Partial emotions?

If you think emotional states have representational content, it seems reasonable to think that there are rational constraints between the having of a certain emotion (say, feeling regretful that one has dropped something on one’s foot) and the having of a certain belief (say, believing that one has dropped something on one’s foot). Now, I imagine that some would want to question such a connection, but it seems at least a decent position to consider something like:

  • it is rational to regret that p only if it is rational to believe that p.

But now suppose that we think that for theoretical purposes (say in characterizing instrumentally rational action) we should really be talking in terms of partial beliefs rather than all-or-nothing beliefs. In the official idiom, it seems, we dispense with talking about “believing that one has dropped something on one’s foot” and instead talk of things like “believing to degree d that one has dropped something on one’s foot”. (I’ll come back later to the question about whether we just ditch the all-or-nothing belief talk).

What then should we say about the rational connections between doxastic and emotional states? How are emotions rationally constrained by belief? Here’s a very natural thing to write down:

  • it is rational to regret that p to degree d only if it is rational to believe that p to degree d.

The trouble with this is that I’m not sure I really understand the notion of “partial regret” that is now being talked about. Of course, I understand the idea of intensity of regret: I might regret insulting someone with a greater intensity than I regret forgetting my umbrella this morning. But “degrees of regret” in the intensity sense aren’t obviously what we want in this connection (I’m tempted to say they’re obviously not what we want). But do we really any other grip on the notion of a degreed emotion?

Of course, some people are likely to have similar sceptical thoughts about the notion of belief–finding all-or-nothing belief talk familiar home turf, and talk of partial belief rather mysterious. But the cases, to me, seem only superficially similar. To begin with, I think I had some pre-theoretic grip on the notion of degree of belief/confidence (though even here I think that there is a phenomenological intensity sense of “degree of confidence” that needs to be cleared out of the way). And even if I were to give up the pre-theoretic grip, I’ve at least got a theoretical/operational grip on the notion of degree of belief through decision-theoretic connections to action.

With partial emotions, I’m all at sea—things like regret seem to me, pre-theoretically, all-or-nothing (setting aside differences of felt intensity). And neither do I have a natural operational/theoretical grip on such partial emotions to reach for.  I’d be very glad if someone could convince me that I do understand the notion, or point to literature where such issues are discussed!

Another strategy, I suppose, is to think of all-or-nothing belief as distinct from the degreed notion. If that’s the case, then we could formulate the connection between beliefs and regret just as originally stated. This’d be interesting to me, since previously I’ve never really been clear what’s lost if we ditch all-or-nothing belief-talk (and ensuing puzzles like the lottery paradox) and only appeal in our theories of mind to the partial beliefs. But if other emotional states with intentional content have rational connections to all-or-nothing beliefs, then it seems we’ve got a real theoretical role for such states.

Of course, this line of thought gives urgency to puzzles about how to relate partial beliefs and all-or-nothing beliefs — (e.g. all-or-nothing belief as partial belief above a certain threshold). That’s a whole literature in itself.

What do people think? Am I being really naive in thinking there are rational connections like the above to get worried about? Do they require reformulation when we introduce partial beliefs, or (as suggested at the end) is this a way of arguing the importance of retaining all-or-nothing belief talk as well as partial belief talk? Can anyone make sense of the notion of a partial emotion (when distinguished from the phenomenological-intensity reading)?

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6 responses to “Partial emotions?

  1. I’ve generally thought that we need to somehow make sense of belief as well as partial belief, even if only because the notion of knowledge seems to require it. And then lottery-type cases seem to me to suggest that this notion of belief can’t be identified with just some threshold of partial belief, but must instead be more complicated.

  2. I wonder whether thinking about conditional emotions might shed any light on this. I think I can make sense of the idea of someone’s regretting that p on the conditionally on p’s obtaining. Maybe the rational connection between regretting that p and believing that p should be somehow akin to the relationship between belief in the antecedent and belief in the consequent of a conditional that one believes.

  3. Daniel Elstein

    Could the degree of regret that you’re looking for be degree of confidence in the appropriateness of your regret?

  4. Even if you reject the all-or-nothing notion of belief, and also don’t want to think of there being some common sense notion of belief (compatible with “degrees of belief”) that kicks in above a certain threshhold, you could still consistently say some such thing about regret and other emotions (incidentally, I don’t think that all emotions are alike in their inferential relations).

    So the thought would be this:

    Regret that p is rational only if it is rational to believe that p to at least degree d (where d marks some threshhold).

    The thought is that if I have very slight evidence that I dropped something on my foot, regret seems irrational, but it is not as though increasing evidence would warrant greater degrees of regret. Rather it seems as though there comes a point where regret seems rational. And beyond that point, regret does not become *more* rational, it might just be (something like Daniel’s thought) that I can rationally have more confidence in deeming my regret appropriate.

    Personally, although I can see that there may be theoretical advantages to thinking that htere are degrees of belief, I have no handle whatever on what different degrees of belief would actually *be*. And that seems like the same issue as with degrees of emotion.

  5. Look at Jamie’s adverbial qualification in the first sentence of his comment, ‘I’ve generally thought that …’, why wouldn’t such standard uses be taken as standardly capping at least some relevantly described commitment, but then one wouldn’t really describe that commitment as revised in degree; one could describe it as effected in a slightly peculiarly reflective circumstance.

  6. Sorry, Kenny for Jamie that should have been.

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