Richard Kim – Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy Lecture: “THE ROLE OF NEGATIVE EMOTIONS IN THE GOOD LIFE: REFLECTIONS FROM THE ZHUANGZI” Friday October 11 at 5:30pm


Welcomes: RICHARD KIM (Loyola University Chicago)
With responses from: CHRISTOPHER GOWANS  (Fordham University)

Please join on October 11, 2019 at 5:30 for his lecture entitled,


ABSTRACT: The philosophical and psychological literature on well-being tend to focus on the prudential value of positive emotions such as pleasure, joy, or gratitude. But how do the negative emotions such as grief fit into our understanding of well-being? It is often assumed that negative emotions are intrinsically bad far us and that we should work toward eliminating them, especially from the perspective of our own well-being.

In this presentation I want to question this assumption by drawing on the ideas of Zhuangzi (a prominent early Daoist thinker from the 4th Century BCE) to argue that negative emotions are not intrinsically bad for us, and that their prudential value or disvalue is context dependent. Zhuangzi’s outlook, with his focus on the flexibility of perspectives and living according to our natural, spontaneous inclinations, gives us reason to reconsider the role of negative emotions in our lives and how we might think about them in a more constructive way.

DATE: October 11, 2019
TIME: 5:30-7:30 pm
PLACE: Rm. 101, 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University

4 replies on “Richard Kim – Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy Lecture: “THE ROLE OF NEGATIVE EMOTIONS IN THE GOOD LIFE: REFLECTIONS FROM THE ZHUANGZI” Friday October 11 at 5:30pm”

  1. Alas, I can’t be there. But I want to challenge the following claim about what people think (numbers added):

    “It is often assumed that (1) negative emotions are intrinsically bad for us and that (2) we should work toward eliminating them, especially from the perspective of our own well-being.”

    I want to challenge it only given two unsupported assumptions about what Richard Kim has in mind.

    i. I’m assuming that “negative” here implies “unpleasant.”

    ii. I imagine that the assumers that Richard Kim has in mind are either the utilitarian kind or the Buddhist kind. I don’t know what to say about Buddhist ideas, so I’ll assume he has utilitarians in mind.

    Subject to those assumptions …

    I think Kim’s claim is importantly ambiguous, because of an ambiguity of “intrinsically.”

    In one sense of “intrinsically” (1) is often assumed, but it plainly does not imply (2).
    In the other sense of “intrinsically” (1) is not often assumed, and plainly does imply (2).

    Your standard classical utilitarian will say that the overall goodness of anything, i.e. the goodness of anything, is the sum of its intrinsic (internal) and consequential (external) goodness. Thus if a certain bit of pleasure is guaranteed to prevent twice as much pleasure in future, its intrinsic goodness is 1 and its consequential goodness is -2, so its goodness is -1. That intrinsically good thing is bad.

    The moral of the story is that “x is intrinsically good” does not imply “x is good.” Similarly, “x is intrinsically bad” does not imply “x is bad.” This is the standard utilitarian line, the standard line of the people who use the term “intrinsically good” as some sort of technical term for philosophy. These people use “intrinsic” to mean something like “internal.” It’s a qualifier, like “in the short run.”

    I think it is only in this sense of “intrinsic” that some people (utilitarians and their ilk) assume that unpleasant emotions are “intrinsically” bad. These people would not then infer that one should eliminate unpleasant emotions. Intrinsically bad things can be very good. Having certain unpleasant emotions, as opposed to taking the drastic measures that might almost eliminate them, has great consequential value.

    Real people, however, and philosophers sometimes on weekends, use “intrinsically” to mean “inherently.” Something that is “intrinsically” good in this sense is good for sure. It can’t be bad.

    I submit that it is not often assumed that negative or unpleasant emotions are inherently bad, i.e. bad overall, taking into account their effects, especially as compared to what it would take to eliminate them. I think it is not often assumed that unpleasant emotions are always for sure bad, all things considered. But this is the sense of “intrinsically” in which (1) could imply (2).

    So I’m inclined to think that there is no sense of “intrinsically” that makes it true that the two-part claim attacked by the paper is something people often think.

