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94th Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society

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SWIP: Emotion, Epistemic Justification, and Oppressive Structures – Eilidh Harrison


  • Katharine Jenkins (SWIP moderator)

    10th July 2020 at 5:04 pm

    Welcome, everyone! Thanks to Eilidh for a brilliant talk, thanks to Rachel Paine who organized this panel on behalf of SWIP, and thanks to the Joint Session organizing team for hosting it.

    Over the weekend, please post your comments for Eilidh below and let’s get a good discussion going. Of course it goes without saying that we aim for a friendly and collaborative atmosphere. In addition, with the online format, it’s worth being as clear as possible whether you are posing a question or just offering a comment, and how many of each, so the speakers can respond to all your points (since unlike in our in-person panels, we’re not limited to one-question-per-question).

    Looking forward to the discussion!

  • Lucienne

    11th July 2020 at 10:20 am

    Thanks for this fascinating talk Eilidh! I’m really interested in the emotional learning view and I was wondering if you could say a little more about it? How would you respond to someone who argued that there seems to be a false analogy between emotional learning and perceptual learning? I’m unsure that honing sense-perception would be the same as honing the correct emotional responses to a situation, especially as the climate of socio-political oppression would keep re-affirming that the inappropriate emotional response is, in fact, the correct one e.g a woman may experience sexual harassment and the oppressive social systems would suggest that amusement is the correct emotional reaction and anger is the incorrect emotional reaction. Perhaps colleagues may laugh along at an amusing response to the harassment but may roll their eyes at an indignant response.
    Many thanks in advance!

    1. Eilidh Harrison

      11th July 2020 at 6:02 pm

      Thanks, Lucienne! You’re completely right that there seem to be some notable disanalogies between perceptual and emotional learning processes. One of which, as you note in your example, is that it seems fairly straightforward to ‘check’ the accuracy of our perceptual systems against the sensible reality to facilitate the perceptual learning process, whereas this doesn’t seem quite so possible in the emotional learning case.- precisely for the reasons you give!

      I have a couple of tentative things to say about this. The first of which is the boring answer, which is that I don’t mean the hinge the plausibility of the Emotional Learning view on there being a strict analogy between emotional and perceptual learning processes – I only intend the basic model of perceptual learning to be illustrative of how we might think of the basic facets of the emotional learning process as it’s relevant here, i.e. that it causes long-term changes in sensitivity to particular properties. So, if it turns out that there are significant differences between the two, I wouldn’t take this to immediately undermine the emotional learning view.

      The second thing I have to say is (hopefully!) a little more interesting. First, I think you’re completely right than an oppressive climate can serve as a barrier to a subject emotionally learning, say, that harassment is offensive, precisely because of her colleagues’ inappropriate responses of amusement towards harassment, or because of how her wider society minimises the harm of harassment, and so forth. If, as a result of this, our subject experiences amusement towards instances of harassment, then I take it that the emotional learning view will rule that she is *not* immediately justified in her belief that the harassment is amusing on the basis of her amusement, precisely because that experience does not arise from her learned capacity to identify instances of this sort as instantiating the evaluative property of ‘being amusing’ (because they don’t instantiate this property!). Hopefully, this seems like the right result. We don’t want emotional experiences which have been developed as a result of a subject’s having internalised false beliefs about the harmlessness of harassment to be capable of justifying her belief that harassment is amusing, or harmless, or the like.

      So, the question arises: how can she emotionally learn that instances like this constitute an offence, if she receives constant societal feedback that they are, in fact, harmless and amusing? One suggestion might be that, despite her societally-sustained belief that these instances are amusing, she *actually* experiences some small degree of discomfort or irritation when confronted with harassment. Now, this emotional discomfort might be a mystery to her, given its mismatch with her conscious evaluative belief, but *this* emotional discomfort strikes me as the epistemically valuable emotional experience that EL aims to capture. In this case, then, we might think that she’s already emotionally learned that instances of harassment like this are offensive, insofar as her emotional system is picking up the property of ‘offensiveness’ instantiated by the harassment, but her conscious societally-sustained belief to the contrary is intervening as a defeater for the justification that otherwise would have been conferred by the emotional experience. As another suggestion, we might suppose that she experiences *no* degree of discomfort, or offence, and is genuinely amused by the harassment. In this case, it would seem to be that she could only begin the process of emotionally learning that harassment constitutes an offence by being confronted with evidence that it, in fact, does, e.g. perhaps by credible and convincing testimony from other women.

      I hope that these comments are helpful (and haven’t perplexed you further!)

      1. Lucienne Spencer

        12th July 2020 at 1:32 pm

        Thank you so much for this in-depth response! I think both points are very interesting. I can actually imagine a case of cognitive dissonance, whereby one may have two conflicting emotional responses. In the case of an inappropriate comment at work, one may be simultaneously amused yet have a nagging feeling of anger or discomfort. I look forward to hearing your response to Katherine’s follow up too!

