Moral emotions

Dot writes: I’ve just read an article on the ‘hostility triad’ of moral emotions and their relationship to different types of moral codes (I’m having a research day – oh happy day…): Paul Rozin et al., ‘The CAD Trial Hypothesis: A Mapping Between Three Moral Emotions (Contempt, Anger, Disgust) and Three Moral Codes (Community, Autonomy, Divinity)’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76:4 (1999), 574-86. I’m not quite sure how it’s going to contribute to the paper I’m working on, which is on shame and anger in saints’ lives, but I found it generally thought-provoking; also there were some great pictures:
faces (p. 579)

The hypothesis tested is that the three emotions, contempt, anger and disgust, are typically elicited by offences against the three moral codes that conveniently alliterate with them: Community (‘in these cases an action is wrong because a person fails to carry out his or her duties within the community, or to the social hierarchy in the community’ p. 575), Autonomy (‘in these cases an action is wrong because it directly hurts another person, or infringes upon his/her rights or freedoms as an individual’ p. 575), and Divinity (‘In these cases a person disrespects the sacredness of God, or causes impurity or degradation to himself/herself, or to others’ p. 576). The codes can and do co-exist within societies (they were all derived from field-work in India) but they are emphasised to different extents. The research for the article was conducted in both the US and Japan. College students were asked to match scenarios, which had been selected to correspond to the three moral codes, with either facial expressions (one of the sets of expressions is reproduced in the pdf linked above) or with the terms ‘contempt’, ‘anger’ or ‘disgust’. In another experiment they were asked to assess which scenarios went with which code. The results very broadly supported the hypothesis, though there were a number of problems. In particular, when participants were asked to choose an appropriate reaction to the community-violations there was a modest trend towards the contempt face but fewer people chose the term ‘contempt’; there was also plenty of scope for people to assess the scenarios as belonging to violations of a different code from the one the researchers had in mind. Anyway, it was all broadly promising. Given that the texts I am working on are religious texts, I can perhaps bear in mind the idea of disgust and the Divinity code, since offence against God and the sacred are more than slightly important in saints’ lives.

The point that most struck me in the article was a basic one, made in the opening section. We tend to associate morality with rationality and oppose rationality to emotion, seeing children’s moral development as going hand-in-hand with their ability to ‘respect a kind of moral logic (e.g., “If I were in her position I would not like this, therefore I should not do this”)’ (p. 574). But

Authors in a variety of fields have begun to argue that emotions are themselves a kind of perception or rationality…; that emotions are embodied thoughts…; and that “beneath the extraordinary variety of surface behavior and consciously articulated ideals, there is a set of emotional states that form the bases for a limited number of universal moral categories that transcend time and locality” (Kagan, 1984, p. 118…) Cross-cultural work has begun to demonstrate that cognitive-developmental theories work less well outside of Western middle-class populations and that emotional reactions are often the best predictions of moral judgments… (p. 574)

My first thought here was that this reflects very interestingly on the old cliche of male rationality / female emotionality. There are other things going on too – I’m interested in the coupling of ‘Western’ to ‘middle-class’ here (and I think of the whipping up of emotion in the form of moral panic by the gutter press and how disgusting – ha! – I find it). It’s good to be reminded that emotion always has a cognitive dimension, too: our emotions arise at some level from our appraisals of situations, though maybe not consciously. Extremely interesting stuff…

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