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

    First of all, I should have been clearer and said that I meant (in the context of the paragraph) to mainly refer to the psychologists and philosophers working on happiness and well-being.

    I guess I don’t think philosopher who use the term “intrinsically good for us” would ever use it in the sense of “in the short run” as you attributed to consequentialists. (Do you have examples of that kind of usage?) The sense I certainly meant was “fundamentally or “non-instrumentally.”

    Also, it does seem to me like utilitarians, at least, would say that we should try to eliminate pain. But that doesn’t mean that they would say we should try to eliminate pain always and everywhere, but that we should try to eliminate pain as far as we can. Ditto for negative emotions. That’s just straightforwardly derivable from their principle of utility, I would think.

    But more importantly, the question is whether negative emotions are “inherently” or “fundamentally” bad for us, in the sense you had in mind in the latter part of your discussion. I could be wrong but it does seem like we do find this kind of assumption floating around in culture, among psychologists, and philosophers. I would suggest reading through the positive psychology literature, for example. (I’ll try to make a stronger case for this in my talk.) I think we can find increasingly intense focus on positivity and avoiding negativity in popular culture as well. Also to note: my original statement was just that “frequently” we find this view, which still find pretty plausible to me.


  3. Thank you for this reply! I really appreciate your taking the time. I think I’ve failed to communicate. Not that I have any claim to your attention. It would be weird to be interested enough in this stuff to read this whole comment. But I’m going to try again to be clear. I won’t make any claim about what people often assume.

    (By the way: I think utilitarians would not think we should eliminate pain as far as we can. That’s not straightforwardly derivable from the principle of utility. A utilitarian thinks we should maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain), i.e. minimize net pain (pain minus pleasure). We can go way below zero net pain, by getting lots of pleasure. If we can get an extra 10 units of pleasure by accepting an extra 1 unit of pain, we should eagerly add that 1. Simply eliminating all pain, achieving zero pain, is too easy; anyone can do it for herself with a gun, and someone in high office can do it for the whole planet. And even if we’re going to live, perhaps my doing all I can to minimize our pain—my making sure that we each get a lobotomy and drugs—would also minimize our pleasure.)

    On the one hand, of course, subtle arguments about the precise meaning of a technical term like “intrinsic” don’t matter. What matters is distinctions like the following:

    When someone proposes that so far as our well-being is concerned we should work toward eliminating the negative feelings…
    (a) Does she mean it would be good for us overall if we actually did what it would actually take to get rid of our negative feelings entirely (or mostly or a little)? So that the question is very much about the other effects of those practical steps, e.g. our stealing the vast funds needed or accepting the cognitive impairment? Or does she just mean we would be better off if our negative feelings just disappeared, other things equal? And how counterfactual or science-fictiony is she willing to get in imagining such disappearance—what are the “other things” she is willing to pretend could conceivably be equal?
    (b) Is she talking about our getting rid of the negative feelings individually or collectively? I.e., she asking whether my getting rid of them is worth what it would actually take for me to do so, if everyone else just goes on as before? Or is she asking whether our getting rid of them is worth what it would take for us to do so collectively? And similarly for the idea of magical disappearance of the feelings: are we talking about just one person’s feelings magically changing, with everyone else going on as before? Or everyone’s?
    (c) Do my utilitarian reasons for practical concern about my capacities for negative feeling differ radically from your reasons for practical concern about those capacities of mine, while utilitarianism arguably tells both of us to pay attention to the consequences of our options, my negative feelings are radically more integral to my feel for my options’ likely consequences than they are to your feel for your options?

    On the other hand, a main tool for navigating that conceptual territory without getting too far into the practical weeds is language like “intrinsic.” I think being insufficiently careful about this has landed utilitarianism (and analogous views) into all sorts of false hot water about how it can’t be reconciled with the everyday use of the word “good”, and even false hot water about disagreement with moral common sense; but all that is a long story I won’t go near here.

    In my previous comment I tried and I think failed to communicate a distinction between technical and everyday senses of “intrinsic”. Here I’ll take a new tack, getting into some abstract weeds to report a distinction (new to this thread) between two ways philosophers (utilitarians and their ilk) have understood “intrinsic” as a technical term in connection with “good”.

