Skip to main content Accessibility help

Taking Responsibility for our Emotions

  • Nancy Sherman (a1)


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.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Taking Responsibility for our Emotions
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Taking Responsibility for our Emotions
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Taking Responsibility for our Emotions
      Available formats



Hide All

1 For a helpful summary of positions on moral responsibility, see Fischer, John and Ravizza, Mark's introduction to their anthology Perspectives on Moral Responsibility (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). It is important to note that the notion of reactive attitudes which Peter Strawson develops in his classic essay “Freedom and Resentment” (reprinted in the above volume) includes the notion of praise and blame for emotional attitudes as well as actions.

2 Blum, Lawrence, Friendship, Altruism, and Morality (New York: Routledge, 1980), 160207. See also Justin Oakley's valuable discussion of this position, in Oakley, , Morality and the Emotions (New York: Routledge, 1992), 160–90.

3 Adams, Robert, “Involuntary Sins,” The Philosophical Review 94, no. 3 (1985). Adams's account includes an important criterion of “ethical appreciation” in virtue of which we are held accountable for emotions. However, insofar as that ethical appreciation is for data we may be unconscious of (even though we should have been sensitive to it), accountability for moral perception is still not within the province of the voluntary. My view, developed in the last part of this essay, is that there are ways that we can be active and responsible even with regard to our unconscious perceptions and emotions.

4 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a31–b21. See Sherman, Nancy, The Fabric of Character (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), ch. 5; and Sherman, Nancy, Making a Necessity of Virtue (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), ch. 2.

5 In Making a Necessity of Virtue, ch. 4, I suggest passages where Kant may be able to answer this charge.

6 See Greenspan, Stanley's work on this in young children, The Development of the Ego (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1989).

7 See the compelling study of Adam and the story of maternal affective neglect: Brody, Sylvia and Siegel, Miriam G., “Clinical History: Adam,” in Brody, and Siegel, , The Evolution of Character (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1992), 299377.

8 He refers to this notion in Winnicott, D. W., Playing and Reality (New York: Penguin, 1986); see, e.g., 13n., 15, 163.

9 I have heard the following told anecdotally, though I have not been able to track down the reference. Freud was once asked: “What are the three things required for analysis?” He replied: “Courage, courage, courage.” It is also noteworthy that in the case of Miss Lucy R., Freud comments that the repression was, on the one hand, “a defensive measure which is at the disposal of the ego,” but on the other, “an act of moral cowardice,” and he says that “a greater amount of moral courage would have been of advantage to the person con cerned.” Though we need to bear in mind that these remarks date from the earliest days of psychoanalysis, and that they are made well outside the clinical office, still the thought expresses the expectation that a patient be responsible for working on psychological im provement. Freud, Sigmund, “Studies on Hysteria,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 2 (London: Hogarth Press, 1925), 123.

10 For relevant discussions, see Oakley, , Morality and the Emotions, ch. 4; Stacker, Michael, “Responsibility Especially for Beliefs,” Mind 91 (1982): 398417; Adams, , “Involuntary Sins”; and Sankowski, Edward, “Responsibility of Persons for Their Emotions,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 (1977): 829–40.

11 Stacker makes these points in “Responsibility Especially for Beliefs.”

12 Coke, J., Batson, D., and McDavis, K., “Empathic Mediation of Helping: A Two Stage Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (1978): 742–66. See also Eisenberg, N., McCreath, H., and Ahn, R., “Vicarious Emotional Responsiveness and Prosocial Behavior: Their Interrelations in Young Children,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 14 (1988): 298311.

13 For a related discussion of cognitions that cannot be stopped automatically, see the very insightful discussion of Parrot, W. Gerrod and Sabini, John, “On the ‘Emotional’ Qualities of Certain Types of Cognition: A Reply to Arguments for the Independence of Cognition and Affect,” Cognitive Therapy and Research 13 (1989): 4965.

14 The example is from Oakley, , Morality and the Emotions, 128.

15 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 1114a8–22.

16 See Nagel, Thomas, “Moral Luck,” in Nagel, , Mortal Questions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

17 See Stacker, , “Responsibility Especially for Beliefs”; and Oakley's helpful discussion of Stacker, 's essay in terms of emotions (Morality and the Emotions, 136ff).

