The Human Brain

The Human Brain

Friday, May 4, 2007

Moral Emotions vs. Moral Reasoning

Psychologist are currently debating the underlying processes involved in our moral judgments. Some psychologists believe that our moral judgments are caused by automatic unconscious moral intuitions whereas others believe they are due to conscious reasoning and reflection.

Traditionally, psychologists subscribed to the rationalist perspective. Rationalist proponents have included Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, and James Rest. According to their perspective, moral reasoning follows a cognitive-developmental trajectory in which individuals progress from basing their moral judgments on selfish issues early in development to basing them on universal ethical principles later in development.

More recent evidence, however, suggests that moral judgments may result from quick, automatic flashes of emotion. The intuitionist perspective assumes that moral reasoning serves as a post hoc rationalization rather than a cause of moral judgments.

In support of the intuitionis perspective, Jonathan Haidt found that when participants were asked to imagine a scenario in which a brother and sister have a sexual encounter, participants invariably label the behavior as morally wrong. However, they have a difficult time explaining why they find immoral. Participants often cite the danger of inbreeding and the emotional damage that could be caused by the sexual encounter. When the researcher reminds them that the brother and sister used two forms of protection and neither of them was emotionally affected by the encounter, the participants respond by saying something like “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it is wrong.”

So if it is not moral reasoning that causes our moral judgements, what is it? Haidt suggest that it is our moral emotions. These emotions include empathy, guilt, embarassment, anger, disgust, etc.

In a recent attempt to determine whether moral reasoning or moral emotions played a bigger role in predicting moral judgments, my advisor and I examined the roles of moral reasoning and the moral emotion of disgust in predicting individuals' attitudes toward homosexuality.

We found that individuals who were high in moral reasoning were less likely to hold prejudicial attitudes toward homosexuals and that individuals who were sensitive to disgust were more likely to exhibit prejudicial attitudes toward homosexuals.

More importantly, our results showed that the moral emotion of disgust overwhelms moral reasoning such that individuals who are high in both moral reasoning and disgust ressemble those who are low in moral reasoning in regard to their prejudicial attitudes toward homosexuals.

Additionally, people who were high in disgust were more likely to be anti-abortion, more likely to want a stricter immigration policy, more likely to support the war in Iraq, and less likely to support terminal patients' right to die.

In his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin (1872) refers to disgust as “something revolting, primarily in relation to the sense of taste, as actually perceived or vividly imagined." Although, the emotion of disgust evolved for the purpose of avoiding oral contamination. The evidence presented here suggests that it also serves a secondary as one of our moral emotions.

Click here and learn more about the moral emotions.


Jonathan said...

John, this work is very interesting, can you send me a copy of your thesis? or any other manuscripts you have on disgust and morality?

jon haidt,

Anonymous said...

Hiya, just found this site, I'm writing my psych dissertation on cleanliness and cognitive ability and found the info on disgust really helpful. Hope your research goes well!