What is the relationship between emotions and morality?

Daryl Cameron

Think about the last time someone did something immoral—killed, cheated, stole, had sex with someone or something they shouldn’t have—your immediate response was likely to be emotional: you probably felt negative and pretty “worked up” about it.  Although it was long assumed that our ability to make moral judgments had very little to do with our emotions, growing evidence now suggests the opposite is true.  Over two decades of research suggests that emotional states and moral judgments are intertwined.  In general, moral violations elicit negative emotions that in turn shape people’s reactions about the severity or importance of a moral infraction.  People who are more emotionally reactive tend to find moral violations to be more wrong and deserving of punishment, and clinical populations with diminished emotions (e.g., psychopaths) make moral judgments differently than healthy individuals.  Causing people to feel emotions ranging from disgust and anger to compassion and amusement can change their moral judgments (e.g., whether they think something is wrong) and moral behavior (e.g., whether they punish someone else).  Broadly, these findings support the writings of Scottish philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith: who you blame depends (in part) on how you feel.

Some have suggested that it might matter which emotion you’re currently feeling, insofar as some emotions might be more related to certain types of moral violations than others.  When someone steals a marble rye from an elderly lady, you might feel anger.  When someone has sex with a marble rye, you might feel disgust. In fact, many psychological theories suggest that there are unique pairings between specific emotions and specific types of morality.  These theories carve morality into many different types, such as harm, which involves causing suffering (e.g., killing someone), and purity, which involves bodily/spiritual defilement (e.g., “unnatural” sex).  Harm and purity are considered distinct, like taste buds for sweet and sour.  The question is: are certain “moral taste buds” uniquely responsive to certain emotions, just as certain taste buds are uniquely responsive to certain “basic tastes” such as sweet and sour?

3999966771_46dd120c46_zMany have claimed that harm violations are uniquely connected to the emotion of anger, and that purity violations are uniquely connected to the emotion of disgust.  Anger shouldn’t correlate with or influence moral judgments about purity violations, and disgust shouldn’t correlate with or influence moral judgments about harm violations.  In a recently published review with Kristen Lindquist and Kurt Gray, we examined the evidence for these specificity claims.  Examining the literature, we did not find support for these claims: instead, disgust and anger each relate to judgments about both harm and purity violations.

So what drives the relationship between emotions and moral judgment?  It may be that specific emotions don’t matter as much as feeling generally bad or “worked up.”  For instance, in a recent set of studies, people were made to feel one of a variety of emotions—including disgust, fear, sadness, and excitement—and then they judged harm and purity violations.  Compared to a neutral control condition, all of the emotion inductions made people judge moral violations more harshly, regardless of the induced emotion or the type of morality being judged.  Instead, what mattered was a more basic dimension that underlies specific emotions, called arousal: generally, how activated and worked up are you?  This finding has interesting implications for everyday moral judgment.  If being aroused and worked up increases moral condemnation, then you may want to reconsider making any important moral decisions after just waking up (when you feel lowly activated), going jogging (when you feel highly activated), or having that third cup of coffee (when you feel really highly activated).

This finding is consistent with a broader perspective on the mind called constructionism: mental states like emotions and moral judgments are built from more basic parts, just like a cake emerges from a recipe that combines flour, sugar, and eggs. For emotions and moral judgments, these ingredients include affect (how good/bad and aroused you feel) and your knowledge and memories.  Constructionism has been applied to explain emotions (for review, see here) and moral judgments (for review, see here).  Disgust and anger feel different, as do purity and harm, which is why it may seem natural for them to pair up with one another.  But research suggests that they don’t, and that basic ingredients like arousal may be equally, if not more, important in understanding emotions, morality, and the relationship between the two.  Returning to the taste bud analogy, distinct “moral taste buds” are not uniquely responsive to certain emotions.  Morality may be a matter of taste, but understanding the relationship between emotions and morality may benefit from constructionism as a new approach.


photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/reisgekki/