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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

How stress influences our morality

Lucius Caviola and Nadira Faulmüller
Oxford Martin School


Several studies show that stress can influence moral judgment and behavior. In personal moral dilemmas—scenarios where someone has to be harmed by physical contact in order to save several others—participants under stress tend to make more deontological judgments than nonstressed participants, i.e. they agree less with harming someone for the greater good. Other studies demonstrate that stress can increase pro-social behavior for in-group members but decrease it for out-group members. The dual-process theory of moral judgment in combination with an evolutionary perspective on emotional reactions seems to explain these results: stress might inhibit controlled reasoning and trigger people’s automatic emotional intuitions. In other words, when it comes to morality, stress seems to make us prone to follow our gut reactions instead of our elaborate reasoning.

From the Implications Section

The conclusions drawn from these studies seem to raise an important question: if our moral judgments are so dependent on stress, which of our judgments should we rely on—the ones elicited by stress or the ones we come to after careful consideration? Most people would probably not regard a physiological reaction, such as stress, as a relevant normative factor that should have a qualified influence on our moral values. Instead, our reflective moral judgments seem to represent better what we really care about. This should make us suspicious of the normative validity of emotional intuitions in general. Thus, in order to identify our moral values, we should not blindly follow our gut reactions, but try to think more deliberately about what we care about.

For example, as stated we might be more prone to help a poor beggar on the street when we are stressed. Here, even after careful reflection we might come to the conclusion that this emotional reaction elicited by stress is the morally right thing to do after all. However, in other situations this might not be the case. As we have seen we are less prone to donate money to charity when stressed (cf. Vinkers et al., 2013). But is this reaction really in line with what we consider to be the morally right thing to do after careful reflection? After all, if we care about the well-being of the single beggar, why then should the many more people’s lives, potentially benefiting from our donation, count less?

The research is here.