Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Morality and emotion

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Emotion and morality:
What role do emotions play in morality?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Example Case study

Steven is a young, adolescent male at 17 years of age who has just started at a new school in his final year of college. His results in previous years have been excellent, and he remains a likeable person who strives to exceed. However, he struggles to fit in at his new school and upon submitting his first assignment receives critical feedback from his teacher, Ms Jones. The pressure of the new school causes him to become sad and the feedback only proves to make Steven angry, considering he had been doing so well. In response Steven decides that he can't be bothered with school and begins to miss classes and hang out with a group of hooligans. Steven has allowed his negative emotions to make a relatively poor moral decision.

When deciding on the best course of action, have you ever been swayed in a direction you would otherwise not go if you felt calmer? Most likely all of us have at one time or another. Whist it has previously been thought that in making moral decisions a sense of reasoning and the use of general principles (Haidt, 2008)[grammar?]. Emotions have been identified to in fact be dramatic influences on our moral decisions and behaviours (Haidt, 2008; Tangney, Stuewig, Mashek, 2007). This concept of emotion being a motivational influence over behavioural actions can be linked to how our morality takes form. Our morality being that internal distinction we generate between what is right and wrong[grammar?]. So, to what extent do we as humans allow our emotions to dictate what is morally right or wrong? It is the purpose of this chapter to explore how the psychological understanding of morality has developed, and how the link between morality and emotions have been proven to be inextricably linked.

Focus questions
  1. What is morality?
  2. How have psychological theories developed to explain the link between emotions and morality?
  3. Do some emotions have a greater impact?
  4. What is the significance of emotions influencing morality?

Morality[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. ONDCP Pothead - Drug users disregard moral conventions

To first understand how emotions may impact the morality of our decision making, an understanding of what is defined as moral is required. Morality [grammar?] being one of if not the first intellectual topic having roots traced back to ancient Mesopotamian times, has a broad history (Haidt, J, 2008). With the definition becoming more defined over time yet having competing definitions evolving and criticising one another[grammar?]. A common misconception is that morality and ethics are one in the same, that both define what is a good or bad action definitively. It is argued that the distinguishing of the two lays in morality holding a personal distinction in what is good or bad. Whilst ethics is entirely shaped by society, creating standards for how a person should behave. For this reason, the two must be distinguished, to separate the societal pressures which influence ethics, and morality itself. We see in Figure 1, the tropes that become associated with drug users, whom regardless of the criticism continue with their habit, regardless of ethics they have their own morality which guides them.

Kantian understanding[edit | edit source]

Immanuel Kant did not himself believe he innovated in the understanding of morals, nor did he seek to better the understanding of morality in Psychology. Rather his works were key in assisting today’s understanding of moral rules and their origin in our society (Campbell & Christopher, 1996). It was according to Kant that all moral acts were done out of duty and thus to act out of self-interest meant there was not moral relevance or moral worth. It is this moral philosophy that influences todays[grammar?] contemporary understanding of morality (Campbell & Christopher, 1996) and has influenced the works of numerous psychologists exploring the field such as in the works of Kohlberg, where a formalist perspective can be observed. Based on Kant’s summation that moral rules are universalizable categorical imperatives, recognisable by their formal features, that pertain to social issues (Campbell & Christopher, 1996).

“It is a duty to preserve one’s life, and moreover everyone has a direct inclination to do so. But for that reason, the often anxious care which most men take of it has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim of so doing has no moral import.... But if adversities and hopeless sorrow completely take away the relish for life, if an unfortunate man, strong in soul, is indignant rather than despondent or dejected over his fate and wishes for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it and from neither inclination nor fear but from duty— then his maxim has a moral import” - (Kant, 1785/1959, pp. 397–398).

Modern morality[edit | edit source]

The contemporary understanding of morality has since adapted and changed as new theories have been proposed. Whilst many still consider the works of Kant to be the birth of our understanding of morality it has continued to be critiqued (Campbell & Christopher, 1996). Claiming that Kant’s works failed to factor numerous societal conditions, and human adaptability. A prominent Psychologist whom has built on the works of Kant and further sought to establish a broader basis for understanding morality was Elliot Turiel (1983). Who further developed the notion of people as reasonings who have equal worth and who must always be treated as ends in themselves, never solely as means to other goals[grammar?].

“prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other” - (Turiel, pp. 3, 2006).

