Emotions, rationality and classical appraisal theories

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Chapter 11 endnote 5, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Anger [supposedly] makes people unable to conform their actions to the law, and so partially mitigates a person’s responsibility for his actions. [...] Some legal scholars acknowledge that emotions might not be a departure from rationality but rather a form of it.

Since the 1990s, legal scholars have started to acknowledge that emotions might be a form of rationality.[1] This idea is usually associated with one flavor of the classical view, called classical appraisal theories, which propose that emotions are caused by cognitions, triggered when people evaluate the world in some way. This hypothesis still relies on the classical view of human nature and assumes that emotions are reactions to the world, and therefore cause behavior in some mechanistic stimulus → response type fashion (i.e., stimulus → appraisal → response). In classical appraisal theories, evaluations of the world (i.e., appraisals) are automatic, not an act of will. As a general rule, ideas like volition (was an action the result of a choice or decision-making?) and self-control (was the decision made with awareness?) are murky in classical appraisal theories.

A number of papers by legal scholars argue that emotions are valuable because they are rational responses to a situation (by virtue of being caused by a cognitive process, namely appraisal).[1] If emotions are a way of making sense of the world, the argument goes, then they are a particular sort of cognitive assessment. This view rehabilitates the concept of emotion for use in the law and makes emotions palatable by calling them cognitions, making them appropriate for retributive decision making.[2]

In my view, classical appraisal theories have the structural of causality all wrong. Appraisals are not literal cognitive mechanisms that bring emotions into being. They are ways of describing what it feels like to experience emotion (i.e., they are properties of emotion).[3] Appraisals only describe, not cause, your experience of the world.


Notes on the Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 For example, Kahan, Dan M., and Martha C. Nussbaum. 1996. “Two Conceptions of Emotion in Criminal Law.” Columbia Law Review 96 (2): 269–374.
  2. For example, Pillsbury, Samuel H. 1989. “Emotional Justice: Moralizing the Passions of Criminal Punishment.” Cornell Law Review 74: 655–710.
  3. Barrett., Lisa Feldman, Batja Mesquita, B., Kevin N. Ochsner, & James J. Gross.  2007.  "The experience of emotion."  Annual Review of Psychology,58, 373-403.