Emotions and Morality: An Introduction

When doing moral theory, the question of emotion will inevitably arise. Some theorists think that emotions should not play any moral role because they are antithetical to reliable reasoning. Others doubt that emotions are a wholly distorting influence. Some theorists believe that emotions are an integral part of our moral lives. In this post, I’m going to briefly introduce some ways in which emotions may feature in our theorizing about morality.

A popular view of emotion is to think of them as intentional states that present their objects in an evaluative way. For instance, being happy about graduating from college is to have the state of affairs of graduating from college being presented to a subject such that she has certain positive feelings towards it. She is happy about graduating, so graduating is the content of her emotion, but it is represented in a positive light. The way in which this view of emotion can be relevant to moral theorizing is when the object of emotion is a moral state of affairs. Your emotions get moralized in this sense when they are about moral states of affairs. Guilt is considered an example of a moral emotion in this sense. Feeling guilty about something is usually morally relevant because the intentional object of the guilt will be a moral state of affairs, such as breaking a promise. 

Another way in which emotions can be relevant to morality is if they provide us access to moral facts. If emotions are our means of contact with moral reality, then emotions are epistemically relevant to morality. Emotions may then be ways of representing states of affairs with a certain sensitivity to morally salient features of what’s being represented. One simplistic possibility is that our emotional reaction to the idea of pushing a man off a bridge to stop a train that is headed for five people tied to the track provides us with epistemic access to the separateness of persons, which explains why it’s wrong to push the man to his death.

However, there may be a flip side to the epistemic view of emotions. Emotions could also distort our sensitivity to morally salient features of states of affairs. Peter Singer has defended a view similar to this when he argued that deontological intuitions are subject to distorting influences rooted in our evolutionary development.

Emotions can also be the ways in which we are motivated to act morally. It could be the case that we need emotions to move us to act morally, which would make emotions necessary for moral action. On this view, a robot with the set of true moral beliefs would be unmoved to act on them if it is incapable of experiencing emotions. Mere belief is insufficient on this account of moral emotions. A view like this is developed and defended by Antonio Damasio.

We may also be subject to evaluation based on the emotions we experience. There are probably good and bad ways to behave at a funeral. If somebody began laughing uncontrollably, we would probably consider that to be inappropriate, whereas we would be tolerant of grieving in the form of loud crying. A similar view is defended by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson.

One last way that emotions can be relevant to moral theorizing is if they are integral to our moral development. Perhaps eliciting certain emotions is a necessary means of moral education. Making developing moral agents experience things like guilt over wrongdoing by pointing out how they’ve let a loved one down could be formative for them. In this sense, emotions are part of the development of moral agents.

There are probably other ways in which emotions are morally relevant that I’ve missed. If you are aware of any more, let me know in the comments section below.