  • Richard Rowland

    11th July 2020 at 1:35 pm

    Hi Eilidh. Thanks so much for really interesting talk. I just wanted to get a bit clearer on what distinguishes the challenge to Carter’s view from oppression from other nearby challenges. It seems possible that someone might be very reliable at detecting whether someone is blameworthy via their anger response to actions but be very bad at detecting whether someone’s life is enviable via their envy response: suppose that I just always think that the grass is greener on the other side! We shouldn’t think that my anger cannot justify my blameworthiness beliefs just because my capacity for envy doesn’t reliably track the enviable.
    Is the challenge from oppression a particular version of this challenge or is there something else here? One additional feature is or might be that your challenge shows that Carter’s view without amendment would produce epistemic injustice.
    Anyway, your amendment seems to evade the challenge I have in mind too. So perhaps I’ve just given another reason to accept your view!

    1. Eilidh Harrison

      11th July 2020 at 5:35 pm

      Thanks, Richard! Good question. I completely agree with your comments here on how it seems like we shouldn’t rule that an emoter’s (reliable) experiences of anger ought to be denied justificatory power because of the comparative unreliability of their experiences of envy, say.

      I do think that the challenge from oppression is a particular instantiation of this more general challenge you identify, i.e. one which pushes the view that we should adopt a fine-grained epistemic evaluation of the justificatory power of different emotion-types, instead of making broad, coarse-grained evaluations about the justificatory power of one’s emotional experiences in general. What I think is distinct about the challenge of oppression is the angle through which this challenge is motivated, i.e. the upshot of this challenge is that we should adopt this fine-grained analysis *because* otherwise we risk denying justificatory power to certain emotions experienced by oppressed persons which, for a whole host of reasons (including the risk of epistemic injustice you mention), seems like a bad result.

      I hope that clarifies things a little!

      1. Richard Rowland

        11th July 2020 at 5:44 pm

        Great, thanks Eilidh. That’s super helpful. Thanks again for the paper.

  • Katharine Jenkins

    12th July 2020 at 10:04 am

    Hi Eilidh,
    I really enjoyed your paper, Eilidh, and I have a follow-up question to Lucienne’s question and your reply. I am wondering whether, in response to the worry Lucienne raises, we might also be able to say that there can be a range of ways for a climate to affirm a certain emotional response, and some of them might be compatible with the kind of oppressive attitudes we’re concerned with here (e.g. everyone around you thinking that harassment is amusing).

    I’m thinking of a case where, say, S is subject to sexualising comments in the workplace and her co-workers all respond with amusement. What if S has the opportunity to observe that her social status is diminished by the comments, i.e. her co-workers subsequently treat her with less respect? Now, I’m thinking that if this kind of thing happened often, S would come to learn, by experience, that sexualising comments lead to the lowering of her social status. Also, I take it that S lives in a society in which it’s generally accepted that having your social status lowered for no good reason is apt cause for anger. I am tentatively wondering whether this might indirectly provide some affirmation for S’s developing, perhaps nascent, anger response?

    Another example that is perhaps more intuitive is a case where S is cat-called on the street; a man wolf-whistles at her, or shouts ‘hey gorgeous’, or similar. Now, we might think that a fear response is apt her, but I take it many people in an oppressive society would think that fear is inapt, and that indifference or even mild pleasure (it’s flattering!) is the appropriate emotional response. But if S has experience of cat-callers escalating (when she ignores the initial cat-call) to verbal abuse and physical intimidation such as following her, she might develop an (apt) fear response to cat-calls. I think this is going to be reinforced by (1) her practical experience of that sort of escalation, and (2) society’s agreement that verbal abuse and physical intimidation *are* genuinely fearful.

    I wonder (a) if you think this kind of story about how learning could happen despite oppression is plausible, and (b) if this would count as emotional learning of the right sort for your view?

    Thanks again for a really engaging talk!

    1. Eilidh Harrison

      12th July 2020 at 5:11 pm

      Thanks, Katharine – these are very helpful examples! I definitely want to answer ‘yes’ to both of your questions. These are exactly the kinds of cases that I hope the emotional learning view captures, i.e. cases in which a subject, through repeated experience with certain events and states of affairs , comes to emotionally learn that those certain states of affairs (e.g. sexualising comments in the workplace or cat-calling) instantiate particular evaluative properties (e.g. offensiveness or fearsomeness), precisely because it’s through the repeated experience that the subject comes to (non-emotionally) learn the likely patterns of events which follow from the original instance of harassment, or the catcalling, or the like. In other words, the subject, through repeated experience with the event, gains a fuller understanding of the relevant non-evaluative properties of, say, instances of catcalling (e.g. often leads to escalation, draws attention to her in a way that renders her vulnerable to further interference, etc.), and these non-evaluative properties give rise to the evaluative property of ‘fearsomeness’ instantiated by the instances of catcalling.

