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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: January 2010

Taking Responsibility for Our Emotions



We often hold people morally responsible for their emotions. We praise individuals for their compassion, think less of them for their ingratitude or hatred, reproach self-righteousness and unjust anger. In the cases I have in mind, the ascriptions of responsibility are not simply for offensive behaviors or actions which may accompany the emotions, but for the emotions themselves as motives or states of mind. We praise and blame people for what they feel and not just for how they act. In cases where people may subtly mask their hatred or ingratitude through more kindly actions, we still may find fault with the attitude we see leaking through the disguise.

If there is doubt among both lay and philosophical observers about the legitimacy of our moral practice, I suspect it is because we are unsure of just how emotions involve agency and control. Some emotions flood us, often unconsciously or against our will. We fall in love without wanting to; we find ourselves angry when we wish we were forgiving; we hold onto sibling rivalries long after we cease to see their point. Other emotions seem more our doing, watched over and modulated by our agency. We nurture our capacity for intimate love in the context of ongoing relationships and a will to love in certain ways; we often know how to nip unjustified anger in the bud; we can catch overweening pride and curb it.