    Suppose Bentham is asking himself about the overall goodness of some bout of feeling. He’ll think its overall goodness is the sum of the pleasure in it and the pleasure it causes—or as we might say, the sum of its intrinsic and its consequential goodness. That sum is the thing’s goodness—how good it is, all things considered. Suppose some hedonist consequentialist named Jeremy has just said that. I might interrogate him further.

    * * *

    Jeremy, do you think something can be good in the short run and bad in the long run?

    Sure, Bill.

    How would you characterize that distinction?

    X’s short-run goodness, its goodness in the short run—say, a week or an hour or a second—is X’s goodness considered in abstraction from its longer-run goodness. That is, X’s short-run goodness is what X’s goodness would be if in our sum we set aside, set at zero, all the consequential goodness or badness past that week, that hour, or that second.

    You would give basically the same account no matter what the cutoff time is?


    And what if the short run we’re considering is only the duration of X itself? For example, if X is some brief bout of pleasure that ends at time t, what’s the short-run goodness of X up to time t?

    If that’s the short run we’re talking about, then the short-run goodness of X is just what X’s sum of intrinsic and extrinsic goodness would be if we set at zero any goodness past time t.

    And would that be the same as X’s intrinsic goodness, the amount of pleasure internal to X?

    Yes. Or rather—yes almost; but there would be a subtle difference, because early stages of X might have some hedonic consequences that (a) aren’t parts of X, and that (b) occur before time t. If X is just a brief bout of feeling, those will be small. But aside from that, yes. Intrinsic goodness and very short-run goodness are the same.

    So at least the two concepts are kind of similar?

    I guess so. No, hold on a minute. Let’s back up.

    What is it, Jeremy?

    Suppose X is my drunken afternoon of push-pin (pub darts). That X might include fun for me but cause much annoyance or even ocular pain for lots of other people, all before time t. So X’s intrinsic goodness may be in the large positive numbers (as afternoons go), but X’s short-run goodness up to time t may be in the large negative numbers.

    Well, yes.

    So really the concepts “intrinsic” and “very short run” aren’t so similar. They can diverge greatly in their implications, and they diverge greatly in the nature of the concept.

    OK, I agree that the concepts can diverge greatly in their implications or referents; but I don’t agree that the concepts diverge greatly in their nature, the shape of the concepts. They both just abstract away from farther effects; or rather—

    * * *

    Bill’s conversation with Jeremy is cut short by the sudden appearance of the early G. E. Moore.

    * * *


    Yes, Bill?

    Do you have “intrinsic” in your vocabulary?


    What do you mean by it?

    It is a label for one of two senses of the word “good”. The primary sense of the word “good” is the intrinsic sense. The secondary or derivative sense of the word “good” is the instrumental or consequential or extrinsic sense. X is consequentially good insofar as the whole of X’s consequences is intrinsically good.

    Since the intrinsic sense is primary and the other sense is derivative, anyone who knows how to use “good” knows how to use it in the intrinsic sense?

    I’m not sure I’m on record about exactly that point, but it would seem I should answer Yes. Indeed you will find that, at least early in Principia Ethica if not in the rest of the book, I was happy to talk about whether good is a non-natural quality, using “good” by itself without constantly repeating “intrinsic” to remind people which sense of “good” I intended.

    Opinions differ about what makes the whole of something’s consequences intrinsically good?

    Yes. Bentham would say it’s the total amount of pleasure minus pain in that whole. Each bit of pleasure is intrinsically good in proportion to its size (duration x intensity), and similarly for the intrinsic badness of pain; and the intrinsic goodness of a whole of consequences adds up all the pleasure and subtracts the pain.

    And Bentham agrees with you about how instrumental or extrinsic goodness is related to intrinsic goodness?

    I would certainly think so, yes.

    And Bentham would say the overall goodness of any particular bout of pleasure or pain is its intrinsic goodness plus its consequential goodness?

    Of course.

    That’s how he would understand the goodness, all things considered, of a bit of pleasure?

    Of course.

    So you and Bentham may disagree about how good a bit of pleasure is overall, only because you would not agree with his particular opinion that pleasure is the ultimate good?


