The Emotional Mind, by Stephen T. Asma and Rami Gabriel (2019), sketches an ambitious research agenda that centers the explanation and understanding of human experience in our embodied, emotional makeup. The book traces the evolutionary development of emotion from earlier mammalian and primate hormonal chemistry and bodily structures and the resulting dispositions and abilities, arguing for a new evolutionary paradigm in the understanding of mind, knowledge, and culture. They infer from the fact that we are evolved biological beings, that “if the human mind is in fact an evolutionary kluge, it must, in some respects, still function in an embodied-extended-embedded non-conceptual manner” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 154). The book aims to serve as a corrective to paradigms that focus on cognition and rationality and set humans apart from their primate and mammalian relatives and ancestors.
Although this book may well outline a good positive agenda for research on the contribution of emotion to thought, interpersonal connection and strife, and culture, it mischaracterizes the role that rationality, and philosophical theories of rationality, play in understanding and shaping our experience. Furthermore, the book is insufficiently critical about the emotional origins of the theories it explores, leading to its uncritical acceptance of androcentric ideas, and it all but ignoring the great and growing problems of group-based inequality. Asma and Gabriel rightly criticize writers like Stephen Pinker (2018) for being overly enthusiastic about the prospects for an increasingly egalitarian future based in scientific rationality; but they also under appreciate the degree to which our emotions and emotionally-laden, cultural constructs, like religion, have condemned us to a contemporary world of oppression and strife. Without robust rationality and critical moral thinking, along with evolutionary adaptations, about our emotion-based urges and biases, we cannot hope for a better future.
RATIONAL CHOICE THEORY AS NORMATIVE, NOT DESCRIPTIVE
Asma and Gabriel rightly criticize (many) modern philosophical theories of rationality and morality for portraying humans as primarily motivated by higher cognition while not bothering to try to explain how cognition develops biologically and evolutionarily. For example, the intentional, rational choice approach to action is agnostic about whether the agent is even a biological being. Without specificity of the kind of being and its embodied characteristics, they argue, the theory is impoverished: “The question of how an action is intentional requires elaborate theoretical calisthenics in a cognitive paradigm that has a place for neither the wide range of abilities enabled by basic affective mechanisms, nor the embodied nature of cognition” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 30). While I agree that understanding how our evolved, embodied dispositions, as well as the ecologies and evolutionary niches that proto-humans and then homo sapiens inhabited during our development, is crucial to explaining how we came to the habits of mind and social behaviors that characterize modern humans, I also think that Asma and Gabriel go too far in their critique of rationality.
Crucially, they confuse descriptive and normative uses of rationality in prudential, moral, and social theorizing. One critique they make is that “the rational choice approach already circumscribes the process [of driving behavior] too narrowly and over-idealizes the agent” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 218). In particular, the theory posits that rational agents act to maximize their own individual interest or utility. Yet this seems to be clearly contradicted by common observation of our behavior:
Against the standard rational agent model, the affective systems complicate the causal story of social behaviors like cooperation and competition . . . . Many of us will be loyal to a friend even when it gives us no advantage and even when (less noted) we disagree with the friend that advantage will at least accrue to them. (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 219)
This critique rings true as long as we are talking about explaining how people in fact behave. But if we want to take a critical look at how people should behave, it is not clear that rational choice theory would recommend against behaving loyally in a long-run scenario. After all, dispositions to behave loyally can bring advantages that cannot be foreseen. It is in one’s best interest generally to maintain friendships and alliances, and to have the reputation for doing so. If on some particular occasion it really isn’t possible to derive an advantage from a
particular act of loyalty, then it may in fact not be good to behave that way. As the saying goes: the only people I owe my loyalty to are those who never made me question theirs.
In the next passage, Asma and Gabriel consider an even more questionable disposition. They write, “similarly, revenge leads us, but leads us badly. We may burn every bridge in our social support system and compromise our own survival, all for the sake of vengeance. The rational choice theory will not help us understand such common human behavior” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 219). Perhaps not; but it will help us see why revenge is better resisted from either a prudential or a moral point of view. That is, rational choice theory can give us a valid argument and reasons for resisting the urge to extract revenge.
In another passage, Asma and Gabriel review the evidence from experiments involving the ultimatum game, where one player proposes a particular split of a prize and the second player can either accept the proposed split or reject it, in which case both players get nothing. Rational choice theory recommends that, in a one-off game, the second player should accept any split that provides a positive return. Experiments reliably show that many people will not accept a split that is significantly less than equal. The authors say that rational choice theory fails to predict the “frequently” employed strategy of rejecting an offer that is low, stating that “emotions explain this easily, whereas rationality (deliberative calculation based on utilitarian rules) does not.” However, they go on to say why the “emotional” response is actually rational: “Anger can be a pre-commitment mechanism that demands more fair distributions in the future” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 220). But this is just the strategy that rational choice theory recommends in repeated games against rational agents—and “pre-commitment” or more often just “commitment” (Ross 2019) are the terms that rational choice theory uses to describe the strategy.
Thus, Asma and Gabriel recognize that when agents could be seen as creating a reputation, the strategy recommended by rational choice theory is in fact borne out in experiments. Still, I admit their claim that behavioral experiments frequently contradict the prediction of rational choice theory. But my larger point is that these contradictions do not show that the choice recommended by the theory is not rational or moral.
