Do Emotions Help or Hinder Moral Actions?

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We are guided to a large extent by our emotional responses to the world around us. Our emotions shape our actions, both for better and for worse. How do our emotions influence moral actions?

There has been an explosion of scholarly work on how emotions affect the way people reason, and much of that research is relevant to our question. The conclusions researchers draw generally fall into one of two camps: 1) emotions overwhelm and hinder reasoning and, by extension, intentional action; or, 2) emotions facilitate and help reasoning and intentional action. As is often the case in science (and elsewhere), each of these strictly opposing views is too neat and tidy on its own. My own view is that the relationship between emotions and reasoning is more complex. While emotions can shape our moral reasoning, the inverse is also true: moral reasoning can shape our emotional responses. As a consequence, over time, we can train our emotional responses to be in line with our moral beliefs and our goals.

Those who argue that emotions overwhelm reasoning and intentional action can appeal to decades of work suggesting that people who give in to their emotion-based impulses and desires suffer a host of negative outcomes. The classic work in this area was conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s and 1970s. He brought children into the laboratory and faced them with a difficult challenge (the particulars varied among experiments): They could eat one marshmallow that was sitting in front of them immediately, or they could wait ten minutes and eat two marshmallows. The results of this “marshmallow test” are well known: The children who waited — who “delayed gratification” — ended up becoming more successful later in life. This general line of work has continued into the present day, and there is now compelling evidence that people who are better able to control their impulses and delay gratification are less likely to overeat, abuse alcohol or drugs, or drop out of school, and are more successful overall. One way to interpret these findings is that people who allow emotional impulses to influence their actions are less likely to make good decisions overall.

The idea that emotions overwhelm reasoning is also echoed in an emerging body of scholarly literature on moral decision-making. Jonathan Haidt has argued that people often base moral judgments on emotional reactions. For example, people judge incest to be morally wrong even when risks such as pregnancy or emotional and psychological damage are removed from the equation. Haidt concludes that such judgments are rooted more in emotion than in rational deliberations about possible risks.

Other researchers, using a famous thought experiment originally offered by moral philosopher Philippa Foot, have argued that emotional responses can lead to suboptimal moral decisions. You’ve heard the scenario before: Say there’s a trolley coming down the tracks and it’s headed toward five people. You can flip a switch and redirect the train away from those five people, but the train will then be careening towards another, single person. Do you flip the switch? In an alternative version, you can push one person from an overpass onto the tracks to stop the trolley before it reaches the five people. Do you push the one person to save the lives of the five others? Most people answer “yes” to the first question but “no” to the second. Some scientists argue that this difference can be explained by the fact that people have stronger negative emotional reactions to the idea of pushing someone in front of the trolley than they do to flipping a switch. If one accepts that saving five people at the expense of one is the moral choice, then these findings suggest that emotions hinder moral action.

On the other side of the debate, those who maintain that emotions facilitate reasoning and intentional action can appeal to an equally compelling body of scholarship. Research from this camp suggests that emotions are foundational for all of our cognitive and behavioral processes and can result in outcomes consistent with people’s needs and goals. Emotional responses often guide people toward the most beneficial choice even in the absence of any conscious reasoning.

In one famous study, people were given a cash loan and told to gamble by turning cards from four decks of cards. The decks varied in potential payoff and penalty: two were risky (high payoff, high penalty) and two were safe (low payoff, low penalty). Picking from the safe decks repeatedly would result in larger gains overall. But the players were not given any information about the decks and learned of the gain or loss from each card only after turning it, so they had no way of predicting overall gains and losses. Nevertheless, over time, most people made the right choice: They began to choose the more advantageous decks more often than not. Interestingly, many of them also began to experience anticipatory skin conductance responses when contemplating choosing from the risky decks, even before they could verbally describe why they thought the decks were risky.

This work, and other subsequent research in a similar vein, suggests that emotions can help people learn to make better choices, even when they’re unable to reason consciously about those choices. This idea has not been taken up in contemporary research on moral action as much as the contrary idea that emotions overwhelm reasoning. Still, some researchers have suggested that the prevalence of certain strong, negative emotional responses, such as those elicited by the trolley problem, indicates that emotions can help moral action. Although choosing not to push someone in front of an oncoming trolley to save five people is not a morally utilitarian choice, choosing not to kill someone remains a moral action, and one that can be rationally defended.

