‘rational’ in a descriptive sense—all are to some degree cognitive and based upon belief—and they may then be assessed, as beliefs are assessed, for their normative status” (304).

So if you believe someone keyed your car, it’s rational to feel angry at them for doing that, because in this society, cars are expensive, and it’s normal to value them.

Aristotle’s goal is to teach rhetors how to produce emotions in an audience through language precisely because he, like many of his contemporaries, accepts that emotions are a function of belief and so they can be reliably produced and subtracted through discourse and argument (305-6).

Fear is “a particularly human experience with a rich intentional awareness of its object, resting on beliefs and judgments of many sorts, both general and concrete” (308).

Fear vs being startled. To distinguish fear from merely being startled, Nussbaum explains the diff btw appearance (phantasia) and belief: an appearance alone is not something I’ll commit myself to, whereas a belief involves a conviction (306-7). Same goes for emotions: to have an emotion (rather than a bodily sensation prompted by an appearance alone), a belief must be involved. Someone’s sudden appearance may startle you, but it doesn’t escalate to fear unless you believe this someone is going to hurt you or do something awful. It doesn’t matter if your belief is wrong; it only matters that you do indeed believe it.

To experience the emotion of fear, you have to believe that the object of your fear is an evil you can’t prevent that will cause you great pain and destruction, that it’s on its way right now (it’s impending), and that you are powerless to prevent it (308). But you won’t feel fear, according to Aristotle, if you don’t believe you are vulnerable or that you have something to lose. All these beliefs are the necessary conditions of the emotion. Your level of fear will increase if you believe the suffering you’ll undergo is ginormous and irreparable, and if you believe no one’s on their way to help. Your level of fear will drop off the radar if you believe you’re no longer vulnerable—you have nothing left to lose.

These beliefs are not optional but a necessary condition of fear. Furthermore, the distress and pain associated with fear are indissociable from these beliefs and judgments. Change the belief/judgment, and you’ll change the level of the distress, or perhaps obliterate it.

If Jason from Friday the 13th suddenly shows up in your bathroom while you’re in the shower, it’d be reasonable for you to be very afraid. But if he turns out to be your partner in disguise, your panic-fear will immediately dissipate. On the other hand, if Jason actually shows up and you believe it’s your partner in a mask, it’s reasonable for you to not be afraid, right up until the point where he gets you.

Pity is parallel to fear with different beliefs. Three necessary beliefs for pity: you must believe that the suffering person doesn’t deserve it; that you are vulnerable to this particular evil, too; and that the suffering is not trivial but significant. Therefore a pitier must already believe that there are some good people in the world who don’t deserve for bad things to happen to them (308). And if you believe you are invulnerable to this sort of suffering, Aristotle says you won’t feel pity. (309)

Aristotle’s list of significant impediments (ones that might be pitiable) include: death, bodily assault, old age, illness, lack of food, friendlessness, separation from friends, ugliness (“which impedes friendship,” Nussbaum adds), weakness, having a disability, being disappointed, …etc.

Nussbaum concludes that for Aristotle, “emotions have a rich cognitive structure.” They aren’t “mindless surges of affect, but discerning ways of viewing objects: and beliefs of various types are their necessary conditions.” Beliefs are “constituent parts of the emotion itself” (309). The structure is: “If they think X, they will experience emotion Y.” Though, she explains that it’s much more complicated than that.

The beliefs involved in the central cases of emotion, Nussbaum says, all involve the “ascription of significant worth to items in the world outside of the agent, items that she does not fully control” (312). If you didn’t value other people and things that can be harmed in the world, you wouldn’t feel love, pity, fear, anger. Love, Nussbaum notes, requires a belief in your own non-selfsufficiency (312). We express this with phrases like “I need you,” “I’m nothing without you,” “You complete me,” and so on. “Deep attachment to uncontrolled things or persons in the world can provide the basis for any and all of the major emotions, given the appropriate changes in circumstance” (313).

Nussbaum contrasts Aristotle’s approach with Plato’s: Plato believed the only significant value is virtue, so a good man is indeed pretty much invincible and self-sufficient. In the Republic, Plato considers pity, fear, and grief the wrong emotional responses. Only a lapse in virtue is significant, but that’s under one’s control, so you shouldn’t pity this person but blame them. Tragic poetry teaches the wrong emotions, he argues, by portraying loss of loved ones, fortune, political standing, etc., as worth caring about. That’s why Plato bans tragic poetry from the Republic.

Aristotle disagrees, arguing that there are things you should care about in the world, including friends, family, your own life and health, etc., each of which can sometimes be damaged by forces beyond your control. So fear is a rational and good emotion to have in some cases (315).

Both Plato and Aristotle talked about a pedagogy of the emotions. They believed that emotions require education, that emotions must be trained, normed, according to society’s values. Emotions, Nussbaum writes of Aristotle, need to be “educated and brought into harmony with a correct view of the good human life” (316). The correctly educated person will possess a practical wisdom that will guide them to respond to specific situations in emotionally appropriate ways.

Practical wisdom, in other words, is not detached reason but deliberation immersed in one’s world and that consults the emotions along with other pertinent judgments. A decision reached in this way is more and not less rational, Nussbaum suggests. (Though reason itself has its limits, let’s admit.)

Judgment is bound up with emotions, according to Aristotle, and good judgment is bound up with properly educated emotions. This emotional education takes place first and foremost in the family (318). Before one can engage philosophical training successfully, one must have endured proper emotional shaping via the family and other relations, including institutions. 

This is a gigantic ethical problem, of course, and there’s no way around it: if emotions are not simply natural but normed, if they involve beliefs and convictions that you’re taught from a very young age and that are so engrained that you don’t question them, then your feelings may be a rational guide to what is ethical according to those normative beliefs, but may not be a good guide to an ethics beyond those norms. Nussbaum: “the emotions may depend upon a type of belief and judgement that is less accessible to dialectical scrutiny than are most of the person’s other beliefs” (319).

If you are taught that animals are machines that don’t feel pain, you will not feel compassion when one is tortured. If you are taught that a certain type of person is not valuable or worthy of your concern, you will not feel pity or anger or fear on their behalf—nor love. If you’re taught to fear every male teen in a hoodie, that fear will limit your capacity for compassion when that teen is wrongly accused. And so on.

Also, and we’ll get to this later, organizations devoted to helping former hate-group members detach from hateful beliefs have discovered that simply changing one’s conscious beliefs about a former target of hate won’t necessarily keep their body from being unconsciously “triggered” to feel that hate again (even if they don’t act on it). So two things, for later in the semester: first, it appears that a deep-level belief may condition the body in ways that are difficult for the body to overcome, even after those beliefs consciously change; and second, on the flip side, bodily sensation may condition normative beliefs, as well as the other way around.