18 Stacker, , “Responsibility Especially for Beliefs,” 411.

19 Sroufe, Alan, Emotional Development (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Attachment theory is associated with the names of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.

20 Similarly, Stanley Greenspan speaks of this first period of life as one of global “sensory alertness” where the self is an undifferentiated consciousness absorbed primarily in phys iological regulation or homeostasis. See Greenspan, , The Growth of the Mind (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997), 50; and Greenspan, , The Development of the Ego (supra note 6), 6. Some classical psychoanalysts, such as Freud and Margaret Mahler following him, have viewed this early period as essentially asocial or autistic. With the influence of attachment theory as well as the object-relations school of psychoanalysis (represented by such figures as Melanie Klein and W. R. D. Fairbairn), many schools of psychoanalysis now see human social relatedness, and the emergence of emotions expressing it, as present from birth. See Stern, Daniel's helpful study of this theme in The Interpersonal World of the Infant (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

21 Sroufe, , Emotional Development, 74.

22 Ibid., 153.

23 The ability to mask emotions, to decouple what is being felt from its typical manifes tation (for example, smiling despite intense displeasure), is a much later developmental milestone observed in preschoolers. See Malatesta, Carol, Culver, Clayton, Tesman, Johanna Rich, and Shepard, Beth, “The Development of Emotion Expression during the First Two Years of Life,” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 54 (1989): 78. See also Sroufe, , Emotional Development, 107, 124–30.

24 Mahler, Margaret, Pine, Fred, and Bergman, Anni, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant (New York: Basic Books, 1975). Leaders in contemporary, psychoanalytically based infant research are Greenspan, Stanley (see The Development of the Ego; The Growth of the Mind) and Stern, Daniel (see The Interpersonal World of the Infant).

25 Allan Schore offers a comprehensive review of the literature across fields, on this topic and other themes in affect development; see Schore, , Affect Regulation and the Origins of Self (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994). On visual dialoguing, see especially, ibid., 71–82; and Greenspan, , The Growth of the Mind, 50.

26 Schore, , Affect Regulation, 8591; Stern, Daniel, “Mother and Infant at Play: The Dyadic Interaction Involving Facial, Vocal, and Gaze Behavior,” in Lewis, Michael and Rosenblum, Leonard A., eds., The Effect of the Infant on Its Caregiver (New York: Wiley, 1974), 187213.

27 Malatesta, , Culver, , Tesman, , and Shepard, , “The Development of Emotion Expression”; Schore, , Affect Regulation, 89.

28 Brazelton, T. B. and Cramer, B. G., The Earliest Relationship (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990), as quoted by Schore, , Affect Regulation, 85.

29 Stern, , The Interpersonal World of the Infant, 150.

30 Fogel, Alan, Developing Through Relationships (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

31 Greenspan, Stanley, Infancy and Early Childhood (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1992), 1112, 70, 96.

32 Butterworth, George, “The Ontogeny and Phylogeny of Joint Visual Attention,” in Whiten, Andrew, ed., Natural Theories of Mind (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991).

33 There are neurobiological implications of the modulation of affect in synchronized parental interactions. Numerous studies indicate that these interactions directly influence the experience-dependent growth of brain areas prospectively involved in self-regulation of emotion. In particular, Allan Schore has argued that early object relational experiences “directly influence the emergence of a frontolimbic system in the right hemisphere” respon sible for autoregulation of positive and negative emotions. Thus, while initially the parent acts as a child's auxiliary cortex, through socio-emotional interactions the child develops his own capacities for emotional regulation, mediated in transformed neurological structures. See Schore, , Affect Regulation, 89130.

34 Mahler, et al. , The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, 78.

35 Ibid., 77.

36 Kimmert, M. D., Campos, J. J., Sorce, F. J., Emde, R. N., and Svejda, M. J., “Social Refer encing: Emotional Expressions as Behavior Regulators,” in Emotion: Theory, Research, and Experience, vol. 2: Emotions in Early Development, ed. Plutchik, Robert and Kellerman, Henry (Orlando: Academic Press, 1983).

37 Oatley, K. and Jenkins, J. M., “Human Emotions: Function and Dysfunction,” Annual Review of Psychology 43 (1992): 5585.