This multidisciplinary nature of morality has evolved continuously to encompass the values, institutions and psychological mechanisms that supress[spelling?] or regulate selfishness to ensure moral society is maintained (Haidt, 2008). This understanding has been formed through the works of evolutionary theorists and anthropologists who explain how our moral has been shaped by the development of our genes and cultures (Richerson & Boyd, 2005).

Theories[edit | edit source]

The study of morality within psychology has only truly gained momentum since the 20th century. With the development the specific field, being moral psychology, a combination of psychological and philosophical basis[grammar?]. As discussed by Turiel this multi-disciplinary field of study has continued to expand as different theories have attempted to explain the correlation between morality and our environment, both internal and external (Turiel, 1983).

Theory of moral development[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Jean Piaget the father of moral development theory

In the early 1900’s, French psychologist Jean Piaget (seen in Figure 2) became interested in the aspects of the childhood reasoning, in how their morality impacted their control. Piaget’s research led to a field of study in being moral psychology and the creation of the theory of moral development. A prominent theory that has since gained significant traction, later being adopted and brought to greater prominence by Kohlberg. The works of both Piaget and Kohlberg were heavily influence by the Kantian understanding of Morality.

Piaget[edit | edit source]

The initial works of Piaget and origins of the theory of moral development (TMD) started as a way to consider a child’s moral reasoning (Piaget, 1932). From this he considered three aspects 1. Children’s understanding of rules, 2. Children’s understand of moral responsibility and 3. Children’s understanding of justice. Through his studies Piaget found that children’s concept of morality developed as they aged. From this Piaget developed his theory of cognitive development (Piaget, 1932), a separate theory in itself but linked closely to TMD. Seeing cognitive development and greater understanding impact the morality of a decision making. These findings lead Piaget to create two distinct styles of morality which were observed throughout cognitive development.

  • Absolute morality is the straightforward belief that true morality is entirely reliant on the concept of there being a right choice for every moral or ethical dilemma or decision which we are faced with.
  • Relative morality is rather the concept that we are faced with many different situations, each of which calling for a different or unique response which may contradict initial belief or have changed from the initial response.

In both styles of morality Piaget likened back to how children adapted to believe a certain set of rules over time (Piaget, 1932). That certain behaviours an action was associated with good or bad moral reasoning. Throughout his works he continues to associate the reasoning for morality and how we perceive what is moral by attitude or feelings towards another. Such as showing disgust or resentment to those less privileged.

Kohlberg[edit | edit source]

The works of Piaget were a great influence of Lawrence Kohlberg, however he sought to expand this understanding of development of morality. His research remained in the study of children through to adolescents, though which he sought to prove that moral reasoning had distinct stages. His works were able to define a series of six developmental stages of moral development (Kohlberg, 1969). To achieve this finding and establish the distinct levels of development Kohlberg utilised a number of moral based stories, of note the Heinz dilemma (Kohlberg, 1969). Each designed to gauge the moral reasoning displayed by participants in his experiments.

Heinz Dilemma

“A woman was on her deathbed. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it.” So, Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's laboratory to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?”

The Heinz dilemma is specifically designed to assess the reactions of young children through to adolescent to access their moral reasoning. Demonstrating through the responses that as humans ages we adapt or see growth in our moral reasoning. However, the works of Kohlberg and Piaget failed to factor that moral reasoning was not always deliberative. The Heinz dilemma sought differentiate the impacts of cognitive development on moral reasoning yet did not factor the emotional stimulus of fear or anger. That instead of ‘moral reasoning’ dictating and developing throughout stages each individual develops to hold innate responses based on feelings. These works of both Piaget and Kohlberg, whilst failing to identify emotion as a contributing factor, were a driving force behind future research.

Moral foundations theory[edit | edit source]

The works of Piaget and Kohlberg have since been criticised for being restricted to explicitly strategic or deliberative reasoning. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham led to the development of moral foundations theory (MFT). The premise of MFT being that moral reasoning is primarily of an intuitive nature, based on immediate decision making (Graham, Haidt, Koleva, Motyl, Iyer, & Wojcik, 2013). This is elicited due to a culmination of social, cultural and evolutionary responses, which similarly are linked to cognitive development. This theory can be broken down into for separate claims which build upon the idea of intuition and how it developed.

