Blog Coordinator

« A Boring Episode of *Always Sunny in Philadelphia* | Main | Duke's Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Very creative and provocative post Justin.

Anyone who has had young children (not me) or pets (lots of em) or is just a storm of emotion (ok, me) knows about moods. Moods (it seems to me) are typically time-constrained dispositionally-causative attitudes that have some distinct value-color that typically lead to belief-tied responses based on that value-color within the given time frame.

I'm offering that.

Hey Justin,

Wow, there's a lot to think about here (not to mention the earlier posts!). It's hard to keep up.

I imagine the responsibility will cut one of three ways depending on the circumstances. Suppose that you have a pro-attitude toward doing something meritorious but you would not form an intention to do the meritorious thing without some extra oomph. If the emotions provide the extra oomph and they have some 'fit' with my pro-attitude, then you seem to be praiseworthy.

Now suppose you have a pro-attitude toward doing something meritorious, but your emotions undermine the process of forming an intention. Then either of two things might be the case. Either you're like Frankfurt's unwilling addict, where you're overwhelmed by forces with which you do not identify, or you're like Frankfurt's willing addict (in this case, I imagine a typical weakness of will case). In the first instance you seem to have an excuse because you're overcome by some alien force. In the second instance you seem blameworthy. I think you can also flip the stories for discreditable pro-attitudes without affecting the outcomes.

What does this suggest? I think it's something like this. We cannot control when we experience certain emotions or the degree to which we experience them. But we can form our characters in such a way that good emotions aid in the production of meritorious behavior and bad emotions fail to thwart our efforts to do meritorious things.

Does that seem correct? I'm afraid I don't have much literature to recommend. Russell and Giner-Sorolla published an interesting piece on anger a few years ago in Emotion (11:2, 2011, pp. 233-40). Hopefully others will have more to offer!

It seems to me that moods as such merely heighten or draw out antecedently attributable traits. "This is what I'm like, or who I am, just in a bad/good mood." What people tend to do in bad/good moods is predictable, but in virtue of their general and unique characters, not in virtue of the mood in and of itself (otherwise we could expect moods to get people to do similar things across the board). When I'm in a bad mood because of traffic and someone cuts me off, I will tend to react very differently than someone else with a more violent character. So as long as we're just talking about *attributability* here, which I think grounds only a subset of reactive emotions such as admiration and disdain, then I see no problem in saying that many actions and attitudes under the influence of moods are nevertheless attributable to us. But attributability of this sort is not a realm in which questions of volitional control really play much of a role anyway.

Still, this raises a much more difficult issue. Clinical depression, after all, is a mood disorder. When one gets to an extremely black state, where one's evaluative landscape is utterly flat and one no longer seems to care about anything, I have a much harder time saying that the attitudes expressed (of, say, not wanting to leave the bed or see one's friends) are attributable to one, at least in a way grounding any aretaic responses. This may be because of the disorder's *cognitive* effects, however, as they may simply undermine one's ability to recognize the worth of various pursuits anymore. So perhaps one important difference between regular foul moods and clinical depression has to do with one's capacity to recognize a range of relevant reasons: while foul moods do influence one into seeing various reasons as more *salient* than others, at least they do not incapacitate one from seeing those other reasons at all.

But this is very difficult terrain, and this is just a first stab at it.

Hi Justin,

This is another great post. And beautifully crafted as well! You're set to break that marathon record here.

I recently read the Stocker article myself. And I think there is a lot to the idea that contemporary philosophers would do well to work with a richer and more complex conception of our human psychologies than the belief-desire model. But I'm not sure how I think we should go about arriving at a better picture. One thing to do is to add to the stock psychological traits--e.g., add moods to our repertoire of beliefs and desires and intentions and whatever else. A second option is to better conceptualize the current stock--e.g., distinguish between motivated and motivating desires as you note that Nagel does, or conceive of desires as something other than motivational pumps as, for instance, Scanlon does when he introduces the notion of desires in the directed attention sense. These options aren't mutually exclusive.

One question that your discussion of moods raises is whether we can (and should) account for the phenomena related to what we normally speak of as moods in terms of a distinct trait or, rather, in terms of a reconceptualization of the familiar stock of traits. In the spirit of your post, I'm not sure what to say about this.

Well, as you can see my mood last night moved me to being terse! What I was trying to get at in a short statement was a comprehensive grasp of your post’s rich topic. But I probably just ended up coming off obscure. Sorry. At least everyone didn’t have to read a lot!

Moods do influence behaviors and even color beliefs related to them--the main thing I was trying to get at. Moods seem dispositional in potentially expressing positive or negative value associated with behaviors and any propositions related to them. A foul mood can make me dread getting groceries, which I usually enjoy. I might still get groceries that I believe I need, but I might shop more minimally unless my mood changes. A good mood might allow me to get my needed groceries and even explore the shelves for new cooking options--maybe sparking me to desire/believe that I can make something I’ve never tried to make.

