Learning emotions and ethics

In Peter Goldie (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion. Oxford University Press (2010)
Innate emotional bases of ethics have been proposed by authors in evolutionary psychology, following Darwin and his sources in eighteenth-century moral philosophy. Philosophers often tend to view such theories as irrelevant to, or even as tending to undermine, the project of moral philosophy. But the importance of emotions to early moral learning gives them a role to play in determining the content of morality. I argue, first, that research on neural circuits indicates that the basic elements or components of emotions need not be limited to what psychologists think of as basic emotions. But in that case, innate mechanisms of social transfer of emotion, such as infants’ tendency to facial imitation, gaze-following, and emotional contagion or empathy, provide a source of plasticity in developing the basic elements that lets emotions incorporate cultural influence from early on. This leaves room later for cognitive components of adult human emotions and hence for the further role of language in conveying cultural influence. We can thus see how moral judgment might depend on innate emotional capacities that are both modifiable by culture and capable of registering objective values. I use Rawls’s treatment of the development of moral sentiments to illustrate the kind of supportive role that emotions can play in a principle-based account – though my own account involves modifications I go on to indicate.
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