MFT proposes that nativism is the building blocks upon which moral reasoning and judgement are built (Graham et al, 2013). Base on the metaphor of nativism as “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises...‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience” (Marcus, 2004). That each of our experiences and the emotive responses, allow humans to develop intuitive or reactive responses. Alongside nativism is cultural learning, another defining influencer in the development of human’s moral judgement. In that our experiences are shaped by our respective cultures, in defining what is and isn’t acceptable. This is from birth we are engrained with learning modules which through our cultural upbringing further develop into learning instincts (Sperber, 2005).Alongside cultural influence is that of pluralism, the social challenges which we and our ancestors have faced that develop into models or themes we can see influencing moral judgement. Each of these together build into the final intuitionism that sees intuitive responses to situations form.

The study conducted by Mineka and Cook (1988) provides an example of this development. As seen in young rhesus monkeys, who prior to the study displayed no fear response to snakes. The monkeys following forced exposure to a film of an adult monkey eliciting a fearful response to seeing a snake changed this response within the younger monkeys. Demonstrating a preparedness in the correct response, which became intuitive[grammar?]. A response due to emotion, fear, was correctly applied to ensure that an immediate behaviour would occur. Haidt and colleagues, proposed that this was similar within humans and could be related to moral reasoning. Further to this Haidt & Joseph proposed that morality can be divided into 5 subcategories, care/harm, fairness/ cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation (Haidt & Joseph, 2007). That moral responses would occur dependant on the environment and situation[grammar?].

Social intuitionism model[edit | edit source]

This proposition led to the foundation of the social intuitionism model (SIM). Which in the same vein as MFT proposes that due to the relatively effortless, associative and heuristic processing method of moral reasoning, that responses occur rapidly, almost automatically (Kahnmenn 2011; Stanovich & West 2000). Rather than the brain developing a deliberative response due to reasoned information, the gut provides an instinctual response. As the ‘gut’ or emotional responses dominate any form of moral judgement thus not allowing deliberative reasoning the efficacy to intervene (Cameron, Payne, & Doris, 2013). Haidt is however clear in stating that this ‘gut’ response does not always occur and the sole method of moral deliberation. Rather that SIM act as a result of MFT, once an appropriate response had been developed. People are typically unaware of how incidental emotions influence their moral judgments, and even when they are aware, they typically lack the motivation and capacity to correct such influences (Haidt, 2001).

Moral emotions[edit | edit source]

Within psychology morality was initially explored as seen with TMD as a cognitive structure, that could be studied and explained as a transformative experience. Seeking to explain solely how moral reasoning occurred[grammar?]. It was not until the late 1900’s[grammar?] that studies and journals began to expand on this research in an aim to expand this cognitive research in parallel (Tomkins, 1981). This expanding research has generated a greater appreciation in how influential human emotions are in our moral justification. With theorist such as Haidt (2001), claiming that emotions are in fact the greater and more influential driving force behind human morals.

Figure 3. The feeling of shame - a self-conscious emotion

Self-conscious emotions[edit | edit source]

The beginning of research into moral emotion within psychology, had a central focus on the self-conscious emotions of shame, guilt, and empathy (Haidt, 2003). This could be due to most westernised researchers’ indicating these as the most influential self-conscious emotions (Lewis, 1993). However, theorist[grammar?] in the field have since expanded into emotions such as embarrassment, upon the realisation that these emotions as a group demonstrate a far greater impact (Haidt, 2003). That these emotions generally being self-reflective in nature, are targeted towards ourselves as the subject[grammar?]. This self-reflection upon oneself as the form of moral judgement, allows the moral self-conscious emotions to provide and immediate punisher or reinforcer, dependant on the nature of the self-reflection (Immordino-Yang, M, 2011;Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007).

Whilst theorists claim emotions are the primary stimuli in generating a moral response, there is also a question of whether all are equal in significance or the situation in which they exhibit influence. For example, in the case of shame and guilt, it is observed that guilt appears to be an adaptive emotion, providing moral influence in a variety of situations (Baumeister et al. 1994, 1995; Tangney 1991, 1995). Whilst shame has been shown to in many cases demonstrate a skewed response, often an ineffective response in the situation (Tangney 1991, 1995; Tangney et al. 1996)[grammar?]. As an example, a person whom has broken a promise, may elicit either a guilt of shameful response. The instinctual guilt response is to amend the problem, through reparative actions such as confessions or apologies. Whilst shame has a greater tendency to deny or hide from the situation, as we see in Figure 3[grammar?]. This may be linked to studies that have found higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine and cortisol being released during a shame response, which triggers a deference or self-concealment response from the person (Dickerson, Et al. 2004). This is an important distinction, in understanding the situational nature in which certain emotions will have greater impact[grammar?].