Asma and Gabriel are critical of “modern ethical philosophy” for ignoring the insights of the affective paradigm. While I agree that affect is a critical element in moral thinking and theorizing, their critiques are not entirely on the mark. They write that, “the conceit of modern ethical theory ignores the naturalistic underpinnings of human normative life, preferring to derive ethics from categorical imperatives of logic (deontology) or from hedonic calculations (consequentialism)” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 260).
First, if “categorical imperative” is a reference to Kant, then this seems to me to be an incomplete reading of Kant’s corpus. It neglects his lengthy treatment of human nature (Kant 2006), including our underlying emotional and embodied self, which is critical to understanding his moral theory, as Helga Varden’s work shows (Varden 2018). But second, this sentence again assumes that the project of ethical theory is descriptive, which it is not. The authors do add that “Kant, Mill, and Rawls might be the way forward, but they are not very relevant to understanding how we got here” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 220). But even this sentence confuses the normative project with the descriptive in the reference to “the way forward.” Normative theory is not intended to be a predictive theory of future human development, but rather it provides recommendations and principles for action.
No doubt the book makes very important points when it explains how emotions are evolved dispositions that override rational or “cold” cognition. For example, they posit that “emotions like love may have been selected for in part because they trump simple egoistic cost-benefit agendas and provide affective mechanisms for prosocial allegiance” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 220). I would argue that moral theories based in rationality need to incorporate such commitment mechanisms. For example, my favored moral theory, mutual advantage contractarianism, relies on our ability to commit to a long-run disposition to do the right thing without considering short-run advantage even when that appears to be irrational from a cost-benefit perspective. Rationality alone does not generate this disposition reliably because it tells us to always do what is in our best interest and that can motivate us to cheat on those commitments if we think we can get away with it. Love and loyalty can override rationality just when we need them to help bolster the commitment that is in our long-run best interest to adhere to. This is just to say, though, that we need rationality and emotion to be able to do the otherwise hard right things.
Rational choice theory and especially moral theory are, in my view, primarily normative theories. In their normative role, they tell us how we should live rather than predictions about how people do live. It is true that rational choice theory is foundational in economics, which has primarily descriptive aims. But even in economic theory, the ‘behavioral economics turn’—which reveals the limits of rationality for predicting human behavior—is being incorporated into mainstream economics, right alongside and in combination with rational choice theory. While it is clear that our behavior does not always follow the dictates of the latter theory, no economist would suggest that I should not use a rationality-based investment strategy, informed by my preferences about when and how I wish to retire, to build my retirement portfolio.
Rational choice theory and rationality-based moral or political theories are not falsified by human failures to live by them—even by systematic failures. It is true that for these theories to provide much guidance, our emotional makeup must allow us to behave according to them. But Asma and Gabriel explain at length how our mental and emotional makeup is highly plastic, and nothing they have said shows that we cannot constrain behavior at least some of the time by our conscious, rational thoughts (consider, again, rational investment strategies).
So, my suggestion is why not accept the limited role that rationality can play and incorporate it into the development of human emotional and social life? At one point, Asma and Gabriel sympathetically quote Kim Sterelny (2012) suggesting something along this line: “Prosocial and commitment emotions evolved before moral cognition: they made possible the cooperation and cultural learning that prepare the evolution of explicit normative thought” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 120). Rationality and moral cognition are recent developments in our evolutionary history, to be sure. But it is surely useful for taking a critical view toward our emotional dispositions and their social and cultural outgrowths, and not to be dismissed as merely a “provincial world-view” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 293).
Asma and Gabriel would do well (as we all would) to consider how their androcentric perspective skews their understanding of the affective paradigm. In particular, it biases their view of affect-laden, human development. For example, the descriptions of LUST and ANGER (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 80, 82) seem to me to rely too
heavily on male experience, and tend to portray human females as mere objects of male subjectivity. Second, their analysis of shame (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 252-3) begs a feminist reading, such as that provided by Sandra Bartky (1990). She argues that shame is a prevailing emotion for women that maintains male dominance. Shame in women is not about morality (as guilt is) but about social submission—keeping women in their place. Third, Asma and Gabriel uncritically accept attachment theory without mention of the problematic aspects of the theory, despite the searing feminist criticisms to which the theory has been subjected (Eyer 1993). Finally, their description of current “nuclear family” (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 209) dynamics reads like a description of 1950’s white middle-class domesticity. None of this condemns their overall project of developing the affective paradigm, which may itself serve well as a good feminist corrective to the cognitive and rationality paradigms. But applying a feminist critical lens should be high on the research agenda if it is to avoid these and other androcentric biases.
NEED TO OVERCOME AFFECTIVE ROOTS OF OPPRESSION
In addition to a better understanding of how the human mind and sociality has evolved in our primate bodies, though, we need a rationality theory and moral theories based in rationality in order to identify unjust individual and interpersonal behavior, and systematically oppressive social policies. The authors explain well how Big Man groups (Asma and Gabriel 2019, 207) would have arisen from the emotional makeup of early humans, but they do not identify or critique the inequality and oppressiveness of such groups. Furthermore, their theories explain only inequality within social groups. Yet to assume that our emotions and sex-based hormones tell the entire story of inequality is to suggest that inequality is entirely natural and immutable. This ignores the struggles for and progress toward equality and dignity that have occurred throughout human history. Humans clearly have the ability to develop a sense of justice, based in rationality, and to take a stand against emotion-laden, cultural constructs that reinforce inequality and oppression. We would do well not to ignore that ability and evidence of its history in our quest for a better understanding of human experience in our embodied, emotional makeup.