I’m mulling over whether we can be responsible for not just actions/beliefs under a mood (I agree with you that we can) but moods themselves. Most often moods come on us it seems, and luck must play a role there. But sometimes I think we can alter our moods, especially in positive directions--cheer ourselves up. That’s laudable. Sometimes we allow ourselves to fall into the gloom too. Maybe we can be at least partly responsible for that as well.

One thing occurred to me though: can we have morally/value-neutral moods? As I thought about it, I’m doubtful about that. (Maybe ennui is a passive and neutral mood though, or maybe it's just a frame of mind.) We *can* have some pretty neutral frames of mind, though, such as when we listen to a faculty debate about some issue and end up voting to abstain. (But maybe this frame of mind reflects fairness, which is positive value.) Anyway, is there any good distinction to be made between moods and frames of mind?

Ok, that’s a lot more words, though maybe with no more sense than my previous philosophical fortune-cookie.

Thanks again for giving us a lot to think about.

Just saw this, Justin:

Hey Justin,

Cool post!

Of course, I wouldn't have typed, "Cool post," had the Earth been hit by a huge meteorite five minutes ago, had there been a huge earthquake in Southern California five minutes ago, had my laptop suddenly and inexplicably broken, and so forth. And all of this was out of my control, as was the fact that my mother did not drop me on my head when I was a baby, etc. And yet I'm fully responsible for typing, "Cool post".

In general, I think we should just suck it up and admit that we are thoroughly subject to a certain sort of moral luck, and yet we are (sometimes) morally responsible. There are factors f1 through fn, which are such that I am not in control of whether or not they obtain, and if they were to obtain, I would not have typed, "Cool post." And yet I am morally responsible for typing, "Cool post." Perhaps moods are like this. Perhaps I don't control them in general, and perhaps my behavior is to some degree counterfactually dependent on them. But perhaps also I am fully morally responsible, despite all of this.

Ok, time for my Monday morning coffee, lest I be in a bad mood the rest of the day...


No need to apologize for your terseness. Your first post was pretty suggestive as to an account of what a mood is. I wonder though, are they "valued-colored" or are they, in large part, "value-colorers"? What I mean is that maybe our moods--in particular those that we're typically disposed to manifest--are in some ways the source of our values. Now, this is consistent with some moods (e.g., ennui) disposing us to regard the world as worthless or from a detached, bored perspective. But maybe good literature is a better vechicle for pursuing these questions. What journal article could hope to articulate the connection between moods like ennui and action better than say, Walker Percy's *The Moviegoer*?

As to your second comment, I think that you're on to a really interesting question about responsibility for moods. Intuitively, I want to say that we can be. But notice, it's not clear that moods are moderately reasons-responsive or judgment sensitive attitudes (to borrow Fischer's and Scanlon's lingos). Now maybe we can be responsible for the mood by way of its being the foreseeable consequence of some decision or set of decisions that issue from a moderate reasons-responsive mechanism or judgment sensitive attitude. But I'll need to think about that some more.

Justin (and everyone else),

"Emotion and Value" by Cain Todd was published in this month's issue of Philosophy Compass today. I only got the chance to skim it, but it looks to be a good overview of the recent literature on the connection between...well...emotions and values! Might be worth a look...


That's all really helpful. I should've guessed that you would have good things to say on these issues.

One issue (there's always at least one, right) that I have with what you say here is that I doubt that moods "merely" heighten antecedent personality traits. For while I think moods can do that, I suspect that the moods we're antecedently predisposed to manifest can play a large role in shaping (if not determining) our personalities, habits, characters, etc. And this relationship between moods and behavior could explain why folk explanations in terms of moods can be highly predictive. Put slightly differently, I guess I think being in say, a foul mood can be like being drunk: in some cases, being drunk brings out the already present jerk, but in other cases, it seems that the best explanation for jerkiness is the fact that the agent's drunk.

Depression was one of the things that got me thinking about moods in the first place, in part for the reasons you suggest. Like you, I'm not sure that the actions of severely depressed individuals are always attributable to them. Moreover, I'm not sure they are accountable for their actions--at least not to the degree that one could be absent depression in the actual causal sequence. After all, even supposing that really foul moods do not render one unable to recognize reasons, if foul moods significantly affect what one takes to be salient, it wouldn't surprise me if this, in turn, undermined an agent's ability to recognize reasons as having a particular normative weight. And if I can recognize that a reason to x exists, but I am unable to appreciate the normative significance of that reason, it's not clear to me that I'm really recognizing the reason, at least not in a way that might plausibly be required for full accountability.

You're certainly right that we need to tighten up our existing stock of psychological kinds, and maybe with some fine-tuning we'll be able to provide better psychological explanations without going outside of the regular cast of characters.

But here's one reason to think that moods aren't particularly good candidates for this sort of reduction, and should be included as a stock psychological kind: beliefs, desires, intentions, emotions, etc. all (arguably) have intentional objects. However, moods don't. For example, my foul mood isn't "about" anything the way my intention to hurt you is. So it's hard for me to see how you could take a bunch of intentional stuff, fine-tune it a bit, and provide explanations that are best done in terms of non-intentional stuff. This kind of reduction is like trying to win a game of Risk by starting in Europe: it can't be done. So let's add moods to the list of psychological kinds that can do explanatory work.

