The Future of Emotions and Emotional Utopias: Notes at the Beginning of a Project

A guest post by Richard Ashcroft, Professor of BioethicsRichard Ashcroft photo in the Department of Law at Queen Mary University of London, based on his recent Work in Progress Seminar.

These notes were the basis of my work in progress to the QMUL Centre for the History of Emotions lunchtime seminar on June 22nd 2016.

I am at the beginning of a long-deferred book writing project on bioethics and Utopia. The book is my attempt to think about the relationship between ethics and utopian thinking, and about some of the ways in which current medicine and biotechnology engage with the utopian imagination. One interesting area where medicine and bioethics are trying to improve human life is in the area of difficult emotions from fear to romantic passion. Now read on…

I am a bioethicist: one of those peculiar but increasingly numerous people who works on the ethical, legal, social and policy problems arising from medicine and the life sciences. My academic background is in history and philosophy of science (mainly philosophy and social studies of science), and I am not in any sense a historian. But I like to think historically about things, in particular about styles of thinking, conceptual change, and about contingency. So I am very glad to have the opportunity to think aloud about a problem which I am working on at the moment which should form part of my book and get historians’ feedback.

There is currently a very widespread debate about the idea of human enhancement, and about particular proposals for enhancement. This debate is in some sense a continuation of the older debate about the Perfectibility of Man and is in tension with the equally long-running debate about the perfectibility of society (Utopianism, for short). Much of the writing about human enhancement when I first began to pay attention to it in the early 2000s was about the ethical status of enhancements which (purportedly) could improve attention, or intelligence, or recovery from injury. There was a focus, in other words, on human traits which are important in a world organised around competitive labour markets in a capitalist economy. It’s not that these traits are only important in such a world; but their status as ethical (indeed, some argued, necessary and obligatory) was generally defended on the basis of their continuity with other non-medical enhancements such as private schooling and tutoring, sports coaching and indeed existing medical enhancements such as cosmetic surgery. They focus on obtaining advantage in competitions for economic, social, erotic and other scarce goods. As this debate developed, the critique that enhancement was really just a kind of continuation of capitalism into human physiology was noted, and other types of enhancement began to be discussed. For example, recent work on the ethics of human enhancement includes arguments for the use of drugs to ease the pain of heartbreak, and, more ambitiously, genetic modifications which might make humans more prosocial, more cooperative, and less inclined to discount the welfare of future generations (as an intervention to try to moderate behaviour which damages the climate).

If we look at these more recent debates we see that emotions are at their heart as states to be shaped, produced and controlled, with a view to improving and sustaining human welfare at both the level of the individual and in society at large. In other words, these debates are elaborating the outlines of emotional Utopias. They are defining ideal emotions, ideal ways of being emotional, and ideal ecologies of emotion.

When I began to think about this I realised that what I needed to know more about was the history of emotions. I asked the History of Emotions list-members about this, and got some fascinating responses, some of which fed into my ideas below, but the predominant response was that this was an interesting question and it had not been much explored (or explored enough). This was encouraging!

Obviously historians of Utopias must have written about emotions in Utopia, and I am very interested in that. But we can go further. The thought struck me that if emotions have histories, then they must also have futures. So we can learn from the history of emotions not only what people have thought about future emotions, but also about the historicity of emotions. So in what follows I want to lay out some ways in which we can think about the future of emotions, and emotional change.

1. Emotions about the Future

Most of us have emotions about the future, related to hopes and fears and curiosity about what may happen. When I gave this seminar the Referendum about the UK’s membership of the European Union had yet to take place, and my example was fear about the outcome of that Referendum. At the time of writing, we now know the outcome of the Referendum but its practical implications remain far from clear. So we have traded fear about the outcome of a specific, quite definite event for fear about or indeed excitement about the outcome of a long and uncertain sequence of events with no definite time horizon.

We also often act in light of emotions we anticipate feeling, either because we want to experience that emotion or because we want to avoid it: for instance, we might anticipate feeling regret if we do something and it goes wrong, so decide not to do it in order to avoid that feeling.

Many of our actions in light of emotions about the future or anticipated emotions shape our individual conduct. But they can also play out at a societal level, as indicated by Auden’s designation of the 1930s as the “Age of Anxiety”, and as discussed in Richard Overy’s recent history of Interwar Britain, “The Morbid Age”. So we can think not only about how individuals alter their conduct in light of their emotions about the future and anticipated emotions, but also about how societies can produce and shape environments conducive to or inhibitory of certain patterns of feeling.

This sort of thinking about future emotions leads directly to two kinds of theoretical question for me: a normative question about what sorts of emotions are apt and morally desirable, and second order questions about what we want to want and how we feel about what we feel.