    Now, which sense of “good” was I using just now, in my last two questions? You granted my proposals. Were we using the word there in the intrinsic sense or the consequential sense, you and I?

    Neither, Bill; we were just talking about the sum of intrinsic and consequential goodness.

    So we were using a third sense of “good”? And were you using that third sense just now when you used “goodness” only once in your sentence?

    No comment; I choose to say simply that the sum of a thing’s intrinsic goodness and its extrinsic goodness determines whether we ought to do the thing, or whether it ought to be. That’s what Bentham thought—right, Richard? It would be crazy to think we should forego some enormous pleasure simply because it would cause momentary discomfort the next day. That’s not the utilitarian way.

    And yet just a moment ago, Moore, you found it quite natural to use the word “good” for such a sum. Indeed one might think that in taking the sum to be goodness overall, goodness all things considered, you were taking this sense of “good” to be the primary sense, the main sense, as I do. You certainly seem to think it’s the sense that hooks up most directly with overall evaluation of particular events.

    * * *

    Moore falls silent. For after the early section of Principia Ethica where G. E. Moore introduced “intrinsic” as a name for one of the two senses of “good”, the other being—well, I forget what label he used, so I’ll just say “consequential”—I say, after he introduced that supposed distinction between two senses of the word “good”, he must have noticed the problem I was raising just above, because for the rest of Principia and the rest of his life he always avoided saying there are two senses, at least in print. Instead he used the phrases “intrinsically good” and “consequentially good” (or whatever), without saying how he would analyze these; and in using them he seems to have taken great care to use them consistently with the different kind of analysis I’m about to propose.

    This kind of analysis wants to take as primary the goodness we were calling a sum, and then understand “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” as qualifiers, each referring to a part of goodness and abstracting away from the other part.

    Here’s one way people have tried to do that, a version I sort of like. It starts from a special concept of “consequences.” We take the “consequences” of a thing to include the thing itself. (If you think that’s an inelegant idea, as I do not, bear with me and I’ll give you something else in a moment.) Using “consequences” in that precise sense, a hedonist like Bentham could say all of the following things. And in all the statements below, good is used in just one sense throughout—the sense I asked Moore to call the third sense. In this sense, X is “good” insofar as its consequences (including X) include net pleasure.

    1. Every action, every bout of pleasure, and in general every X is good just in proportion as its consequences include net pleasure.
    2. In this way pleasure is fundamental to all goodness.
    3. “Intrinsic” means internal. It’s a qualification, analogous to “in the short run.” X is “intrinsically” good in proportion as it is good considered in abstraction from any consequences outside X. (Of course, where X is itself the whole of something’s consequences, that’s a distinction without a difference. Any such whole is exactly as good as it is intrinsically good, because it has no consequences beyond itself.)
    4. (Thus “intrinsic” is abstractly analogous to “in the short run.” The former qualifier abstracts away from consequences outside X; the latter qualifier abstracts away from consequences after a certain time. They’re both qualifiers. That’s all I said about “short run” in the earlier comment.)
    5. Thus we should not think the primary sense of “good” refers to intrinsic goodness. The primary sense refers to goodness overall, goodness all things considered. Goodness. Earlier we were calling it a sum, which makes it sound like a technical construction. But really it’s the addends, the intrinsic and extrinsic parts, that are the technical constructions.
    6. Of course a drunken afternoon of push-pin can be intrinsically good without being good. And if it’s not good, then a fortiori it’s not inherently good. It’s intrinsically good. Internally good.
    7. The intrinsic goodness of any bit of pleasure is inherent to it. A bit of pleasure may not be inherently good, as we have seen; but every bit of pleasure is inherently intrinsically good.
    8. The goodness and the intrinsic goodness of any whole of consequences is inherent to it. Any whole of consequences that is intrinsically good is also (a) good, (b) inherently good, and (c) inherently intrinsically good.

    Now let’s say Xena is troubled by this new sense of “consequence”; she feels it’s jury-rigged. I’ll try to talk to her.

    * * *

    Look, Xena, as a consequentialist you want to say that when we’re deciding whether to do something—whether to spend our time in the bar with one beer and a poetry slam or seven Harvey Wallbangers and a dartboard—what we should look at is what happens if X happens, right? Not just what else will happen other than X. The goodness or badness intrinsic to the activity is part of what counts, right?

