Emotional Skepticism

                                                Emotional Skepticism

 

 

Our emotions are set at a certain level: we feel a certain degree of anxiety, fear, happiness, and depression. Consider our fear of death: we fear it to a certain degree, neither more nor less. True, some people fear death more than others, and each of us can vary from day to day or in different circumstances; but there is a kind of average value for fear of death, both for individuals and the species. We don’t wake up every day feeling an intense fear of death (given that it is highly improbable on that day); nor do we wake up fearing death no more than a rainstorm. We feel fear of death to a degree d (similarly for the other emotions). We tend to assume that this degree is normal, rational, and sane—anything else would be inappropriate or deranged. That is, we think we know that our emotions are set at roughly the right level—that they are correctly calibrated. We believe this as we believe that there is an external world, that other people have minds, that the past is real, etc—these are just parts of common sense.

            But skeptics question these everyday assumptions. The emotional skeptic suggests that we really don’t know if our emotional scale is correctly calibrated. Maybe we are too afraid of death, or not afraid enough; maybe we overdo our anxiety about passing that examination, or understate it; maybe we are not happy enough, or too happy. The skeptic agrees that certain situations merit certain emotions, but it is a further question whether our usual degree of emotion is merited. He wonders whether our emotional setting is rational, justified. How, he asks, can we prove that what we habitually feel is appropriate? Maybe our setting should be d’ when it is actually d. Can we say with confidence that another species with a quite different setting is provably irrational?

            Emotional skepticism comes in two forms: one form says that we might have the setting wrong; the other says that there is no such thing as a correct setting. The first skeptic thinks there is a fact of the matter about d but we don’t know what it is and may have it wrong; the second says that there is no fact of the matter—it is simply indeterminate what setting is correct. This latter skeptic says that the whole idea of a correct setting is a mistake: any setting is as good as any other. Absolute terror of harmless birds is no more irrational than normal human fear of lions and tigers. Both sorts of skepticism should be added to the usual roster of types of skepticism

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