2. Conceptual ChangeErewhon cover

Following Thomas Dixons’s lead, as set out in his “From Passions to Emotions”, we can note that the very concept of an “emotion” having arisen might fall into abeyance. However, even though we can acknowledge this it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to think what a future conceptual scheme might be. Perhaps the best we can do is to imagine alternative societies in which emotions/feelings and cognitions combine or are instantiated otherwise than they currently do. A good example of this kind of writing is Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon”, in which the emotions elicited by illness are shame, disgust, and fear, as illnesses are considered much as we consider criminality and antisocial behaviour.

3. Different Emotions from Other Places

The idea that other cultures, separated from us in time or space, might have different emotions to those familiar to us is a stock theme in discussions of emotion and human nature. We can easily imagine cultural transmission of such emotions, just as the “uptick” in speech became prevalent in the UK through the 1990s to the present, or as the transition from a shame culture to a guilt culture is purported to have taken place in Europe between Antiquity and Modernity. Again, it is hard to project what these transitions might be, or how they might arise, but they are at least imaginable.

4. New Emotions

Genuinely new emotions, previously unexperienced or at any rate unnamed in human cultures, might arise. One question to ask about this is about the underlying physiology of such new emotions. If we follow William James and take it that emotions follow physiology, rather than the other way around, then it might be possible to produce novel emotions by altering, or intervening differently in, human physiology. As well as producing new emotions (how and why?), we might at least try new ways to regulate emotions. New ways of regulating emotions are readily imaginable: for example those who argue for pharmaceutical intervention in romantic love suggest that both fidelity and the pain at relationship breakups can be moderated medically. But altogether new emotions are much harder to imagine. One line of thought would be to look at the social or psychological functions of familiar emotions and then think functionally about social needs or interests and design emotions accordingly.

5. Historical Questions

Stepping back from these ways of conceptualising “future emotions” analytically, we can ask how, in the past, have people thought about the future of emotions? And how have they thought about emotions in ideal societies?

I am very conscious here that all I have really done is raise some questions. I hope at least they provide some food for thought and research. As I work through these ideas over the coming months, I look forward to learning more from historians about the future!


During the question and answer session I was asked some challenging and interesting questions. Among the ones I managed to jot down:

  • Emotionless futures: one kind of vision of the future is a future in which a society could function perfectly well with either no emotions at all, or with a very restricted range of emotions. The Vulcan society, exemplified by Mr Spock, in Star Trek is one such. They quite deliberately tried to dispense with emotions, as productive mainly of misery and irrationality.Mr Spock imageMy response to this is that Mr Spock is not emotionless; several episodes turn on Spock developing emotions and his ways of coping with this. His species appears to have emotions on a cyclical basis, to do with mating and reproduction, much as many animal species have fertile and infertile seasons. It is quite hard to imagine species with no emotions at all, unless we think non-biologically. Our AI overlords may well be emotionless, though some have speculated that emotions are actually functionally necessary for intelligence.
  • Do experiments with psychedelia suggest the possibility of new and differently regulated emotions?
    The theory of psychedelic drugs as openers of the “doors of perception” is attractive, though not one I have any first-hand knowledge of. However the reports I read don’t so much suggest new emotions as the familiar ones, less easily controlled and rationalised, and responding to the (heightened) sensory experiences in the usual (though heightened) way. What is perhaps most interesting is the idea of taking drugs specifically in order to experience certain emotions, on a controlled and planned basis (much as shamans fulfil their social roles in highly structured and social understood ways).
  • One form of emotional future is captured in the idea of Paradise; the history of ideas of Paradise would be a good place to look for the history of emotional ideality.
    Indeed. One interesting question relates to the decline in the idea of Paradise, and the rise of the idea that Paradise might be absurd or just boring. In part this suggests that emotional Utopias are not Utopias of bliss, but Utopias of interesting things happening. A favourite book of mine is Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time Trilogy, which projects a sort of Aubrey Beardsley-inspired paradise of the aesthetic on to the end of the world itself. Different characters experience different emotions quite deliberately as part of their personal aesthetic style, rather than from any physical or social necessity.
  • In the talk, I mentioned the diagnostic function of Utopian writing, in analysing what is wrong with present society, and the symptomatic reading of Utopian writing, read critically to understand the desires and fears of the writer (either personally or as a specimen of a kind of typical ideology of his or her time). I was challenged to think about:
    • How emotions display or relate to what it is that we value
    • How Utopian writing and rhetoric produce their emotional effects in the reader, and the thought that it Utopian emotions are not just “in” the text but those produced by the text
    • How a symptomatic reading of Utopian texts which focusses on desire as lack takes on trust too much from Lacan, and that a more interesting approach would be to think about desire for pleasure and enjoyment, more along the lines suggested by Deleuze and Guattari in their “Anti-Oedipus”.

Richard Ashcroft tweets @QMULBioethics