Character traits & the emotional aspect of practical reason

by Carla Bagnoli

On a standard view, emotions are character traits that undermine the capacity for agential autonomy and consequently put into question the very idea of moral responsibility. One way to reject this view is to argue for a conception of moral responsibility in terms of reactive attitudes, along the lines anticipated by P.F. Strawson (1968). Such recent attempts focus on blame as part of a normative network of expectations (Wallace 1994) and commitments to personal relations (Scanlon 2008), thus discounting precisely its emotional nature.

In contrast to this normative trend, I argue that reactive attitudes are very diversified and belong to the category of emotional character traits that are importantly related to practical reason. While they are not deliberate, they are sensitive to judgment and rational assessment. Under this construal, emotional character traits do not undermine autonomy but they are distinctive ways to exercise it. They may play an active role in rational deliberation. Not only do they intervene as emotional criteria of salience by selecting relevant aspects of the situation; they also participate in practical reasoning by making the contents of reasons authoritative, that is, in making reasons practical.

The claim that emotional character traits are a constitutive part of practical reason leads to some further important claims about (i) the dialogical structure of deliberation; (ii) the multiple aims of moral judgment (not only punitive, corrective and coercive, but also and more importantly constructive, transformational, and educative).