    Right. I’m just not sure about this move with the word “consequences”.

    How about what I said just now: instead of using the word “consequences” we can talk about “what happens if X happens.” Indeed you might even be happy with what I did with the term “consequences” when you recall that in logic we count a proposition among its own logical consequences. P implies P.

    Yeah, but “-sequence” seems to mean later.

    So? /

    OK, that doesn’t really matter. But if we’re talking about what happens if X happens, isn’t that also going to bring in things that happen before X, or elsewhere at the same time? And that can’t be right.

    Actually I think it can be right and might be a big part of the key to reconciling consequentialism with common sense about morality, though I’d go with a slightly different vocabulary …

    * * *

    (Also by the away, and separately from everything else: The idea that Smith’s well-being is her net pleasure does not strictly imply that Smith’s well-being would be maximized by drugs inducing permanent mindless euphoria for decades, even if that were medically easy. For if doing so makes her much less a person and therefore much less Smith, then it makes the greater pleasure much less Smith’s. So it just might decrease Smith’s net pleasure.)

    Best regards,

  4. So when you say “But more importantly, the question is whether negative emotions are ‘inherently’ or ‘fundamentally’ bad for us, in the sense you had in mind in the latter part of your discussion,” I want to reply:

    I never used “fundamentally” in my initial comment.

    The two senses of “good” I distinguished initially could be characterized in the following way:

    X is “intrinsically good” iff it is good considered in abstraction from whatever it may cause beyond itself.

    X is “inherently good” iff it is good no matter the circumstances. It is good, and its goodness is (wholly or at least pretty much) independent of its circumstances; it would have been good under other circumstances.

    (And within these accounts I’m not using “good” in some mythical intrinsic or extrinsic sense. I mean the sum, if you like. X’s intrinsic goodness is: the sum X has, aside from the extrinsic addend.)

    Thus a bout of pleasure of magnitude 2 that (given its circumstances) prevents pleasure of total magnitude 7 is intrinsically good, and it is bad. Since it is bad, it is not inherently good.

    Now, I’ve heard “Negative Utilitarianism” defined as the view that we should minimize unhapppiness (not: net unhappiness)—positive happiness just doesn’t matter, doesn’t enter into the calculus.

    I want to say:

    Even a Negative Utilitarian would not think that negative feelings are inherently bad. For a batch of negative feeling may prevent other negative feeling (by prompting Smith to kill herself earlier, or whatever). Negative utilitarianism implies that all negative feelings are intrinsically good. But it also implies this: if a negative feeling of magnitude 2 prevents negative feelings adding up to 7, then it is good by 5 units. And it certainly can’t be inherently bad if it’s good.

    But it occurs to me:

    There are conceptual or logical difficulties involved in speaking at all of the inherent goodness or badness of feelings.

    What does it mean to say that a certain bout of feeling would not have had very different consequences in different circumstances? What would count as the same bout in counterfactual hypothetical circumstances?

    We might think we can at least speak coherently of the inherent goodness or badness of kinds of negative feeling, proposing e.g. that grief is (bouts of grief are) inherently bad, meaning that they’re always (or almost always) bad all things considered.

    For example, we might think, Bentham–who presumably had some idea of the normal protective function of physical pain–Bentham likely thought that in daily life the pain we have serves to prevent further pain and protect our good projects. So, we might think, if he had thought about the question he would have said physical pain is typically good, at least in what we think of as ordinary circumstances. He would have no conceptual difficulty in speaking of the inherent badness of physical pain, for he would assert confidently that it is not inherently bad.

    On the other hand—“good” and “bad” make sense only in comparisons. When Bentham or I call X good, necessarily there is operative in the background some kind of assumption about what the alternative is. X as opposed to what? Consequences of X are always about what difference X makes; what happens if X as opposed to Y takes place. When we generalize about the consequences of bouts of physical pain, what sort of alternative do we have in mind? That I don’t bump my head? That I bump my head and don’t feel it? In the latter case, what exactly are we imagining?

    Which in one way or another brings us back to the practical question: what sorts of menus of practical options are we contemplating in all this?

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