Condemning emotions[edit | edit source]

These emotions such as anger, disgust, jealousy and contempt, represent the evolutionary development of humans in cooperating with like minded individuals (Cameron et al, 2013). Based on the underlying motivation of self-interest and achieving the greatest outcomes for oneself[grammar?]. This is a response that humans through cognitive and social development have greater advantage in over our animal counterparts. Whilst humans are a care for the welfare of each other and attempt to build relationships, we are able to identify those that are non-reciprocal or detrimental and thus develop negative or condemning emotions(Cameron et al, 2013; Graham et al. 2013). This developed response holds close connection with MFT, in that through cognitive development an intuitive moral response is designed, entirely based on emotions.

This[what?] is evident through recent studies in how generating a disgust response to sensory information such as visual, imaginal and other cues (Cameron et al, 2013). In such a study, participants were made to view both disgusting or neutral images accessed from the International Affective Picture System (Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 2005). Alongside which a brief text describing a practice that is culturally acceptable in some countries, E.g. (Marriages are arranged by children’s parents), after which they were asked to evaluate out from 1 to five whether the practice was wrong regardless of cultural significance[grammar?]. The aim based on SIM that an intuitive disgust response would be generated and increased when a disgusting image was displayed (Cameron et al, 2013). The results indicated that the majority of participants associated a greater disapproval rating when the disgust image was associated with the text. This study and those of a similar nature display how our emotional response can be a significant influencing factor in our moral judgements and how they can be instinctual.

Influence of emotion on morality in action[edit | edit source]

The greater understanding identified in the field of moral psychology and the impacts of emotion have allowed for the identification of real-world application of these theories. In many circumstances it is still thought that the major influence comes from personal cultural or political ideologies held by an individual. However, moral reasoning has now shown indications linked to the emotive response, which is seen to develop collaboratively with one’s identity (Graham et al. 2013).

Abortion[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Protester demonising the practice of abortion

A sensitive subject due to the heavily politicised and controversial topic, as we see in Figure 4, with extreme critical views associated with the practice. However, for the person at the centre of it, considering this moral decision is a heavy emotional influence[grammar?]. Shame and guilt can materialise through one's own feeling of being placed in such a decision. Within Australia alone there are 9 sets of different laws and regulations which govern and determine a person’s rights with regard to abortion (De Costa, Douglas, Hamblin, Ramsay, & Shircore, 2015). This multitude of rule which govern another person’s moral decision can lead to unethical decision being made through guilt, shame or anger (Duncan & Cacciatore, 2015). This multitude of mixed negative emotions have been shown to initiate a crises[spelling?] response in anywhere between 57% and 82% of women who either feel solely negative or mixed emotion prior to undergoing an abortion (Bradshaw & Slade, 2003). The decision making of abortion whilst deliberative shows the intuitive nature to react in a certain manner, based on cultural and societal stigmas associated with the practice (Haidt, 2003).

Adolescence[edit | edit source]

During adolesence[spelling?] teenagers make many of their decision based on the strong emotions that have developed through the cocktail of developmental chemical rushing through their bodies (Malti, & Noam, 2012). In the work by Malti and Colleagues (2012), they explored how adolescents from the ages of 12 years upwards responded to moral decisions, ranging from harming another intentionally through to intended bullying[grammar?]. In surveys following the responses to these questions the research team asked why the adolescents had responded, in what way had they reached their decision. The responses showed that these adolescents had been swayed by the feeling of guilt they would have felt and by a variety of other negative emotions that influence the response.[Provide more detail]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The current theories within Psychology including the works of Piaget and Kohlberg held a focus on the cognitive development of morality. There works were littered with reference to emotion, though rather than appraising this as the stimulating factor, instead focused on the cognitive development, in how humans deliberate and go through a moral reasoning process based on their own development. This has since seen rapid expansion as[grammar?] a budding field of research with the likes of Haidt, likening moral reasoning to intuition based on a gut or emotive feeling. Haidt’s works identified that morality is heavily impacted by many social factors, however that internal attitude such as emotion may be the driving force. Whilst rational decision making allows for a thorough determination of what is the 'best' or most desirable outcome, it is clouded by personal or emotional interference. If thinking back to Simon in the initial case study, his responses are not deliberative there is no moral reasoning, rather an immediate emotional response of anger.

