Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
It seems to us that our moral judgments, such as “It was wrong for Paul to cheat on his wife,” and our moral action (decisions), such as “I am going to help that homeless person,” are based on reason. However, most of our moral judgments are actually based on emotions or even mere intuitions. When we feel that we are reasoning to a moral conclusion, often all we are doing is rationalizing a judgment or decision that our brains have already made instinctively.
Now, this shouldn’t be surprising. Some 90% of all of our brain’s decisions are made automatically and intuitively. Why should moral decisions be any different? Many scientists believe that emotions have evolved in part to encourage us to obey society’s moral rules so that we can effectively live together in groups.
For example, self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment motivate people to follow society’s moral norms. Studies show that people with the most acute sense of guilt tend to be among the most moral and cooperative citizens.
People are also motivated to do the right thing because they know that they would face other-condemning emotions such as contempt, anger, and disgust if they did not do so. For example, when Paul’s friends learn that he cheated on his wife, they will likely feel anger and he will feel shame. His friends may punish him for this wrong.
Other-praising emotions such as gratitude and moral elevation, which people sometimes feel when they see others do the right thing, can stimulate people to act prosocially. Studies show that people will be more generous and helpful themselves after watching others be generous and helpful.
There are other-suffering emotions, also, such as sympathy, compassion, and empathy. These emotions often encourage people to help others in need. Some experts believe that empathy is the most important moral emotion. Primatologist Frans De Waal writes that “human morality is firmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core.”
Professor Godsey, co-founder of the Ohio Innocence Project, argues that racism in any form is a type of dehumanization. People are often capable of dehumanizing others, concluding that they are not deserving of moral treatment. For example, colonial Americans dehumanized Africans during slavery, and the Nazis dehumanized Jews during WWII. But we can thwart dehumanization with empathy. By consciously taking the perspective of others, we recognize their humanity, and can change our behavior.
So, moral emotions generally point people toward doing the right thing and away from doing the wrong thing, but remember these caveats:
First: our emotions are far from infallible. For example, the emotion of disgust often causes us to condemn the thing that disgusts us in moral terms. But there may be no rational moral basis to do so. If we make a moral judgment emotionally, often we cannot rationally defend our choice, which is a concept called “moral dumbfounding.”
Second: although moral emotions urge us in the right direction, we often use rationalizations to deceive ourselves. We often overcome our potential guilt, shame and embarrassment and manage to do the wrong thing anyway, like Paul did when he cheated on his wife. We use psychological tricks to be able to view our immoral acts as not so bad after all.
Third, and last: our emotional reactions tend to beat our logical thoughts to the punch. Practicing mindfulness can improve our response. With diligence and practice, we can at least sometimes override our automatic emotional judgments with thoughtful cognitive calculation.