The Significance of Affect: On the Practical Functions of Emotion

Scott Michael O'Leary, Fordham University


This investigation offers a new account of emotions that develops and clarifies their reciprocal relation to value and their role in judgment, deliberation, and action. Emotions are occurrent mental states not constituted by either beliefs or desires, but are a distinct mental state with their own standards of fit or appropriateness. Secondly, I distinguish several practical functions of emotions in order to show the ways in which emotions are an indispensible aspect of human agency and praxis. These functions include providing coarse-grained cognitive evaluations, guiding practical deliberation, rationalizing intentional and expressive action, recognizing value complexity, and enabling collective action. Though conceptually distinct, many functions are founded upon what I call the core existential function of emotions, the claim that emotions provide coarse-grained cognitive evaluations that are rationally assessable but still distinct from evaluative judgments. My work illustrates that emotion and value are co-constituted and form a conceptual circle; therefore, we cannot properly understand the nature of emotion or value in isolation from one another. Thus, I present a structured analysis of the way emotions inform judgment, reasoning, and motivation that help to resolve several problems in metaethics and moral psychology, as well as problems in environmental ethics such as the Tragedy of the Commons, a collective action problem involving depleted shared resources such as oceans' fisheries, fresh water, and clean air.^

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Recommended Citation

O'Leary, Scott Michael, "The Significance of Affect: On the Practical Functions of Emotion" (2011). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3495877.