Emotional Correctness

Owen Flanagan

Duke University, North Carolina, USA

Flanagan, Owen. 2021. "Emotional Correctness." Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 2, no. 2: 8-16.

Abstract: First, I offer an analytic summary of the 10 main theses in Stephen Asma and Rami Gabriel’s (2019) The Emotional Mind. Second, I raise an objection about Asma and Gabriel’s assumption that the emotions have phenomenal sameness in individual psychology, across species and cultures. Third, I focus and develop a critique of Asma and Gabriel’s objections to evaluating emotions in terms of “correctness,” “aptness,” or “fittingness.” I argue that analyzing correctness is an essential task of normative inquiry in psychology, psychiatry, and moral philosophy, and it is perfectly intellectually respectable and compatible with most genealogies of the emotions.

Keywords: emotional correctness, aptness, fittingness, moral emotions, affect, evolution of mind, ecological psychology

Stephen Asma and Rami Gabriel’s (2019) The Emotional Mind provides a bottom-up genealogy of human life and culture built around the following theses:

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I have a few concerns about the defense Asma and Gabriel provide for some of these theses. I’ll state one objection and leave the full development of it for another time: they claim that sameness of phenomenal feel is maintained across emotional instances in both the basic emotions, which importantly Asma and Gabriel often gloss in terms of “basic affective systems” rather than emotions as such, and in extended phenotypes. 

There are at least three problems with the claim of common phenomenology: 1) At best, there is similarity, but nothing like identity, in behavior, brain, and bodily activation across instances of an emotion type even in a single species, for example, in rats. 2) Phenomenological reports in humans depend on assumptions about accuracy in self-knowledge reports that we have reason to doubt. In support of the second criticism, the language of private mental events is much harder to teach, fix, and track than is the language for observables (e.g., red apples, and such), and it is remarkably easy to get people to second guess originally confident first-person reports about exactly what emotion they are feeling. An anger report can, upon questioning, be reconceived as a fear report. An “I see a red apple” is almost never reconceived as an “I saw a green apple” report. 3) how a human emotion seems or feels depends in part on what it is about. It is an unresolved question whether, and how we would know, that for example, the fear of a snake and fear of losing a job are the same feeling fear-wise. If one favors individuating emotions widely rather than narrowly, they are not the same; nor do they feel the same. In emotion science and philosophy of emotion, phenomenal sameness and phenomenal continuity are matters of deep controversy, and not only between basic emotions theorists and constructionists (Scarantino and de Sousa 2018; Flanagan 2021). 



For the rest of this critique, I focus on an argument that has some dialectical relation to 1-10 above, but that pertains specifically to the moral emotions or, as I might say more accurately, to the emotions, the emotional norms, and the emotional scripts that humans almost invariably regulate normatively. By moral emotions I have in mind (as do Asma and Gabriel, read ch. 8, esp. 222-228), ones that often express moral attitudes and that are themselves subject to moral norms, scripts, and critique (such as anger, shame, guilt, pride, and compassion). These emotions often enact a morality, as when I get angry over an injustice, and are governed by norms

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themselves, as in “Don’t get too angry” norms or, on the other side, norms that allow the judgment that one is insufficiently outraged at (e.g., an injustice). 

Every great moral tradition engages in questioning the aptness, fittingness, correctness of its ways of doing these emotions. Consider, for example, the Stoics who thought anger should “be extirpated root and branch,” thus challenging Aristotelians who thought that anger at the mean between too much and too little was justified. This was a debate about when anger was fitting. There was a third view offstage: the au naturel view that the emotion of anger should be as anger is, entirely undomesticated. Both philosophical schools think that undomesticated anger doesn’t suit our aims or our interests, doesn’t align with the nature of ethics or with a proper understanding of metaphysics. The moral theory presents the arguments for right and wrong actions and for apt and inapt emotions. Asma and Gabriel are skeptical of the entire enterprise of assessing aptness, fittingness, and correctness for the emotions.