Depending on one’s views about morality, these lines of research into how emotions might help moral action could prove challenging. For example, some philosophers claim that to be moral an action must be the result of deliberative thought. According to this view, people must consider the reasons for or consequences of their actions when making a moral choice. If one takes this position to its extreme and says that moral actions must be the result of an emotion-free and thus purely rational analytic process, as in extreme forms of deontological and utilitarian ethics, then it would seem that people are incapable of behaving morally, since psychological research suggests that all our reasoning is to some extent influenced by our emotions.

But an alternative and more nuanced understanding of moral action avoids this dispiriting conclusion. What if moral action is the result of deliberative choices made over time? On this view, people can, through deliberative reasoning, change their interpretations of situations and hence also their emotional responses to those situations. Over time, this process can become habitual and thereby alter one’s initial reactions to events and stimuli. In other words, as research has suggested, we can train our emotional responses over time. This idea does not imply that we all share the same view of what constitutes moral behavior, only that we all can bring our emotional responses into line with our own moral beliefs and intentions, whatever those are.

Consider someone who values the virtue of temperance — that things should be enjoyed in moderation — and strives to be temperate in daily life. If that person loves chocolate, emotional responses may overwhelm the intention to be temperate, resulting in overindulgence in chocolate at the first available opportunity. But since the person is striving to be temperate, such overindulgence may prompt negative emotional reactions, such as guilt, shame, and regret. Recent work suggests that these negative reactions provide the perfect occasions for us to develop our emotional responses, to make them better align with our moral attitudes and goals. There are at least three ways this can happen.

1. Negative emotions signal the need to adjust our behavior. It has long been acknowledged by psychologists that one of the primary functions of emotion is to signal that something important is happening and needs attention. Recent work has shown that this aspect of emotion can help us make better decisions. People often have the feeling that “something is wrong” when they make incorrect judgments. Studies show that people also experience greater physiological arousal (the biological equivalent of that feeling of wrongness) when they make incorrect judgments, and those who do spend more time deliberating and are more likely to correct their mistakes. This offers another possible opportunity to redirect our actions toward pursuits that are more in line with our attitudes and beliefs. When the temperate person who loves chocolate encounters the object of his desire, his strong positive emotional response can act as a signal to pay attention and redirect his cognitive resources toward regulating his behavior, rather than immediate gratification.

2. Negative emotions can help us learn from our mistakes. We are all familiar with emotions such as regret, shame, guilt, or disappointment that result from acting immorally or making choices that are not consistent with our own beliefs. Such emotions are unpleasant, of course. But studies have shown that they can nevertheless be integral to our ability to learn from experience. How? Such emotions trigger rumination on counterfactual thoughts: an analysis of what went wrong and how we could have done differently in a given situation. They present a rare window of opportunity to reflect on our actions and prepare ourselves to make different choices in the future. There’s evidence that focusing on actions that we could have changed — rather than, say, focusing on our shortcomings or weaknesses — can result in our making better choices the next time we encounter a similar situation.

3. Emotional responses can be reshaped over time. The idea that behaviors can be changed through experience is a hallmark of many different approaches in psychology. What is important here, however, is the idea that individuals can deliberatively set out to alter their own emotional responses. Recent work in psychology on the topic of “mindfulness,” the psychological state of being receptive to and aware of our surroundings, complements this idea — that we can become, with some effort, more aware of our emotional reactions and bring them into better accord with our attitudes, beliefs, and goals.

Our emotions are both powerful and unavoidable. But we need not be at their mercy, unable to control them or prevent them from overwhelming our reasoning and behavior. On the contrary, research suggests that we can act as agents who actively shape our emotional responses. Recognizing the impact emotions have on our actions can help us to develop stronger and more deliberative moral habits over time.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it possible to encounter a moral choice without having an emotional response? Are emotional responses part of what define moral choices?
  2. What are the moral implications of people who deliberatively develop their emotional responses to be consistent with harmful or otherwise maladaptive attitudes or beliefs?
  3. What does it mean for evolutionary theories of moral action that people can alter their emotional responses over time? Does it suggest that all moral responses are learned? Are there some moral responses that are innate and cannot be altered?
  4. Are there particular emotions that are especially effective in prompting us to alter our moral behavior?

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