Quiz yourself

The father/founder of the theory of moral development is:

Lawrence Kohlberg.
Jean Piaget.
Immanuel Kant.
Elliot Turiel.

Which of these is a self-conscious emotion?


Guilt will usually illicit a response to hide or shy away from responsibility?


See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Abortion and emotion - What are the emotional effects of abortion? - CaraDillon
  2. Guilt - Why do we experience guilt, what are its consequences, and how can it be managed? - U3174136
  3. Self-forgiveness - What is self-forgiveness, how can we self-forgive, and what are the effects of self-forgiveness? - U3177340

References[edit | edit source]

Baumeister RF, Stillwell AM, Heatherton TF. (1994). Guilt: an interpersonal approach. Psychol. Bull. 115:243–67 Baumeister, R., Stillwell, A., & Heatherton, T. (1994). Guilt: An Interpersonal Approach. Psychological Bulletin, 115(2), 243–267.

Baumeister, R., Stillwell, A., & Heatherton, T. (1995). Personal Narratives About Guilt: Role in Action Control and Interpersonal Relationships. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 17(1-2), 173–198.

Bradshaw, Z., & Slade, P. (2003). The effects of induced abortion on emotional experiences and relationships: A critical review of the literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 23(7), 929–958.

Cameron, C., Payne, B., & Doris, J. (2013). Morality in high definition: Emotion differentiation calibrates the influence of incidental disgust on moral judgments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(4), 719–725.

Campbell, R,L., Christopher, J,C., (1996). Moral development theory: A critique of its Kantian presuppositions. Developmental Review. 16(1) 1-47.

De Costa, C., Douglas, H., Hamblin, J., Ramsay, P., & Shircore, M. (2015). Abortion law across Australia - A review of nine jurisdictions. Australian And New Zealand Journal Of Obstetrics And Gynaecology55, 105-111.

Dickerson, S., Gruenewald, T., & Kemeny, M. (2004). When the social self Is threatened: shame, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1191–1216.

Duncan, C., & Cacciatore, J. (2015). A systematic review of the peer-reviewed literature on self-blame, guilt, and shame. OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying71, 312-342.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Wojcik, R., Ditto, P. (2013). Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 55-130.

Haidt, J. (2000). The Positive emotion of elevation. Prevention & Treatment, 3(1).

Haidt J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2007). The moral mind: How 5 sets of innate intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules. The Innate Mind. New York: Oxford.

Haidt, J., (2008). Morality. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 3(1).

Immordino-Yang, M,H., (2011). Me, my “self” and you: neuropsychological relations between social emotion, self-awareness, and morality. Emotion Review, 3(3).

Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research. Rand McNally, Chicago, pp. 347-480

Lang, P.J., Bradley, M.M., Cuthbert, B.N. (2005) International affective picture system (IAPS): Affective ratings of pictures and instruction manual. Technical report A-6, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida

Lotte, V., Reine, C., Kees van den, B. (2012). On the role of attention and emotion in morality: Attentional control modulates unrelated disgust in moral judgements. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1222-1231.

Malti, T., & Noam, G. (2013). Adolescent emotions development, morality, and adaptation . Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.

Marcus, G. (2004). The birth of the mind. New York: Basic.

Sperber, D. (2005). Modularity and relevance: How can a massively modular mind be flexible and context-sensitive? The Innate Mind. 1. (pp. 53–68). New York: Oxford University Press.

Stanovich, W., West, R.F. (2002). Individual difference in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 645-726

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Richerson, P.J., Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: How culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tangney, J. (1991). Moral Affect: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(4), 598–607.

Tangney, J. (1995). Recent advances in the empirical study of shame and guilt. American Behavioral Scientist, 38(8), 1132–1145. Retrieved from

Tangney, J, P., Stuewig, J., Mashek, D,J. (2007). Moral emotions and moral behaviour. The Annual Review of Psychology, 58,345-372.

Turiel, E. (1983). The development of social knowledge: morality and convention. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. Cambridge University Press.

External links[edit | edit source]