The argument I have in mind occurs most explicitly in chapter 4, “Emotional Flexibility and the Evolution of Bioculture” (91-121), and chapter 5, “The Ontogeny of Social Intelligences (91-152),” and then again in chapters 7 and 8, “Language and Concepts,” (184-203) and “Affect in Cultural Evolution (204-263).[2] I hope the argument does not have a logical relation to 1-10 above since I think the argument is weak, and it is highly consequential to all normative projects. 

The complaint is about the project of assessing emotions in terms of “correctness” or what is also sometimes called “aptness” or “fittingness.” Asma and Gabriel write, at this point speaking specifically about the moral emotions:

[T]he [biological and cultural genealogical] investigation of moral emotions is productive and largely consilient with our view, but psychologists and philosophers who study moral emotions usually ignore their development, and leap to create a taxonomy of such emotions or to discuss the interaction between emotion and rationality (222).

Earlier, Asma and Gabriel say that there is a tendency to examine emotions from the point of view of cognition, language, and reason that leads to an analysis of the correctness of emotions, which is a very bad idea. As Asma and Gabriel reason:

The chief reason why language is a bad starting place for understanding emotions is that philosophers immediately become distracted by the search for criteria to designate when emotions are “correct” or “incorrect.” When we begin our analysis of emotions by tracking their appearance in language, it is but another short step to a place where we ask when emotions are “justified” or “warranted,” which can lead to a variety of other questions that treat emotions as a subset of belief or judgment. (146)

In a sustained polemic that then runs several pages (esp. 144-152), Asma and Gabriel do the following: 

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There is a lot going on here, and I have lost some hair trying to understand the argument and to give it the most charitable gloss. But I’ll try to explain what I think is wrong. I think it best if Asma and Gabriel concede that they are entirely misguided about their anti-correctness argument. I think they can do that without undermining their underlying genealogy. I maintain neutrality for now on genealogy. 

Given the intellectual division of labor, claims about what are and are not the really interesting questions about emotions is not something most of us, really any of us, should have strong opinions about. If the project is genealogical, and especially if it is genealogical and anti-constructionist, a lot of emphasis will be placed on the ancient history of emotions and on the ways the core basic affects continue to do their work in extended phenotypes. But that’s about the aims of very different projects, not a fact about what is really interesting and what isn’t.

There is nothing in the work of any philosophers I know—including the handful cited—who would deny that emotions involve bodily feelings; and in addition would deny overall commitment to some version of Dobzhansky’s Dictum (1973) in “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” 

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Dobzhansky’s Dictum involves rejection of creationist and theistic genealogies of morals. But note that the scope of Dobzhansky’s dictum is biology. Naturalists in philosophy will want to be careful not to say anything inconsistent with our best science. But analyzing emotional correctness is, as far as I can tell, utterly consistent with the principles of the neo-Darwinian consensus. 

Clearly ordinary humans as well as ethicists, and social and political philosophers spend enormous amounts of time and energy talking about the “aptness” of various emotions in various situations, as well as whether we should adjust our culturally endorsed scripts for enacting emotions. For example, if that isn’t a snake, then you really need not be scared. Or, to choose another example: given the level of anger in America today we might want to talk about whether our normative scripts and permissions for feeling, expressing, and enacting anger fit the teleological function of anger, and satisfy (or optimize) our collective goals. We can ask such questions about tokens or types. Such talk is sensible and ubiquitous, and normally assumes nothing about whether the core phenomenal feel of anger is maintained from the Pleistocene or is the same as a chimp’s anger or even that my anger that the president is a racist is phenomenally similar to my anger that I’m stuck in interminable traffic. It does, however, involve judgments about whether the cultured emotion of anger fits the situation and aligns with cultural norms.

