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Friday, April 21, 2023

Moral Shock

Stockdale, K. (2022).
Journal of the American Philosophical
Association, 8(3), 496-511.


This paper defends an account of moral shock as an emotional response to intensely bewildering events that are also of moral significance. This theory stands in contrast to the common view that shock is a form of intense surprise. On the standard model of surprise, surprise is an emotional response to events that violated one's expectations. But I show that we can be morally shocked by events that confirm our expectations. What makes an event shocking is not that it violated one's expectations, but that the content of the event is intensely bewildering (and bewildering events are often, but not always, contrary to our expectations). What causes moral shock is, I argue, our lack of emotional preparedness for the event. And I show that, despite the relative lack of attention to shock in the philosophical literature, the emotion is significant to moral, social, and political life.


I have argued that moral shock is an emotional response to intensely bewildering events that are also of moral significance. Although shock is typically considered to be an intense form of surprise, where surprise is an emotional response to events that violate our expectations or are at least unexpected, I have argued that the contrary-expectation model is found wanting. For it seems that we are sometimes shocked by the immoral actions of others even when we expected them to behave in just the ways that they did. What is shocking is what is intensely bewildering—and the bewildering often, but not always, tracks the unexpected. The extent to which such events shock us is, I have argued, a function of our felt readiness to experience them. When we are not emotionally prepared for what we expect to occur, we might find ourselves in the grip of moral shock.

There is much more to be said about the emotion of moral shock and its significance to moral, social, and political life. This paper is meant to be a starting point rather than a decisive take on an undertheorized emotion. But by understanding more deeply the nature and effects of moral shock, we can gain richer insight into a common response to immoral actions; what prevents us from responding well in the moment; and how the brief and fleeting, yet intense events in our lives affect agency, responsibility, and memory. We might also be able to make better sense of the bewildering social and political events that shock us and those to which we have become emotionally resilient.

This appears to be a philosophical explication of "Moral Injury", as can be found multiple places on this web site.