The Emotional Mind and The Moral Mind

Bongrae Seok

Alvernia University, Pennsylvania, USA

Seok, Bongrae. 2020. "The Emotional Mind and The Moral Mind." Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 2, no. 2: 17-24.

Abstract: In The Emotional Mind, Asma and Gabriel (2019) develop their grand vision of affect. Their goal is to demonstrate the foundational and pervasive nature of emotion in the mind, culture and society through the embodied, embedded, and enactive process of evolution. The book discusses how affective adaptation supports or leads diverse facets of human psychology and society. In this paper, however, I raise three critical questions about Asma and Gabriel’s approach to emotion: (1) whether emotion is a natural kind, (2) whether internalized self-critical emotions came to exist through the adaptive and interactive process of decoupling, and (3) whether the variance and integrity of the tripartite layers of the mind can be maintained.

Keywords: emotional mind, decoupling, co-option, moral emotion, shame, homology

The Emotional Mind is a book of a grand vision. It attempts to provide “a full scale exploration of the evolution of emotions and mind in the biologically rooted human being” (2).[1] The authors, Stephen Asma and Rami Gabriel (2019), argue that “emotional systems are central to understanding the evolution of the human mind (as well as that of our primate cousins)” by bringing “insights and data from philosophy, biology, and psychology to shape a new research program” (2). Their approach to the emotional mind is not only philosophical and psychological but also biological, anthropological, social, and cultural. They develop a comprehensive and carefully organized analysis of the extended, embedded, and enactive nature of emotion that many conventional approaches, such as those of the computational, propositional, or modular models of the emotional mind do not provide.

Asma and Gabriel argue that emotion is not just limited to the psychological, but should also be extended into the broad realm of the biological with its evolutionary history. Social norms have been shaped by and constructed with affect management (204); the invention of tools and sophisticated use of language are founded

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upon the process of emotional modernity (7); the cognitive mind and its representational capacity are derived from imaginative and decoupled affect (153-183); intentionality is deeply rooted in conative aboutness (17); the social and cultural mind had been developed by stimulating and managing emotion (204-263); and the role of religion is that of shaping social solidarity through ritualized affect sculpting (264-310). The Emotional Mind, therefore, is a book of an ambitious research project. Its goal is to demonstrate that “affective adaptation to the specific ecological and social topography of human groups is a causal factor in the creation, maintenance, and eventual change of the social norms that define culture and organization” (18).

I think Asma and Gabriel’s project provides an inspiring support for the new wave of the affective turn that focuses on the embodied and emotional human experience that is foundational and pervasive in the inner mind and the outer world, but not fully captured by cognitive and formal methodologies. However, I found some inconsistencies and limitations in their explanation of emotion (in general) and moral emotions (in particular). In the following sections, I will discuss their views on the unity of emotion (emotion as a natural kind), the evolution of self-critical moral emotions, and the tripartite layers of the mind.


Asma and Gabriel assume that emotion is a natural kind of psychology or, at least, believe in the unitary conception of emotion. Although they do not explicitly discuss whether emotion is a natural kind or not, they seem to believe that emotion has a categorical or projectable unity in psychology and neuroscience, and argue for its pervasive presence in all stages of human evolution and human psychology. By following the works of Panksepp, Damasio, and Davidson, they state that “affective neuroscience isolates emotional brain systems (largely those regions of the brain we share with other animals) that undergird adaptive behaviors in vertebrates” (2). They define emotion through terms such as the “power to feel and respond appropriately” (3) and the “satisfaction and return to homeostasis” (3).

Considering the diverse processes and functions observed in different forms or types of emotion, however, this unified notion of emotion could invite inconsistencies or confusions. Emotion may not be a natural kind. Some scholars such as Nussbaum (2001) and Solomon (1976) believe that emotions are judgments with cognitive (imagistic, conceptual, or propositional) content, while others see emotions at a level where ascription of any such cognitive content is impossible or nonsensible, specifically in animals’ and young children’s minds.

Although the diverse functions of emotion can occur together, they are distinct processes, identified and studied separately. There are many of these seemingly uniform and consistent, but clearly distinct psychological processes. For example, empathy has been understood as a unified or singular function of the mind. However, recent brain imaging studies report that there are, at least, three different types of empathy (cognitive, affective sharing, and prosocial motivation) with different processes and functions (Decety and Cowell 2014). These studies demonstrate that what most people or philosophers call “empathy” is, in fact, a group of interrelated but distinct processes. One may argue that these different forms of empathy share a common psychological property (i.e., a vicarious and other-concerning emotional state). However, studies of selective impairment of empathy in psychopathy and autism show that they are not simply different versions of the same empathy, but very different empathies. Perhaps the same can be true of emotion as a unified and projectable category of psychology.