38 On face reading, see Izard, Carroll E., The Face of Emotion (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971).

39 Greenspan, , The Development of the Ego, 36.

40 Brazelton, T. B., Koslowski, B., and Main, M., “The Origins of Reciprocity: The Early Mother-Infant Interaction,” in Lewis, and Rosenblum, , eds., The Effect of the Infant on Its Caregiver (supra note 26), 70.

41 Schore, , Affect Regulation, 99114.

42 Winnicott, D. W., “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” in Winnicott, , Playing and Reality.

43 This period also corresponds to the Freudian anal period, marked by sphincter (muscular) control, and the ambivalence centered around wanting to control bowels, like an adult, and yet enjoying the old ways of being warm in one's own mess and then pampered with clean diapers in an intimate exchange.

44 Mahler, et al. , The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, 7779.

45 See Freud, Anna's classic work, The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1993).

46 Greenspan, Stanley, The Essential Partnership (New York: Viking, 1989), 156.

47 Ibid. For further discussion of verbalization as a form of emotional control, see Hesse, Petra and Cicchetti, Dante, “Perspectives on an Integrated Theory of Emotional Development,” in Emotional Development, ed. Cicchetti, Dante and Hesse, Petra (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1982), 3336; see also Dunn, Judy and Brown, Jane, “Relationships, Talk about Feelings, and the Development of Affect Regulation in Early Childhood,” in Garber, Judy and Dodge, Kenneth, eds., The Development of Emotion Regulation and Dysregulation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

48 There are, of course, child analyses that center around play, but I focus on the “talking therapy” of adult analysis.

49 Indeed, it was Freud's view that psychoanalytic theory revealed the structure of the “normal” psyche, with its various agencies and stages of growth. (“Depth psychology” was Freud's term for a psychology that recognized the dynamic influence of the unconscious in mental life.)

50 “Psychoanalysis promotes autonomy by virtue of its expansion of the analysand's ability to recognize these intrapsychic conflicts and to utilize the signal function [i.e., anxiety or depressive feeling] generated by dysphoric affect to activate self-observing capacities rather than automatically resort to regression and defense.” Levy, Steven and Inderbitzin, Lawrence, “Neutrality, Interpretation, and Therapeutic Intent,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 40 (1992): 9891011.

51 Leading contemporary proponents of ego psychology are Brenner, Charles, Psychoanal ytic Technique and Psychic Conflict (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1976); and Arlow, Jacob, “The Dynamics of Interpretation,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 56 (1987): 6887. A classic formulation of ego psychology, from the 1930s, is that of Ego, Heinz HartmannPsychology and the Problem of Adaptation (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1995).

52 Rothstein, Arnold, “Sadomasochism as a Compromise Formation,” Journal of the Amer ican Psychoanalytic Association 39 (1991): 363–75.

53 Self-psychology is associated with Kohut, Heinz and his works, The Analysis of the Self (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1971), and The Restoration of the Self (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1977).

54 For the here-and-now transference, see Gill, Merton, “The Analysis of the Transference,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 27 (supplement, 1979): 263–88; and Gray, Paul, “Psychoanalytic Technique and the Ego's Capacity for Viewing Intrapsychic Activity,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 21 (1973): 474–94.

55 For further discussion of neutrality, see my “The Moral Perspective and the Psycho analytic Quest,” in The Journal of the Academy of Psychoanalysis 23 (1995): 223–40; see also Levy, and Inderbitzin, , “Neutrality, Interpretation, and Therapeutic Intent.”

56 Freud, , The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense.

57 Shaffer, Roy, The Analytic Attitude (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 241–46.

58 This is now the dominant view of emotions in cognitive psychology. See Lazarus, R. S., Emotion and Adaptation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

59 Sherman, , Making a Necessity of Virtue, ch. 2.

60 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, ch. 13.

61 I develop this notion of psychoanalysis as extending the ancient model of character development in “The Moral Perspective and the Psychoanalytic Quest.”

62 And perhaps his modern-day counterparts in cognitive therapy.

63 Strawson, , “Freedom and Resentment,” in Fischer, and Ravizza, , eds., Perspectives on Moral Responsibility.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed