A story of emotion: morality and emotion

Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace – Oscar Wilde

Morality and moral emotions: A definition

Clipart Library
Source: Clipart Library

When looking at the Oxford dictionary, morality is defined as “principles concerning the distinctions between right and wrong or good and bad behaviours”; it is thus a set of rules to follow in a given society to respect the integrity of each member of the group and live in osmosis (or at least relative harmony) with each other. Unlike the Ten Commandments, morality is not set in stone, there is nowhere to go and read about those moral rules but they oversee inter-individual relationships; anthropologists have studied culture differences and tried to register all the existing rules, failing yet to produce an exhaustive report. However, we have written guidelines helping us living harmoniously in society as from morality ensue laws, legislation, and constitutions; morality is a concept you implicitly learn about growing up in a given social structure.

Moral behaviours

From there, ‘moral behaviours’ are behaviours respecting morality and acting in accordance with moral standards. As imperfect human beings, our behaviours are not always in line with our moral standards, we easily slip and trip along the way. In order to enforce and arouse morality since the youngest age, we invented bedtime stories , punishments, and reputations. What is a fairy tale if not a story meant to prompt good behaviours in children? Most of the classic tales, from the Grimm’s brother to Perrault, depict the consequences of good and bad behaviours, and each of them ends with a moral.

Source: Pinterest

What about punishment and reputation? How do they contribute to enforcing moral behaviours? Let us take an example in a cooperative context; A helps B out in an altruistic interaction, offering help in time of need. Later, A finds themselves in a situation where they need help and reach out to B asking for a hand. B refuses. What happen then? A will go and tell the others members of their social group how B acted, making B very selfish. If selfishness brought us very far as a species, no one values selfishness in social interactions and the other members of the group may very well turn their back on B. A affected B’s reputation and the group punished B. In the future, there is a lot to bet that B will try to make amend and try to restore their reputation.

And emotions in all that?

Dixit game
Source: Dixit game

We have morality and moral behaviours, and at some point between those two we should have emotions of some sort, elicited by a transgression or an obedience to morality and eliciting moral behaviours. Very originally, emotions involved in such contexts are refer to as ‘moral emotions’ and are defined as emotions arising from a position-taking perspective, allowing one to understand how others feel and how they see the agent. From this definition, it is clear that moral emotions are secondary emotions as to be elicited they require a developed self, a clear distinction between self and others, as well as an understanding of standards against which the self is gauged.

There is need of a self to be conscious of; many emotion theorists argue moral emotions would not emerge before 15 to 24 months of age, when the self begins to be defined.

To be clear (and step away from the jargon): moral emotions drive us to do good and prevent us from doing bad. They are self-conscious emotions as referring to the self, but they can be intimately linked to our relationships with other, thus also falling under the ’social’ categorisation of emotion.

The conscience of one’s judgement over the agent’s action elicits pride, shame, embarrassment, or even guilt. Such emotions are thought to facilitate the complex journey of social interactions and relationships, allowing one to reflect on behaviour in light of social norms and the differing perspective of others. But how do we differentiate them? 

To be continued…

Morality, moral behaviours, and moral emotions: what is what?
Blog to Post to: 
Talking Emotion
Teaser Text: 
Moral behaviours and moral emotions are but the expressions of our morality. It is the cornerstone of civilisations. But what is it?
Teaser Image: 
Mature Audiences Only: 
Content Topics: 
Display on News: 
Approved for Facebook Instant Articles: 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s