There is in fact a huge cultural variation in, again to choose the example I know a lot about, norms of anger. Leaving aside the thorny question of whether all the kinds of anger feel the same, which I doubt, it is evident that what is supposed to cause anger and how one is supposed to enact anger varies greatly. Sure, the kids might be habituated in these norms without being also provided their rationale. But the grownups can articulate their rationales, which normally involve “correctness” conditions. These conditions involve evaluations of such matters as whether that person really just made a sexist remark, which are intended to assess whether the culturally endorsed teleological function of anger is met (i.e., you are supposed to get angry at sexism); and then to offer a different assessment of whether the response was of the right sort given the culturally endorsed norms for the expression of anger. Again the assessment is about whether the emotion of anger is fitting, correct, or apt. 

Asma and Gabriel make a lot out of this point in their argument against theorizing about moral correctness: “Trying to figure out when an emotion is ‘correct,’ without any appeal to evolutionary adaptation, is a dubious approach” (147). But here I think they make too much of the idea of emotions as evolutionary adaptations. Let’s distinguish, as is commonly done, between the ancient and modern historical senses of “adaptation.” One historical function of anger was to motivate me to scare you away from my food or my mate, and thus was fitness enhancing. In the modern world, the anger that originally evolved to motivate me to chase you with threats of fists, sticks, and stones now equips me with guns and nuclear weapons. Still fitness enhancing? It’s not clear. The main point is that when moral theorists assess emotional aptness for shame, guilt, and anger they are not normally assessing their ancient history fitness functions. They are assessing their contemporary flourishing functions. 

Regarding the extended phenotypes of many moral emotions—shame, guilt, love, compassion, and forgiveness—they often have as their rationale that they are conducive to human flourishing. Flourishing often has no direct relation to biological fitness. To give a non-moral example, consider literacy. Literacy is good and conducive to human happiness, but it is not an adaptation in either the ancient or modern history senses of a biological adaptation. Humans were illiterate until 5,000 years ago (for the first 240,000 years of species history), 

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literacy is a cultural not a biological invention, and literacy currently is inversely correlated with fertility, which is a decent measure of biological fitness.

The upshot is that moral emotions such as anger and guilt and shame have natural species histories that may well involve primitive affective systems that we have inherited from our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that their main current work is still playing that role, or only that role. It looks to me as if many moral emotions are exaptations or secondary adaptations, or more radically still that their job and scope has become increasingly aligned with projects of human flourishing and less aligned with the goals of fitness. Flourishing requires fitness (well, it requires being alive), but it doesn’t require that the moral emotions any longer continue to function primarily, mainly, or only as sustainers and protectors of inclusive genetic fitness. Overall, I think Asma and Gabriel make way too much of ancient history functions of emotions, and attend too little to their modern history forms and functions.

Normative theorists are fully entitled to engage in all forms of correctness, aptness, and fittingness analyses, and to assess (1) whether in its current token or type form an emotion has the object it is supposed to have (by the culturally endorsed norms) so that, for example, moral anger is in fact a response to an actual injustice as opposed to you getting in the way of my egoistic desires; (2) whether the actual object (e.g., the injustice, the misunderstood remark, my shitty mood) warrants the response the person is disposed to take (or has taken);[9] and (3) whether the token or the type accomplishes the job we want (e.g., does it adequately call attention to an injustice, or does it miss doing that and simply humiliate another human being, or is it consistent with our other values and norms, and so on).


I have focused my criticism on a certain overreach in Stephen Asma and Rami Gabriel’s fine book. The emotions have a natural history that sets parameters on their cultured forms. But the modern forms of moral emotions such as shame, guilt, and anger are radically different from their ancient forms. When we assess whether such emotions are apt or fitting we are engaged in a perfectly acceptable project that deploys cultural not biological criteria of goodness, rightness and flourishing.