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Although different forms of emotion interact with each other or share some processes together, they serve different functions, utilize different processes or mechanisms and are affected differently by brain damage.

One can argue, perhaps, that Asma and Gabriel do not need to abandon their grand view of affectivism because of the complexity or heterogeneity of emotion. Even though emotion is not a natural kind, one can still argue for the pervasive and consistent nature of affect through the various types of emotional states in different levels and stages of social evolution, and human psychology. The two (i.e., the conceptually unified and theoretically projectable notion of emotion and the pervasive presence of affect), although interrelated, are different issues that can be studied and argued for or against on separate grounds. Even though Asma and Gabriel are wrong in assuming the unity of emotion at the fundamental level of affect, they can still argue for the pervasiveness of diversely manifested affect in the human mind, society, and civilization. However, it is still important to understand and to discuss the nature of the two issues so that the former is not used to support the latter or vice versa.


Among the inspiring hypotheses and analyses developed in this book, Asma and Gabriel’s explanation of moral emotion is very stimulating. They argue that our intuitive moral sense has evolved through different stages or levels of evolution. Specifically, in the process of evolution, moral emotions are internalized and universalized (or, to use Asma and Gabriel’s terminology, “decoupled” from the original environment of their evolution) to become adaptive to the changing conditions of their social and cultural environments. Shame and guilt, for example, are the kind of emotions that are evolved from foundational affects to specialized emotions because they impose an internalized, self-directed psychological sanction in two different ways. Asma and Gabriel clearly point out this unique aspect of shame and guilt, but their explanation misses important psychological properties of shame.

Asma and Gabriel’s discussion focuses on a specific form of shame that serves a regulative function similar to that of guilt. Both shame and guilt impose regulative inner sanction to the minds of moral or social violators and play important preventive roles for their future violations. They state that “emotions like shame, guilt, and forgiveness are fostered in religion because they are highly adaptive in shaping behaviors within large-scale cooperative social ecologies” and add that “the feelings of shame and guilt are, at bottom, the secondary-level limbic feelings of privation and social alienation. These feelings might be explicit in the overt ostracism of the community, or they might be implicit in the virtual ostracism of the penitent’s mind” (301).

This type of shame is a form of shame evolved from an earlier form of self-protective awareness that served to signal subordination and appeasement in front of highly ranked individuals in a social hierarchy for the purpose of dominance negotiation and peace (Fessler 1999; Gilbert 1989, 1992; Keltner and Harker 1998). If one does not display an appropriate signal, one may be attacked by socially or physically dominant individuals. Shame (or proto-shame) is such a sense of self-protection. This type of shame is observed in some social animals, such as primates, and is homologous with the evolved shame that Asma and Gabriel discuss in this book.

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In addition, there is another form of shame that serves ideal moral functions. In this form, shame is no longer a feeling of being ashamed in front of others, but a sense of moral excellence and integrity. This type of shame is discussed in classical Confucian texts, such as the Analects (Legge 1960a) and the Mencius (Legge 1960b), and became a strong moral virtue in Confucian tradition. Confucius designates it as one of the central virtues of Confucianism (Analects 13.20; Legge 1960a, 271) and Mencius takes it as one of the moral sprouts (the innate moral tendencies of the mind) (Mencius 2A6; Legge 1960b, 203). From the perspective of self-imposed moral excellence, this type of shame is comparable to guilt, although it is only analogous, not homologous, to guilt (Seok 2017, 68-9). Therefore, there are at least three different forms of shame (subordination shame, social shame, and moral shame) (Seok 2017, 64-7), but the shame that Asma and Gabriel discuss in this book, I think, is regulative social shame (301). If my interpretation is appropriate, Asma and Gabriel’s discussion does not represent the whole scope and the full foundation of shame. As a result, their explanation of shame is limited. Their approach to shame is not applicable to all forms of shame, specifically to inner moral shame of classical Confucianism.