      These cases strike me as realistic descriptions as to how this emotional learning process works in practice, in a way that’s, as you mention, compatible with the kind of climate that Lucienne describes above, i.e. a climate in which the ‘wrong’ emotional experience (e.g. amusement) is affirmed and encouraged. In these cases, then, it strikes me as very plausible that the subject’s fear is capable of immediately justifying her belief that instances of catcalling are fearsome. What is tricky is the question of whether a climate like this prevents her from forming that belief in the first place! That is, although the presence of this climate doesn’t undermine the justificatory power of the emotional experience itself (because it’s formed via the subject’s learned emotional capacity to identify instances of this sort as fearsome), it may prevent the subject from forming the belief that instances of catcalling are fearsome.

      I hope that makes sense, and is helpful!

  • Elliot Porter

    12th July 2020 at 4:57 pm

    Hi Eilidh
    Great talk. And helpfully plugs v neatly into something i’m working on so just the paper I needed to read atm. I think I hold a view fairly similar to yours but not developed in detail.

    I wonder whether you have any thoughts about other phenomena that can intervene as defeaters for our coming to hold justified beliefs about value. Climates of oppression, I think, probably do intervene and damage our generative competence as you outline. I wonder if you think that affective disorders (a term to be careful with ofc, vis, Rachel and Lisa’s session) intervene in the same way. There are obv lots of ways that depression and oppression are disanalogous in how they alter our emotions, but what they have in common is a role in disposing us to affective responses that are inappropriate, unreliable, or ill-fitting to the stimulus (just as amusement at sexist jokes is ill fitting, whereas anger is fitting).

    I’d firstly wonder whether you had any thoughts on this as a set of cases, but I am working on an argument that might offer another reason to support your EL view. If our emotions can represent things to us as Good or Bad, it seems a lot of cases of depression involve emotional responses that fail to represent many things as Good. The kind of prudential listlessness that is really common can be explained as emotions failing to represent one’s own interests as a Good, or as reason-giving. It looks like this injures our Generative Competence. It looks to me very much that the process of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and it’s hundred variations, involves a kind of emotional re-learning. We rely on our deliberation and cognitive attitudes to some extent to start training our affect to take things as Good again. I wonder if you think this might be a case where the kind of emotional learning you are talking about is at work?

    1. Eilidh Harrison

      12th July 2020 at 5:51 pm

      Hi Elliot – thanks for this interesting analogy. The emotional epistemology of cases like the ones you set out is unfamiliar philosophical territory to me, so take these comments with a pinch of salt! I suppose that some further detail on how we spell out ‘competence’ here might be helpful. Carter (and, consequently, my discussion) adopts Sosa’s triple-S constitution model of competence, so, roughly speaking, a subject has generative emotional competence if that subject has generative emotional skill (i.e. they’re reliably successful at experiencing the appropriate emotion), and is in proper shape and situation in order to manifest that skill in her emotional performance. Again, super roughly, shape and situation correspond to favourable internal and external conditions for the subject. So, the complete generative emotional competence requires the skill, the shape, and the situation.

      With these comments in mind, then, one suggestion you might make about the clinical depression case is that the subject simply isn’t in proper *shape* to be assessed in terms of their generative emotional competence, i.e. she is not in favourable internal conditions in order to manifest her generative emotional skill. However, setting aside the subtleties of the competence structure, I’m not sure about whether I’m inclined to identify paradigmatic instances of CBT as an instance of the kind of emotional learning I’m interested in here! The central reason for this is that I don’t have the relevant knowledge about what CBT entails with respect to training or developing one’s emotional disposition. I suppose it would depend on the details of the case at hand, but, if CBT involves coming to emotionally learn that an event or state of affairs instantiates a given evaluative property through repeated experience with and exposure to that event, then perhaps it would! One thing to note, though: I’m reluctant to build in the necessity of conscious cognition and deliberation into the emotional learning process.

      Hope that at least goes some way in clarifying!

  • Rachel Paine

    12th July 2020 at 6:52 pm

    Hi Eilidh,

    Your discussion of the felt qualities of something that cannot be put into words or experienced directly, despite the feelings that may be just below the surface and not thoroughly understood, is so interesting. The idea that our awareness of what’s happening to us or around us is an ongoing process does, itself, need to be taught. Thanks so much for the talk and the concept of emotional learning.

    1. Eilidh Harrison

      13th July 2020 at 11:30 am

      Thank you for this, Rachel! And thanks for all of your work in organising this panel. It’s been a great experience!