Should we trust our feelings in making moral judgments?

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Most of us make most moral judgments quickly based on feelings. We “know” right from wrong, virtue from vice. Few take the time to reason out moral decisions. We just do what we feel is right. Feeling driven moral decisions are easier and faster than following a deliberative, rational, and fact driven process.

This approach to making moral or ethical decisions has long been observed. Several moral philosophers, most notably David Hume and Adam Smith, made the case that moral judgments arise from emotions. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is a well know Hume quote. More specifically they argue that sympathy or empathy is a key emotion driving many of our ethical decisions. Our ability empathize with others leads to many widely accepted moral values such as fairness, loyalty, honesty, and cooperation. This is not to say emotions ought to drive our ethics. Rather it is a theory of what actually occurs.

Since the time of Hume and Smith science has provided explanations for how emotions and morality are linked and how that linkage came about. The fields of evolutionary biology and behavioral genetics suggest that we are hard wired for many of the emotions that form the basis for our moral judgments. Research has shown that babies have innate moral systems that affect behavior.  The theory is that human evolution favored individuals with certain emotions that produced behavior such as cooperation. This behavior made them more successful and we evolved and advanced as a result. A genetic basis for feelings of empathy has been shown in scientific studies. It seems reasonable that human evolutionar would favor empathy.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal summarizes some research on empathy and stress. Stress produced hormones blocked empathetic emotions. This effect was observed in mice as well as humans. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Empathy and the moral behavior it leads too are positive in normal times. But when under stress (threats from outside forces, hunger) empathy could be a liability. Empathy for your attacker could be fatal, removing your genes from the gene pool.

This likely origin for our moral sentiments raises the question of whether in our modern, complex, interconnected society we should trust our moral judgments. The evolutionary environment that produced our emotion driven moral system was far different in many respects than the world today. Our hard coded responses on many moral issues may no longer be appropriate. There seem to be too many examples of strongly held emotion drive moral values such as group loyalty (think ISIS or the tribal nature of politics) the produce actions counter to our individual and society’s interest.

Perhaps we need to be more skeptical of our gut instincts. We may be acting on sentiments useful at one point in history but detrimental today. We need to work harder at bringing reason into the picture and building the social structures (legal, religious, social norms) necessary to reinforce moral behavior appropriate today. It’s complicated and reason has its weaknesses. But skepticism about our moral instincts seems warranted.

Some links on this topic which may be helpful:

When Stress Rises, Empathy Suffers

Just Babies – The Origins of Good and Evil

Genetic variation linked to individual empathy, stress levels — ScienceDaily