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Does emotion influence moral judgment or merely motivate morally relevant action? (Reprise)

The stripped-down dual-process theory of ethical judgement (introduced in A Dual Process Theory of Ethical Judgement) is helpful for understanding how emotions does influence moral judgement. It provides reasons for rejecting claims about a direct connection between emotions and moral judgements. Yet it is also consistent with the view that emotions generated by fast processes provide the raw materials for ethical reasoning.

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Earlier we saw, that although there is some evidence for the effect of emotion on judgement, this effect appears to be at best quite small (Landy & Goodwin, 2015; Landy & Goodwin, 2015b; see PS: Does emotion influence moral judgment or merely motivate morally relevant action?).

This would seem to rule out the hypothesis that moral judgements are explained by the Affect Heuristic (see Moral Intuitions and Emotions: Evidence and Lecture 02).

We can use the dual-process theory of moral judgement to explain why the affect heuristic is not likely to play much role in moral judgement. The dual-process theory also allows us to identify an alternative, more interesting conjecture about the role of emotion in moral judgement. (The dual-process theory was introduced in A Dual Process Theory of Ethical Judgement.)

To see why, consider a parallel to the question about emotion influencing moral judgement from physical cognition.

A Parallel with Physical Cognition

Does perception influence judgements about object trajectories? There is a good case to be made for a positive answer here. We know that there is a link between two sets of principles. There are principles which characterise the operation of fast processes involved in tracking and predicting objects’ movements and interactions. And there are the principles of impetus mechanics which characterise the patterns of judgements non-experts will make about objects’ movements and interactions. The degree of overlap between the two sets of principles gives us a reason to suppose that there is a connection (see Preview: Ethics vs Physics). The fast processes influence judgements about object trajectories. But how do they do so?

We know that their influence is discretionary: experts do not invariably make the same incorrect judgements that non-experts do. We also know that the influence need not be direct. Instead, the fast processes influence the overall phenomenological character of perceptual experiences associated with objects moving and interacting.[1] These effects on experience may lead people, over time, to form views about how objects move. They may not be able to articulate these, or they may (like scientists in the Aristotelian tradition) write them down. These views may influence their judgements about particular cases.

This suggests that perception does influence judgements about object trajectories, but perhaps only in an indirect way. We might conjecture that fast processes influence the overall phenomenal characters of perceptual experiences of objects, which, over time, shape the judgements non-experts make about the ways objects move and interact. We would not expect, on this conjecture, that manipulating perceptual experiences at the time a judgement is made would make much, if any, difference to the judgement. The connection between perception and judgement is much more subtle.

But how is this relevant to moral judgement?

Two Ideas about the Role of Emotion

On the hypothesis that moral judgements are explained by the Affect Heuristic, we should expect feelings occurring at the time you make a moral judgement to influence that judgement.

On the stripped-down dual-process theory, we should not expect this. After all, moral judgements are likely to be dominated by slower processes (a dominance which can perhaps be reduced by introducing time pressure or cognitive load). We should therefore not expect that feelings at the time you make a moral judgement will necessarily influence that judgement. (Except perhaps as a fall back, where you have nothing else to base your judgement on.)

Instead, if we accept the stripped-down dual-process theory we might conjecture, further, that some feelings may reflect (or perhaps, in some cases, even constitute) the operations of fast processes. Given this conjecture, we should expect these feelings to lead people, over time, to form views about ethical attributes. As in the physical case, these views are likely to be formed, sometimes at least, through processes of reasoning. In support of such a view, the key discoveries are not that manipulating people’s feelings influences their moral judgements but that moral violations have a characteristic effect on feelings (Chapman & Anderson, 2013).

The stripped-down dual-process theory is therefore consistent with the view that feelings play a fundamental role in shaping ethical judgements and also with the view that such judgements are a consequence of reasoning.[2] Much as the perceptual experiences generated by fast processes provide the raw materials for physical reasoning in Aristotelian physics, so the emotions generated by fast processes may provide the raw materials for ethical reasoning.

Two Puzzles

The stripped-down dual-process theory of moral cognition provides candidate answers to two puzzles which we encountered earlier:

Emotion Why do feelings of disgust influence moral intuitions? And why do we feel disgust in response to moral transgressions? (see Conclusion: Two Puzzles and PS: Does emotion influence moral judgment or merely motivate morally relevant action?)

Reason Why are moral judgements sometimes, but not always, a consequence of reasoning from known principles? (see Why Is Moral Dumbfounding Significant? for the ‘not always’ part and Moral Disengagement: Significance for the ‘sometimes’ part)

I introduce the candidate answers in the recording.

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Affect Heuristic : In the context of moral psychology, the Affect Heuristic is this principle: ‘if thinking about an act [...] makes you feel bad [...], then judge that it is morally wrong’ (Sinnott-Armstrong et al., 2010). These authors hypothesise that the Affect Heuristic explains moral intuitions.
A different (but related) Affect Heurstic has also be postulated to explain how people make judgements about risky things are: The more dread you feel when imagining an event, the more risky you should judge it is (see Pachur, Hertwig, & Steinmann, 2012, which is discussed in The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study).
automatic : As we use the term, a process is automatic just if whether or not it occurs is to a significant extent independent of your current task, motivations and intentions. To say that mindreading is automatic is to say that it involves only automatic processes. The term `automatic' has been used in a variety of ways by other authors: see Moors (2014, p. 22) for a one-page overview, Moors & De Houwer (2006) for a detailed theoretical review, or Bargh (1992) for a classic and very readable introduction
cognitively efficient : A process is cognitively efficient to the degree that it does not consume working memory and other scarce cognitive resources.
dual-process theory : Any theory concerning abilities in a particular domain on which those abilities involve two or more processes which are distinct in this sense: the conditions which influence whether one mindreading process occurs differ from the conditions which influence whether another occurs.
fast : A fast process is one that is to to some interesting degree cognitively efficient (and therefore likely also some interesting degree automatic). These processes are also sometimes characterised as able to yield rapid responses.
Since automaticity and cognitive efficiency are matters of degree, it is only strictly correct to identify some processes as faster than others.
The fast-slow distinction has been variously characterised in ways that do not entirely overlap (even individual author have offered differing characterisations at different times; e.g. Kahneman, 2013; Morewedge & Kahneman, 2010; Kahneman & Klein, 2009; Kahneman, 2002): as its advocates stress, it is a rough-and-ready tool rather than an element in a rigorous theory.


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  1. Fast processes may also influence the overall phenomenological character of experiences associated with imagining objects moving and interacting. For there is some evidence of overlap in the processes of perceiving and imagining (Kosslyn, 1978). ↩︎

  2. This is roughly Nichols (2004)’s view of psychological relations between emotions and judgements. (We are not concerned here with questions about justification.) ↩︎