P.S. Thanks for the link.


I wholeheartedly agree that total control isn't necessary for moral responsibility (indeed, I'm planning a post that's a variation on that theme). So (on my view) if the fact that my action is best explained by the mood I was in at the time of action undermines my responsibility, it ain't because of the fact that the mood itself was outside my control.

So given this, why did I mention it in the post? Well, I was just trying to be ecumenical in the way I motivated the potential threat (psychological explanations in terms of) moods might pose for responsibility. Someone once advised me that they had made a career of doing this sort of thing and (despite being right about their view--what was it? quasi-, semi- ...?) had just managed to piss off both sides. So I can't say I didn't know the risks. ;)


Thanks so much. I'm impressed because I have t-shirts that are older than you are, and yet you quote a Nat King Cole song! I've tried to return the favor in last semester's Phi/Sci class by using the Back-Eyed Peas to convey Humean induction qua expectations in "I've Got a Feeling". One real blessing of being a prof is that it gives you the opportunity to keep up with some of youth culture at least. (I still don't quite get gauges and tats, but that's all on me.)

I do think you have a real issue in tying moods to issues of action and inaction. And David Shoemaker's remarks above about mood disorders are particularly relevant here. I think you have touched real and newly exposed nerves about the space of explanation of action. Kudos.

Hi Justin,
In reply to Dave you said, "And if I can recognize that a reason to x exists, but I am unable to appreciate the normative significance of that reason, it's not clear to me that I'm really recognizing the reason, at least not in a way that might plausibly be required for full accountability." What is the difference between recognizing that a reason exists and appreciating the normative significance of that reason? Could you explain how these might come apart in the case of a depressed person? I do not see how this distinction is doing much work in determining whether a person's depression undermines their accountability. How exactly does the explanation on offer explain the accountablity (or lack of accountability) of a suicide attempt that is performed by a person who is depressed? Would the depression impede that person's ability to see a reason to live or would it impede that person's ability to see the normative significance of that person's reason to live? Moreover, would you say that moods are transitory and mood disorders are more ingrained dispositions? If so, then you could adopt the psychiatric distinction between depressive episodes and depressive disorders, where the former might correspond to transitory moods and the latter would correspond to a mood disorder.Adopting that proposal would add empirical support to your claim that moods do not always heighten antecedent personality traits. Many people experience episodic depression but do not have a depressive disorder. Likewise, people often experience transient moods that are out of character.

Good questions!
So first, I guess I'd say that it's possible that an agent recognizes that she has a reason to x even if she fails to appreciate the weight of that reason. To see this, consider the Almost Amoralist, who unlike the Amoralist, recognizes that he has reasons to help others, even when he doesn't want to help them. However, the Almost Amoralist takes these reasons to be of vanishingly small weight, such that he would be rational doing anything else that he has reason to do (like watch a football game, or take a nap, or ...). The Almost Amoralist thus concludes that he never has all things considered most reason to help others.

Now nothing about the Almost Amoralist strikes me as incoherent, though I do think he's mistaken about the weight of his reasons to help, and insofar as he's capable to seeing this, blameworthy for failing to act on those reasons. But if someone was unable, perhaps because of a mood disorder, to appreciate the weight of reasons they recognize themselves to have, I'd be inclined to think that that was, if not an excusing condition, certainly a mitigating condition.

What I was (perhaps inartfully) saying to Dave was regarding how a foul mood might potentially affect one's status as accountable. When I'm in a foul mood, certain things seem particularly salient to me. Of course, this doesn't render me unable to recognize that I have reason to say, not be upset about traffic, but it might (in some extreme cases) keep me from fully appreciating the weights of these reasons. Perhaps this could be a mitigating condition at least.

As to your suicide case, I'm not sure. Sometimes people will say that they "have no reason to live," but will accept that their family's love is a reason. This makes me think that when people say that they "have no reason to live," what they really mean is that "they have no good reason to live," and that although they'll agree that family or projects or whatever are reasons to live, they systemically discount the weight of those reasons. If this discounting is caused by a mood disorder that precludes them from really appreciating such reasons, then I'm inclined to say that this undermines their accountability to some degree (maybe completely). But I'll have to think about this more.

Your last suggestion strikes me as very helpful and worth taking on board.


Cool post. I've been thinking about related issues (well, at least concerning action explanation). Not sure if you've checked it out, but there's a decent literature on actions expressive of emotions, like kicking an object out of frustration. Hursthouse's "Arational Action" got things rolling, and Smith's "The Possibility of Philosophy of Action" gives you a sense of how a Humean might reply. But I think moods might be more interesting and for precisely the reason you suggest (they lack intentional objects). Anyway, it might end up being trickier than you think to say that ascription of moods aren't elliptical for belief-desire explanations.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Books about Agency

3QD Prize 2014: Marcus Arvan