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Introduction to Lecture 3: Emotion and Reason in Moral Judgement

How, if at all, does a person’s reasoning influence their moral judgements? This is our next question. Until now we were focussed on moral intuitions and emotion. Now it is time to consider reasoning. We will do this by critically reviewing research on two key phenomena which illustrate roles for reasoning: moral dumbfounding and moral disengagement.

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How, if at all, does a person’s reasoning influence their moral judgements?

Several authors have defended, on the basis of evidence we shall consider in this lecture, strong views:

moral ‘judgments are [not] the conclusions of explicitly represented syllogisms, one or more premises of which are moral principles, that ordinary folk can articulate.’ (Dwyer, 2009, p. 294)

‘If we ask people why they hold a particular moral view [their] reasons are often superficial and post hoc. If the reasons are successfully challenged, the moral judgment often remains [...] basic values are implemented in our psychology in a way that puts them outside certain practices of justification’ (Prinz, 2007, p. 32).

‘moral reasoning is [...] usually engaged in after a moral judgment is made, in which a person searches for arguments that will support an already-made judgment’ (Haidt & Bjorklund, 2008, p. 189).

Since Dwyer and Prinz both infer these claims from a phenomenon called moral dumbfounding (and Haidt is one of the authors of the first report on dumbfounding), we will start our investigation with dumbfounding.

Illustration: Tamanda and Jonty

Tamanda and Jonty are both refereeing a school match between a privileged team that always wins and a team of underdogs that has never won in the entire history of the game. To the privileged team, win or lose will make little difference in the long run. But if the underdogs lose, their team will be disbanded and future generations will not get to train and play at all. The underdogs are about to win when Tamanda and Jonty must each independently decide whether the underdogs have fouled. They are each quite confident, but not very confident, that there was a foul. Not calling a foul risks unfairness; calling a foul risks harming the underdog’s future for decades to come. Tamanda and Jonty are now each faced with an ethical decision: in deciding whether they have sufficient evidence to call a foul, may they require an unusually high level of confidence on the grounds that so much is at stake for the underdogs?

Tamanda and Jonty have different approaches to making ethical decisions. Jonty does what he feels is right. If asked to give reasons, he will provide a justification; but in his case the justification is always entirely constructed after the decision.

Tamanda takes a different approach. She has been reading Scanlon (1998), a philosophical theory in ethics, and is attempting to live out these ideas as closely as possible in her everyday life. Tamanda’s core conviction is that she must follow principles that no one can reasonably reject. For each of the actions she may choose—calling a foul and not calling a foul—she therefore attempts to work out whether it would be disallowed by principles that no one could reasonably reject.[1] Her aim is never to act in ways that violate such principles.

Tamanda and Jonty are idealisations, not people who live and breath among us, of course. But they illustrate two extreme views on how a person’s reasoning might influence (or not) their moral judgements. Versions of both extremes can be found in the literature, as well as arguments for intermediate positions (Hindriks, 2014).

This section is not part of the spoken lecture.

If we ask narrowly philosophical questions about moral justification, or about how moral knowledge is possible in principle, or about what distinguishes the moral from the non-moral, we can easily identify views on which reasoning is everything and emotions or feelings play no role (Scanlon, 1998, for example). And we can identify philosophers who have taken a converse view (Nichols, 2004, for example).

Those are not our questions.

Our question is about actual people’s ethical abilities: we seek to understand how, if at all, reasoning influences people’s moral judgements.

It is important to keep these questions separate. It could turn out, for example, that reasoning plays no significant role in how people arrive at moral judgements while also being true—perhaps tragically—that reasoning alone is the source of moral knowledge.

Nevertheless, there may be ways in which the narrowly philosophical questions and our question relate (philosophers who have attempted to make connections include Nichols, 2004 and Hindriks & Sauer, 2020).

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moral disengagement : Moral disengagement occurs when self-sanctions are disengaged from conduct. To illustrate, an executioner may avoid self-sanctioning for killing by reframing the role they play as ‘babysitting’ (Bandura, 2002, p. 103). Bandura (2002, p. 111) identifies several mechanisms of moral disengagement: ‘The disengagement may centre on redefining harmful conduct as honourable by moral justification, exonerating social comparison and sanitising language. It may focus on agency of action so that perpetrators can minimise their role in causing harm by diffusion and displacement of responsibility. It may involve minimising or distorting the harm that follows from detrimental actions; and the disengagement may include dehumanising and blaming the victims of the maltreatment.’
moral dumbfounding : ‘the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of an [ethical] judgment without supporting reasons’ (Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy, 2000, p. 1). As McHugh, McGann, Igou, & Kinsella (2017) note, subsequent researchers have given different definitions of moral dumbfounding so that ‘there is [currently] no single, agreed definition of moral dumbfounding.’ I adopt the original authors’ definition, as should you unless there are good reasons to depart from it.
moral intuition : According to this lecturer, a person’s intuitions are the claims they take to be true independently of whether those claims are justified inferentially. And a person’s moral intuitions are simply those of their intuitions that concern ethical matters.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101–119.
Dwyer, S. (2009). Moral Dumbfounding and the Linguistic Analogy: Methodological Implications for the Study of Moral Judgment. Mind & Language, 24(3), 274–296.
Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. (2008). Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology, Vol 2: The cognitive science of morality: Intuition and diversity (pp. 181–217). Cambridge, Mass: MIT press.
Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (2000). Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. Unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia.
Hindriks, F. (2014). Intuitions, Rationalizations, and Justification: A Defense of Sentimental Rationalism. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 48(2), 195–216.
Hindriks, F., & Sauer, H. (2020). The mark of the moral: Beyond the sentimentalist turn. Philosophical Psychology, 33(4), 569–591.
McHugh, C., McGann, M., Igou, E. R., & Kinsella, E. L. (2017). Searching for Moral Dumbfounding: Identifying Measurable Indicators of Moral Dumbfounding. Collabra: Psychology, 3(1), 23.
Nichols, S. (2004). Sentimental rules: On the natural foundations of moral judgment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scanlon, T. M. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Young, L., & Cushman, F. (2010). Moral intuitions. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 246–272). Oxford: OUP.


  1. Compare Scanlon (1998, p. 153): ‘act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced general agreement.’ ↩︎