Asma and Gabriel develop a distinct dialectic approach to emotion by criticizing both the constructionist and the modularist approaches to emotion. First, they argue that their view does not support psychological constructionism, such as Barrett’s (2006). They state that “the lowest layers of the mind permeate, infiltrate, and animate the higher layers” (10). They add that “the evolution of mind is the developmental story of how these layers emerged and acted as feedback loops on each other. And it’s important to foreshadow here that such feedback is not strictly a brain process, but an embodied, enactive, and socio-cultural process” (10).[2] Second, they argue that their approach is not modularist either (14, 222). They state that, “[O]ur own view is that emotions are open-ended, domain general, feeling/behavior matrices that adapt to the influence of culture and cognition to play a horizontal and vertical role in human and mammalian learning and social living” (211), and add that, “[J]ust as we think domain-specific modularity mischaracterizes the flexibility and plasticity of nonsocial cognition, so, too, social intelligence seems an even less likely candidate for dedicated encapsulated circuitry” (211). Can they navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of constructionism and modularism, and successfully find their shelter without facing any challenges?

The key to finding a successful middle point between the two lies in the continuity and dialectic transformation of emotion in the layers of the mind. According to Asma and Gabriel, there are three layers or levels in the evolution of emotion. They use metaphors, such as a layer-cake or Russian dolls, to explain the layers created by a dialectic process of evolution that links the mind, the body, and the brain (8). They criticize the exclusive focus on a single layer (the tertiary or the primary layer) at the cost of other layer(s) of the mind, often observed in some psychological studies (9), and ask for a more balanced and holistic approach to the mind, cognition, and emotion.[3]

Yet they seem to think of these layers as distinct individual layers of the mind. They state, for example, that “we will have to think about consciousness itself as an archaeologist thinks about layers of sedimentary strata” (3). That is, these layers are related, but not identical layers, shaped by interactive and continuous (i.e., dialectic) processes. If we take Asma and Gabriel’s (10) notion of transformation seriously, each layer is interrelated but is

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also an intrinsically different layer resulting from a transformative process. If these layers all originate from the same foundation of affect, how do they become different layers?

There are two possible answers to this question: the dialectic (continuous, interactive, and constructive) process and the co-option (additive, discrete, and integrative) process. The difference between the dialectic process and the co-option process can be understood in the following way. Consider a rainbow of colors where different colors coexist and new colors are added without changing or replacing the existing colors in the arc. Compare them to the colors of a LCD screen where the colors of the light sources (such as red, blue, and green) with their varying combinations and interactions generate new unitary colors (such as pink, purple, etc.). The former is an additive system of colors but the latter is an interactive, continuous, and constructive (i.e., dialectic) system of colors. Some of our emotions such as disgust and shame come to exist as new colors of a rainbow of emotions without the dialectic (i.e., continuous and constructive) interaction among the existing emotions. Although the layers (i.e., phases or stages) of the dialectic process look distinctive (as purple looks distinctive in comparison with its preexisting elements such as red, blue, and green) and Asma and Gabriel use the term “strata” to distinguish different stages or phases of this process of evolution, the strata are the interactive and emergent combinations of the underlying or preexisting elements. Because of these characteristics, therefore, Asma and Gabriel’s dialectic process, even with distinct strata, does not fully explain the evolution of emotions such as disgust and shame that come to exist through an additive process of co-option.

Asma and Gabriel believe that the dialectic process of affect can explain the continuity and transformation of affect by combining the diversity (transformation) and the unity (consistency) of emotion through its evolutionary adaptations in the three layers. However, the dialectic and transformative spiral does not spin nicely in some areas of moral psychology. As I discussed in the previous section, shame and perhaps disgust do not follow this dialectic model because the way shame develops its new forms is not dialectical (through the decoupling process), but co-optive or additive.

The process of co-option, which I believe took place not just once but twice in the evolutionary history of shame and disgust, is different from the process of the dialectic construction of emotion. Co-option is a conservative tinkering process where new functions are added to the existing functions, yet the existing functions are not completely replaced by the new ones. For example, evolved forms of shame (such as social shame and moral shame) retain seemingly unnecessary psychological properties (such as their vestigial features of lowering the body or covering the face by an individual who feels shame) that derive from the ancient form of shame (subordination shame). This additive combination of the old with the new properties of shame can be observed in classical, Confucian texts, where ideal moral shame comes with the vestigial features of having a specific audience/spectator or with a lowering posture (i.e., distinctive features of subordination shame).[4] The duplication or repetition of the base form of shame in the evolved forms of shame is not just a strange psychological effect, a simple confusion, or a literary imagination.

