Moral emotions

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Moral emotions are treated a little differently from the basic emotions.  They have a special role to play as a set of values or inhibitors in the conscious brain.

These moral values can be programmed, and re-programmed.


Why do we have moral emotions?  It is thought that these inhibitors played an important part in the development of early societies allowing people to work together and form communities.  It allowed larger and more complex societies to develop because of the inhibitors controlling instinctive behaviour.  If there is food present the instinct response may be to grab it, but moral emotions stop us (ie we might feel ashamed) and force us to consider others – the needs of children, sick, etc.

The ability to use moral emotions involves some degree of self-awareness and the awareness of the emotional state of others (empathy).  Unlike the unconscious emotions in the Limbic brain, these moral emotions are ones that we learn consciously as we grow up, and we can change these during our lives.

The basic moral emotions are usually listed as:

  • Pride – which can be either a positive or a negative.  In the positive sense it is a feeling of satisfaction in the achievements of oneself or ones family/tribe/nation.  Waving the flag.  In the negative sense it can be a foolish over-inflated sense of achievement, and in this form pride is one of the vices we are encouraged to avoid.
  • embarrassedEmbarrassment – a feeling of discomfort within oneself often in social situations and may be accompanied with a loss of honour or dignity.  The term is usually used in situations that are socially unacceptable, rather than morally unacceptable which would lead to the feeling of guilt; eg farting in public is embarrassing as it is socially unacceptable but it isn’t a moral failing in the same sense as cheating on ones partner.
  • Shame – this is an inner feeling when one does not act in accordance shame.pngwith ones own set of values or standards.  Whereas embarrassment occurs in public, shame can often be about something known only to yourself; eg you know you shouldn’t have eaten that piece of chocolate cake in private and so you feel ashamed.
  • Guilt – a feeling experienced when a person believes that they have violated or compromised some moral standard.  Guilt can lead to anxiety and remorse, and has been used for thousands of years by religious institutions to get money or compliance from their followers.  Guilt is a stronger emotion than shame, and results from actions done towards other people, whereas shame is felt in respect of actions towards oneself; eg I feel guilty for insulting or cheating another person, and ashamed at myself for having done so.
  • Courage or fortitude – is a personal choice to confront unpleasant circumstances such as pain or danger or uncertainty.  Bravery implies a degree of fearlessness, but courage does not.  Whilst most of the moral emotions are inhibitors; courage is different and is encouraged (for this reason I have classified courage it as one of the spiritual emotions).

Moral codes

tencommandments.jpgAn example of moral instructions comes from the Christian Ten Commandments (which I have classified as relating to physical, emotion, mental or spiritual instruction):

  1. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me (spiritual)
  2. Thou shalt no make unto thee any graven image (spiritual)
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain (mental/spiritual)
  4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it Holy (mental/spiritual)
  5. Honour thy Father and thy Mother (emotional)
  6. Thou shalt not kill (physical)
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery (physical)
  8. Thou shalt not steal (physical)
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour (mental)
  10. Thou shalt not covet:  thy neighbours house, wife, servants, animals, belongings (emotional)

These moral codes are also the do’s and don’ts in Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, the first two steps are Yamas and Niyama:

  1. Yamas – non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity (sexual restraint), non-possessiveness
  2. Niyama – purity, contentment, perseverance, study, contemplation of the Self

These moral codes are pretty important to large numbers of human beings living together peacefully in communities.

“You gave me life, now show me how to live”  (Audioslave)

Most of these moral instructions come across as don’ts (regulators) rather than enablers.  More discussion on this elsewhere.