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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Are there really so many moral emotions? Carving morality at its functional joints

Fitouchi L., André J., & Baumard N.
To appear in L. Al-Shawaf & T. K. Shackelford (Eds.)
The Oxford Handbook of Evolution and the Emotions.
New York: Oxford University Press.


In recent decades, a large body of work has highlighted the importance of emotional processes in moral cognition. Since then, a heterogeneous bundle of emotions as varied as anger, guilt, shame, contempt, empathy, gratitude, and disgust have been proposed to play an essential role in moral psychology.  However, the inclusion of these emotions in the moral domain often lacks a clear functional rationale, generating conflations between merely social and properly moral emotions. Here, we build on (i) evolutionary theories of morality as an adaptation for attracting others’ cooperative investments, and on (ii) specifications of the distinctive form and content of moral cognitive representations. On this basis, we argue that only indignation (“moral anger”) and guilt can be rigorously characterized as moral emotions, operating on distinctively moral representations. Indignation functions to reclaim benefits to which one is morally entitled, without exceeding the limits of justice. Guilt functions to motivate individuals to compensate their violations of moral contracts. By contrast, other proposed moral emotions (e.g. empathy, shame, disgust) appear only superficially associated with moral cognitive contents and adaptive challenges. Shame doesn’t track, by design, the respect of moral obligations, but rather social valuation, the two being not necessarily aligned. Empathy functions to motivate prosocial behavior between interdependent individuals, independently of, and sometimes even in contradiction with the prescriptions of moral intuitions. While disgust is often hypothesized to have acquired a moral role beyond its pathogen-avoidance function, we argue that both evolutionary rationales and psychological evidence for this claim remain inconclusive for now.


In this chapter, we have suggested that a specification of the form and function of moral representations leads to a clearer picture of moral emotions. In particular, it enables a principled distinction between moral and non-moral emotions, based on the particular types of cognitive representations they process. Moral representations have a specific content: they represent a precise quantity of benefits that cooperative partners owe each other, a legitimate allocation of costs and benefits that ought to be, irrespective of whether it is achieved by people’s actual behaviors. Humans intuit that they have a duty not to betray their coalition, that innocent people do not deserve to be harmed, that their partner has a right not to be cheated on. Moral emotions can thus be defined as superordinate programs orchestrating cognition, physiology and behavior in accordance with the specific information encoded in these moral representations.    On this basis, indignation and guilt appear as prototypical moral emotions. Indignation (“moral anger”) is activated when one receives fewer benefits than one deserves, and recruits bargaining mechanisms to enforce the violated moral contract. Guilt, symmetrically, is sensitive to one’s failure to honor one’s obligations toward others, and motivates compensation to provide them the missing benefits they deserve. By contrast, often-proposed “moral” emotions – shame, empathy, disgust – seem not to function to compute distinctively moral representations of cooperative obligations, but serve other, non-moral functions – social status management, interdependence, and pathogen avoidance (Figure 2).