Moral reasoning and the moral emotions

John S. Callender

in Free will and responsibility

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2010 | ISBN: 9780199545551
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754616 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Moral reasoning and the moral emotions

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The respective roles of reason and emotion in the generation of moral judgments and moral behavior have been the subject of debate among moral philosophers for hundreds of years. Over the centuries, emotions have been linked with our animal nature and hence our capacities for wrong-doing. In contrast, rationality was seen as an attribute peculiar to human beings. Moral behavior arose when reason gained ascendancy over emotion and instinct. Moral knowledge and moral judgment were achieved by reasoning and reflection. Research work in moral psychology, such as studies by Lawrence Kohlberg (1981, see Section 2 in Chapter 6), has emphasized the dominance of rational thinking when it comes to making moral judgments.

One prominent proponent of the role of reason in morality was Immanuel Kant (1785, 1788). He attempted to found a system of morality based on rational principle, which he termed the Categorical Imperative. These are rational moral imperatives. They are applicable to all rational beings in all circumstances and allow no exceptions. They are unconditional and override all other considerations such as personal gain or the gratification of one's desires.

The first statement of the Categorical Imperative is as follows: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ (Kant, 1785, 51–51). The application of the principle of universality is formal rather than consequential. Maxims should be capable of universal application without becoming self-contradictory.

The second statement of the Categorical Imperative is the Formula of the End in Itself: ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person, or in the person of any other, never simply as a means but also at the same time as an end’ (Kant, 1785, 66–66). This enjoins us to treat other human beings as people deserving respect and who must not be used solely as the means to attain our own ends.

Other philosophers have emphasized the role of emotions. David Hume argued that we obtain moral knowledge, by an ‘immediate feeling and finer internal sense’ and not by a ‘chain of argument and induction’ (Hume, 1777/1975, 134). Hume's view was that reason can only tell us the facts of a situation. We will take action only if we are impelled to do so by feelings of empathy or concern for people.

Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue and all disgust or aversion to vice; render men totally indifferent towards these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions.

(Hume, 1777/1975, 136)

In this chapter, I examine the ways in which emotion and reason contribute to moral behavior. In the first section, I summarize the thinking of P.F. Strawson on the role of ‘reactive attitudes’ in the generation of moral judgments and behavior. I proceed to discuss Jonathan Haidt's attempt to define and classify the moral emotions. In the third section, I discuss Haidt's Social Intuitionist model. This is an attempt to integrate the roles of reason, emotion, and social influence in the making of moral judgments.

Chapter.  7930 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry

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