Moral Emotions

Social psychologists have long known that emotions influence many aspects of decision making, and a growing body of research demonstrates that this is especially true in the domain of morality. Because morality generally consists of rules guiding our treatment of other people, and because emotions are often (though not always) elicited in the context of our interactions with other people, it is possible to conceive of nearly all our emotions as serving morality in some sense. However, most researchers reserve the term moral emotions to refer to those emotions whose primary function is the preservation and motivation of moral thoughts and behaviors. In short, they are the emotions that make us care about morality.

Reason versus Emotion

Moral EmotionsMorality was traditionally thought to be largely a matter of reasoning. Because the Western philosophical tradition placed such a strong emphasis on the role of reasoning for proper moral judgment, and because emotions were seen as damaging to the reasoning process in general, the study of morality focused heavily on the development of the reasoning ability. If anything, emotions were seen as harmful to the moral process. At first glance, this view is not unreasonable. After all, many emotions further one’s own self-interest (such as happiness when one succeeds or anger and sadness when one fails), or bias one toward those individuals who are close to him or her (e.g., you become more angry if someone insults your mother than if someone insults a stranger’s mother). Because impartiality seems to be critical for proper moral judgment, many thinkers believed that emotions should be eliminated from the process of moral judgment entirely.

Nonetheless, some influential thinkers noted that human morality seemed to depend heavily on the presence of certain emotions. Philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith were among the first to implicate emotions (particularly sympathy) as forming the foundations of morality. And recent research seems to support them: Without certain emotions, moral concern would not exist.

Evolutionary Origins

One area of research that elucidates the role of emotion in morality comes from evolutionary theory. However, because morality is inherently other-serving, and evolution was traditionally understood as a selfish mechanism (e.g., survival of the fittest), morality itself was not properly understood by evolutionary theorists for quite some time. Key insights from a few theorists, however, led to an understanding that a trait that encouraged altruistic behavior (helping others at a cost to oneself) could be adaptive, thus increasing the probability that the trait would be passed on to offspring. These traits likely took the form of emotional tendencies to help those in need and punish those who violated rules (e.g., cheaters). The evolutionary etiology of many emotions is still a matter of debate, but most people now believe that the presence of moral emotions is not inconsistent with an evolutionary account.

The Moral Emotions

Broadly speaking, three classes of emotions can be termed moral emotions: emotions that encourage people to care about the suffering of others (e.g., sympathy), emotions that motivate people to punish others (e.g., anger), and emotions that are, in essence, punishments upon oneself for violating one’s moral code (e.g., guilt). Some researchers also include a class of emotions that are elicited when one sees the positive moral acts of others, such as praise and a form of moral awe termed elevation.


In most discussions of moral emotions, the terms empathy and sympathy arise. These emotional processes have long been implicated as the very foundation of morality. A clarification about these terms should be made: Empathy is most often defined as feeling what another person is feeling (whether happy, sad, or angry, for instance). It is best described as a sort of emotional contagion and, as such, is not properly an emotion. Sympathy is more generally understood as caring for others. But because these terms often are used interchangeably, some researchers choose to use the term compassion to refer to the emotion of caring for the suffering of others. This compassion is often motivated by empathic/sympathetic responses to the suffering of others. These emotions seem to emerge very early on (infants cry at the sound of other infants crying more than to equally loud noncrying sounds), are present to some extent in non-human primates, and are disturbingly lacking in psychopathic individuals. This lack of empathy in psychopaths is most likely what allows them to hurt others with little compunction—because they don’t feel the pain of others, they are not motivated to compassion for the suffering of others. Having a sympa-thetic reaction to the suffering of another is also one of the best predictors of altruistic helping behavior.

Anger and Disgust

Much of morality consists of regulating the behavior of others. As moral codes are generated, consequences for the violation of those moral codes become necessary. One way in which individuals mete out immediate consequences to others is by emotional displays of disapproval. Anger is generally a response to a sense of interpersonal violation. Although anger can be elicited across a wide variety of situations, research has demonstrated that many of these situations involve a feeling of betrayal, unfair treatment, or injustice—concerns that fall squarely in the moral domain. The role of disgust in morality is a little less straightforward. Although many individuals report being disgusted by an individual they perceive as morally blameworthy (e.g., being disgusted at a con artist who robs the elderly), it is not clear that they are referring to the same kind of disgust an individual may feel when he or she sees rotting meat or feces (what some researchers term core disgust). One possibility is that individuals can recruit this core disgust when presented with a morally shady character.

Guilt and Shame

When people violate what they perceive to be a moral rule, they often respond with a feeling of guilt or shame. These emotions are often referred to as the self-conscious emotions. Shame, and its cousin, embarrassment, regulate people’s behavior when others are present. In non-Western cultures in which the hierarchical structure of society is of primary (often moral) importance, these emotions especially keep individuals acting in a manner befitting their lower-status ranking. Guilt, on the other hand, is an inherently interpersonal emotion. It acts as a signal that an individual may have hurt someone with whom he or she has a relationship. As such, guilt often motivates reparatory behavior—it only seems to go away once an individual has righted his or her wrongs.

The Moral-Emotional Life

It is easy to see how these emotions work in concert to uphold morality in everyday life. For instance, consider this simple situation: Someone is suffering and this bothers you (you feel empathy/sympathy); you now care for this person (you feel compassion). Either you caused his or her suffering (guilt) or someone else caused his or her suffering (anger, disgust). These emotions then motivate the proper actions to remedy the situation, such as seeking justice or forgiveness.


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