Abuse for All to See

The firestorm over domestic abuse ignited by the staggered public release of two videos of Ray Rice and his then-girlfriend and now wife Janay Palmer illustrates one important finding of the behavioral ethics research that underlies many of our Ethics Unwrapped educational videos:  many moral judgments are emotion-driven.

It seems to most people that their judgments of the morality of others’ actions—infidelity, insider trading, drug abuse, etc.—is driven by their own reasoned analysis.  It generally seems to people that their brain’s cognitive system (what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the slow and steady “System 2”) is in charge of evaluating the morality of people’s acts.

However, it has long been clear to behavioral ethics researchers that there is a huge emotional component to the moral judgments that people render.  Emotions such as anger, contempt, and disgust (deriving from the brain’s rapid and intuitive “System 1”) make the bulk of people’s moral judgments for them, at least if they are not careful.  Psychologists have long been able to manipulate lab subjects’ moral judgments by simply triggering their disgust emotion.  People tend to make much less harsh judgments of others’ actions in a clean, well-lit room.  Litter the room with used tissues or add a dash of “Fart Spray” (yes, there is such a product), and people’s judgments regarding the morality of adultery, tax evasion and the like become much less forgiving.

People do not consciously realize how emotions affect their moral judgments, but the Ray Rice case puts the process on display.  People know at an intellectual level that domestic violence is a serious problem that should be addressed, but a sense of urgency is often lacking until they see a video like that of Ray Rice dragging the unconscious Janay Palmer out of an elevator.  The video, which became publicly available in the spring of 2014, greatly upset many people, as did the NFL’s relatively light initial punishment of Rice—a two-game suspension.

The controversy over domestic violence and the NFL’s response to it simmered throughout the summer of 2014.  Every person who watched the video of Rice dragging Palmer out of the elevator could have mentally reconstructed what happened in the elevator.  It was obvious that Rice had hit Palmer, rendering her unconscious.  However, it took the public release of a video from the interior of the elevator that actually showed the blow to turn the simmering controversy into an out-and-out conflagration that forced the NFL’s hand, leading commissioner Roger Goodell to greatly increase the punishment for players involved in domestic abuse and causing Rice’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, to void his $40 million contract and release him.  Actually seeing the video greatly magnified people’s emotional reactions to what they already knew Rice had done.  This intensified emotional reaction, in turn, changed people’s moral judgments both of Rice’s actions and of the reactions of the NFL and the Ravens.

In the Rice case, it appears that a lot of good may come from the emotion-fueled reactions people are having in response to the second video.  Domestic abuse may be more seriously addressed in public policy debates, as it should be.  But let’s be careful.  The fact that people have an adverse emotional reaction to something does not necessarily mean that it is morally bad.  It may be, as in the case of domestic abuse.  But it may not be.

For example, there is evidence that the disgust emotion originated to keep people from eating poison and from exposing themselves to germs, but as people evolved disgust became implicated in the psychological systems underlying moral judgments.  What disgusts people varies from culture to culture, and one school of thought is that disgust has underlain bias against homosexuals.  Whether or not that is accurate, Daniel Kelly is surely right when he claims that “the fact that something is disgusting is not even remotely a reliable indicator of foul play.”

As another example of how our emotions can mislead our moral judgments, people tend to believe intellectually that choices regarding the proper punishment for Ray Rice and for most accused criminals in our justice system should be largely driven by considerations of deterrence.  However, Sinnott-Armstrong and colleagues point out that in reality it is not deterrence but people’s moral outrage that actually drives the punishments that they dole out as jurors and judges.

The fact that people have great difficulty controlling their emotional reactions (Amodio) necessarily means that there is a critical role for the cognitive System 2 and that truly moral people will try to increase the role that System 2 plays in their moral judgments, as recently recommended by Mark Johnson in his book Morality for Humans.  This requires conscious effort, but it is effort that should be well worth the cost.  Only if we understand how emotions affect our moral judgments can we consciously reevaluate our snap moral judgments to determine whether they stand up to reasoned scrutiny.  People’s harsh reactions to the second Ray Rice video will, I believe, stand up to that inquiry, but not all emotion-driven moral judgments will.



David M. Amodio, Self-Regulation in Intergroup Relations: A Social Neuroscience Framework, in Social Neuroscience: Toward Understanding the Underpinnings of the Social Mind 101 (Alexander Todorov, Susan T. Fiske & Deborah A.  Prentice, eds. 2011).

Morris B. Hoffman, The Punisher’s Brain: The Evolution of Judge and Jury (2014).

Mark Johnson, Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science (2014).

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2014).

Daniel Kelly, Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust (2013).

Ron Mallon & Shaun Nichols, Rules, in The Moral Psychology Handbook 297 (John M. Doris, ed. 2010) .

Jesse J. Prinz & Shaun Nichols, Moral Emotions, in The Moral Psychology Handbook 111 (John M. Doris, ed. 2010).

Erica Roedder & Gilbert Harman, Linguistics and Moral Theory, in The Moral Psychology Handbook 273 (John M. Doris, ed. 2010).

Dimone Schnall, Jonathan Haidt, Gerald L. Clore & Alexander H. Jordan, Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment, 34 Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 1096 (Aug. 2008).

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Liane Young & Fiery Cushman, Moral Intuition, in in The Moral Psychology Handbook 246 (John M. Doris, ed. 2010).


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