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Emotions and Moral Judgment: To What Extent Does Emotions Influence Moral Judgment? Essay

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Updated: Apr 26th, 2022

There is a well-known agreement in research that morality most likely would not exist without the existence of emotions (Pizarro, Detweiler-Bedell, and Bloom, 2006). According to the Social Intuitionist Model (SIM), moral judgments are intuitive and determined by emotional responses, which happen automatically and they are effortless and produced by unconscious processes (Haidt, 2001). Numerous studies confirm the influence of emotions on moral judgment (Greene et al., 2001). In this paper, emotions and moral judgment are defined; assumptions in regards to the influence of emotions on moral judgments are presented along with models and research findings that support these assumptions.

In order to clarify to what extent emotions influence moral judgment, we first need to define emotions and moral judgment. Emotions are composed by a pattern of changes that result from a situation or a number of events. These changes involve physiological stimulations, cognitive progression, feeling experiences, and facial as well as behavioral expressions. In addition, emotions accompany action trends or motivation as argued by (Zimbardo and Gerrig, 2008). Moral judgment is defined as reasoning about moral dilemmas with conflicting interest of value which is closely related to the ethical decision making procedures that aim at distinguishing the right and wrong (Storch, Rodney, and Starzomski, 2004). These definitions lead to my first assumption where I assume that emotions which are negatively oriented lead us to make negative moral judgment. I assume that negative emotions simply guide us to recognize the morally relevant features of circumstances.

The SIM supports this assumption as it assumes that emotional capacities significantly influence moral judgments (Haidt, 2001). Haidt claims that moral intuitions are essential determinants of moral judgments, which are defined as emotional responses that occur impulsively as a response to encountering a moral situation. For example, fast and rapid flashes of disgust. In this model reasoning is linked to those who are in positions that require them to provide justifications for their choice on moral judgments such as politicians or lawyers. However, when justification is required, individuals will engage in conscious reasoning that supports the choice of a particular moral judgment. This produces two scenarios; the first is that the reasoning process that accompanies justification will support the emotional response, or in situations the justification could dominate the initial emotional response. More so, reasoning could also affect the individual’s emotional response to the whole situation (Haidt, 2001).

In support of this model, ample of empirical research has been conducted. Haidt and colleagues research has focused on emotions of disgust, as a source of influence on moral judgment of whether certain behaviors are right or wrong. Research indicates that emotions from disgust have a strong and decisive effect on moral judgment. Furthermore, when participants are induced to feel disgust, research revealed that individuals are much more prone to make severe moral judgments (Schnall, Haidt, Clore, & Jordan, 2008; Wheatley & Haidt, 2005).

First, Schnall, Haidt, Clore, and Jordan (2008) conducted four experiments on participants who made moral judgments while experiencing different feelings of disgust. Disgust was induced either by exposure to a bad smell, working in a disgusting room, by recalling a physically disgusting experience, or through a video induction. Results revealed that disgust could increase the severity of moral judgments. In general, they found that of disgust in severity of moral judgments depends on individuals’ sensitivity to their own bodily sensations. Collectively, these findings signify the importance of emotions in moral judgments (Schnall, Haidt, Clore, and Jordan, 2008).

In another study, Wheatley and Haidt (2005) hypnotized subjects to feel a flash of disgust when they heard the emotionally neutral and arbitrary word specified by researchers. They then asked subjects to rate scenarios that described morally reprehensible or morally highly regarded characters. Subjects who were hypnotized to feel disgust when they heard the word ‘often’, judged the morally admirable characters as morally wrong when that word appeared in the vignettes. Their findings indicated that the presence of a flash of disgust will lead to severe moral judgments.

Furthermore, Haidt (2001) analyzed moral rules across different cultures; finding revealed that, in most cultures, when an action is revealed as disgusting, that was enough for it to be morally wrong. These findings suggest that one can form the belief that something is morally wrong or right by simply having a negative emotion directed towards it. In this case, emotions highly influence moral judgment.

Other researchers agree that emotions play a crucial role, such as Greene et al (2001). However, in their research, reasoning also plays a role in the production of moral judgment. Greene et al. (2001) administered functional neuro-imaging scans to participants while they made judgments about how people should behave when confronting a number of moral dilemmas. Results from this study indicated that areas in brain that are associated with emotion were much active during reflections on personal, moral dilemmas. In addition, most people judged the actions described in the personal, moral dilemmas to be less acceptable. Those who did judge them to be permissible took longer to make their judgments. In this presented model, Greene et al (2001) claims that personal, moral dilemmas trigger emotions, which then play a crucial role in influencing moral judgment. While with impersonal moral dilemmas, reasoning influences moral judgments. However, reasoning can play a minor role in personal, moral dilemmas.

On the other hands, Hauser (2006) argues that emotions do not influence moral judgment where he claims that they only enter the process after the moral judgment is made. However, the line of reasoning that Hauser offers is unambiguous and not convincing. While, the Wheatley and Haidt (2005) experiment provides remarkable evidence that moral judgments come after emotional responses. Although Greene’s models grant reasoning a more significant role than the SIM, the two models embrace an essential highlight of the profound importance of the fundamental and influential force of emotions on moral judgment.

The above evidence, when taken as a whole, supports the first assumption and leads to the second assumption. In the second assumption, regardless of the morality of the action, I assume that it is potentially possible to manipulate someone’s moral judgments, not only by the traditional methods of reasoning, but relatively by inducing emotions simulated by the context that presents the moral dilemma.

For example with politics or in the news, moral dilemmas can be presented in a different context designed either to induce negative or positive emotions unrelated to the presented moral dilemmas. It appears that when we encounter a moral dilemma, we are unable to recognize the emotions that are caused by the dilemma or the context that the presented the dilemma. The experiments revealed that contexts that induce negative emotions, which participants were unaware of, caused them to make severe and negative moral judgments (Wheatley and Haidt, 2005). Additionally, Valdesolo and DeSteno (2006) supports this assumption in their findings, as they revealed that emotions that influence moral judgments are not only in response the considered dilemma, but also dwell from the affective characteristics of the context.

References

Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science, 293, 5537, 2105-8.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.. Psychological Review, 108, 814-834

Hauser, M. (2006). Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.

Koenigs, M., Young, L., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Cushman, F., Hauser, M., and Damasio, A. (2007). Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgments. Nature, 446, 7138, 908-911

Pizarro, D.A., Detweiler-Bedell, B., & Bloom, P. (2006). The Creativity of Everyday Moral Reasoning: Empathy, Disgust and Moral Persuasion. In J. C. Kaufman & J. Baer (Eds.), Creativity and Reason in Cognitive Development. Cambridge University Press.

Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G. L., & Jordan, A. H. (2008). Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 8, 1096-1109

Storch, J. L., Rodney, P. & Starzomski, R. (2004). Toward a moral horizon: Nursing ethics for leadership and practice. Toronto: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Valdesolo, P. and DeSteno, D. (2006). Manipulations of emotional context shape moral Judgment. Psychological Science, 17, 6, 476-477.

Wheatley, T., & Haidt, J. (2005). Hypnotically induced disgust makes moral judgments more severe. Psychological Science, 16, 780-784.

Zimbardo, P. G., Gerrig, R. J. (2008). Psychologie (18th ed.). Munich: Pearson.

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