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[1] Asma and Gabriel write correctly that, “Dedicated emotions can be decoupled from their original target functions and broadened into more plastic, open-ended suites of general responses” (93). But I do not think they always grasp how consequential this is. It means among other things that many emotions (that are “decoupled from their original target functions”) should be viewed as exaptations or secondary adaptations; and that the ways such emotions feel or seem will incorporate, as part of how they seem or feel, new causes (the fear of losing a job because there are layoffs occurring is nothing like the fear of snakes or cliff’s edges) and endorsed behaviors (the fear of losing one’s job, because there are layoffs,might warrant striking, which is nothing at all like heading for the hills because of a snake).

[2] I have an argument that neither tokens nor types have the same phenomenal feel in most tertiary emotions. The reason is that cultural norms for, say, anger (the point generalizes) vary in terms of what one is allowed to be angry about (e.g., not bowing in imperial China, sexist treatment in America) and in how one is to respond (angry Americans use harsh words; angry Japanese leave the room).

[3] The verificationist turn apparently animates “correctness” judgements such as saying to someone who is scared of a dog that they shouldn’t be scared of the dog because the dog is not dangerous (146). 

[4] Asma and Gabriel gloss “emotional intentionality” or “evaluative intentionality” as the feature of emotions, unlike moods, taking an object, and in addition making an evaluation of that object. This seems fine. But one wonders how and why emotional intentionality doesn’t allow correctness judgments precisely on the grounds that one has mistaken the properties of the object (e.g., it is a piece of string, not a snake) and the evaluation (e.g., it is not something to be scared about).

[5] In other words, moral philosophers should be told not to assimilate emotions to (purely) linguistic or propositional objects. If they don’t do that, is there still a problem with them focusing on correctness? Furthermore, they are referring specifically to Deonna and Teroni (2017) who provide analyses such as these: “Fear of a dog is an experience of a dog as dangerous, precisely because it consists in feeling the body’s readiness to act so as to diminish the dog’s likely impact on it (flight, preemptive attack, etc.), and this felt attitude is correct if and only if the dog is dangerous” (146). Asma and Gabriel agree that fear is in part a feeling of a certain kind of bodily readiness, but they go on to complain that, “Likewise, on [Deonna and Teroni’s] account, ‘shame’ is the feeling of the body as it tries to disappear or conceal itself when it believes it is being degraded,” but they also assert that “this emotion is only correct when the emotional person is really degraded” (146-147). Martha Nussbaum, Colin McGinn, Robert Solomon, and Lisa F. Barrett are also named as emotions theorists who leave the body behind and are criticized for lacking a biological perspective, overemphasizing cognition and underestimating feelings, somatic markers, and simple association. I see interest relativity where Asma and Gabriel see anti-biological tendencies. 

[6] I doubt that anyone commits the alleged “category error.” Also one wonders again why we can’t just say: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that emotional intentionality is entirely propositional!

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[7] It is a bad idea to make claims about interestingness given interest-relativity of inquiry.

[8] Correctness analysis and genealogical analyses are orthogonal. The original settings and adaptive function of the emotions, and how they are then extended by caretakers, is one thing; whether they do their job as the caretakers intended, are in equilibrium with cultural norms, etc., are entirely separate ones.

[9] Fittingness of response has to do with applying the doctrine of the mean or something like a proportionality constraint. Being five minutes late to work because of an accident does not warrant firing an employee. Doing so is a mistake--an emotional overreaction.

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

Deonna, J. A., and F. Teroni. 2017. “Getting Bodily Feelings Into Emotional Experience in the Right Way.” Emotion Review 9, no. 1: 55–63.

Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1973. “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” The American Biology Teacher 35, no. 3: 125-129. DOI: 10.2307/4444260.

Flanagan, Owen. 2021. How to Do Things with Emotions: What Cross-Cultural Morality Teaches Us About Anger and Shame. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scarantino, Andrea, and Ronald de Sousa. 2018. “Emotion.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Winter edition.

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Owen Flanagan © 2021

Author email: ojf[at]