According to Clark (2010), this type of duplication or repetition is a form of homology (serial, not taxic, homology) observed in biological organs in some animal species.[5] For example, bats have two different kinds of appendages (feet and hand phalanges) serving different functions in the same body, just as people experience two different forms of shame in their minds. That is, new forms of shame (social shame and moral shame) are not evolved from a dialectical process from the ancient shame (subordination shame), but are evolved from

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a co-opting process and coexist with some features of the ancient shame. What this implies is that the new layers of the mind or affect do not exist through the transformative change of the base layer(s), but through the accumulative and conservative change of adding new layers to an old layer. That is, Asma and Gabriel’s notion of a “stratified layer” with a “dialectic process of transformation” (i.e., a continuous yet transformative and distinctive stage in the evolution of emotion) is different from the notion of a layer or stage in a co-optive process. They argue that new layers are continuous with old layers because “the lowest layers of the mind permeate, infiltrate and animate the higher layers” (10). They also argue that new layers are dialectically transformative of old layers because “emotions are open-ended and domain general” and adaptable to “the influence of culture and cognition” (10). However, the combination of continuity and dialectic transformation in their notion of “layer” does not necessarily provide a good explanation of the evolution of emotion. Different forms of disgust and shame, for instance, can be explained by a co-optive process where new psychological elements are added to an existing foundation of emotion without the continuous and dialectically transformative change that Asma and Gabriel are looking for in their “stratified layers” in the evolution of emotion. A distinctive stage (i.e., a layer) in an evolutionary process does not have to be continuous with and transformative of its previous stage(s), as Asma and Gabriel believe. It can be a stage of a discrete and additive process of co-option.

Despite the questions I raised about the unity, diversity, and evolution of emotion, Asma and Gabriel’s effort to develop a new way of understanding emotion is inspiring and instigating. Although the integrative process that they envision as the evolutionary process of emotion is different from the additive, and partially duplicative co-optive process of moral emotions, their explanation of the dialectic and transformative process in the tripartite layers of the mind stimulates a new approach to emotion that the cognitive, constructivist, or modularist explanations of emotion do not provide.

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[1] References to Asma and Gabriel’s book (2019) will be indicated with only page numbers.

[2] Asma and Gabriel state a little later that “our claim is that emotions infiltrate all of these complex feedback loops between brain, body, and environment, allowing the crucial space for social and cultural innovation”(10).

[3] For example, they state: “The biological and psychological sciences have historically isolated or focused on one layer of mind to the exclusion of others and have thereby presented partial and sometimes conflicting pictures of the mind and behavior. Many computationally oriented cognitive scientists tend to focus on tertiary-level processing, while behaviorists focus on secondary-level processing” (9).

[4] For example, Mencius (Mencius 7A20; Legge 1960b, 459) discusses the delight of the moral excellence of shame together with Heaven (tian, i.e., an ultimate moral authority) and the blushed face (i.e., a visible sign of shame).

[5] Asma and Gabriel discuss homology, but they think of taxic, not serial, homology. They state that “In the course of this book, we will show how the homologous mammalian systems, such as FEAR or CARE, animate human mental life and are, in turn, redirected to and constrained by cognition and culture that are uniquely human” (7).

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Asma, Stephen T., and Rami Gabriel. 2019. The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Barrett, Lisa. 2006. “Are Emotions Natural Kinds?” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1, no. 1: 28-58. 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00003.x.

Clark, Jason. 2010. “Hubristic and Authentic Pride as Serial Homologues: The Same but Different.” Emotion Review 2: 397–98.

Decety, Jean, and Jason Cowell. 2014. “The Complex Relation between Morality and Empathy.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 18, no. 7: 337-39.

Fessler, Daniel. 1999. “Toward an Understanding of the Universality of Second Order Emotions.” In Biocultural Approaches to the Emotions, edited by Alexander Hinton, 75–116. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gilbert, Paul. 1989. Human Nature and Suffering. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

______. 1992. Depression: The Evolution of Powerlessness. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Keltner, Dacher, and LeeAnne Harker. 1998. “The Forms and Functions of the Nonverbal Signal of Shame.” In Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology, and Culture, edited by Paul Gilbert and Bernice Andrews, 78-98. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Legge, James. 1960a. The Chinese Classics: Confucian Analects, Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

______. 1960b. The Chinese Classics: The Works of Mencius. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2001. Upheavals of thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Seok, Bongrae. 2017. Moral Psychology of Confucian Shame. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Solomon, Robert. 1976. The Passions. New York, NY: Doubleday.

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Bongrae Seok © 2019.

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