What confluence of factors foster a moral life lived to the benefit of self and others? This review summarizes current theory and research on moral emotions, offering a framework for thinking about the ways in which morally relevant emotions may moderate the link between moral standards and moral decisions, and ultimately moral behavior.
Living a moral, constructive life is defined by a weighted sum of countless individual, morally relevant behaviors enacted day in and day out (plus an occasional particularly self-defining moment). As imperfect human beings, however, our behavior does not always bear a one-to-one correspondence to our moral standards.
Many potential explanations exist for the discrepancy between behavioral decisions (intentions) and actual behavior in both moral and nonmoral domains. Historically, much social psychological theory and research was devoted to understanding the imperfect link between intentions (e.g., moral decisions) and behavior. Field theory, the very foundation of social psychology, highlights the variability of individual behavior as a function of situational context (Lewin 1943
); interpersonal negotiation can undermine the link between intention and behavior (DeVisser & Smith 2004
); and diffusion of responsibility can undermine one’s ability to act on deeply held beliefs (see, e.g., Latane & Darley 1968
). Ajzen’s (1991)
theory of planned behavior offers a well-integrated model of the ways in which attitudes, norms, and perceived control feed into behavioral intentions and subsequent behavior.
As with the link between intentions and behaviors in general, the link between moral intentions and moral behaviors is likewise an important issue. However, owing to space limitations, this chapter focuses on the processes further upstream from intentions: the less widely studied factors that strengthen (or disrupt) linkages between moral standards and moral intentions (which we refer to throughout this article as moral decisions), and thus moral behaviors. In our view, the link between moral standards and moral decisions and/or moral behavior is influenced in important ways by moral emotions.
Moral standards represent an individual’s knowledge and internalization of moral norms and conventions. People’s moral standards are dictated in part by universal moral laws, and in part by culturally specific proscriptions. The current review emphasizes cognitive and emotional processes relevant to the more cross-culturally invariant moral standards. Of primary interest are prohibitions against behaviors likely to have negative consequences for the well-being of others and for which there is broad social consensus that such behaviors are “wrong” (e.g., interpersonal violence, criminal behavior, lying, cheating, stealing).
Naturally, people do, on occasion, lie, cheat, and steal, even though they know such behavior is deemed wrong by moral and societal norms. Individual differences in people’s anticipation of and experience of moral emotions likely play key roles in determining actual moral choices and behavior in real-life contexts.
Moral emotions represent an important but often overlooked element of our human moral apparatus. Moral emotions may be critically important in understanding people’s behavioral adherence (or lack of adherence) to their moral standards. Haidt (2003)
defines moral emotions as those “that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent” (p. 276). Moral emotions provide the motivational force—the power and energy— to do good and to avoid doing bad (Kroll & Egan 2004
In this article, we focus on a triad of morally relevant, negatively valenced “self-conscious” emotions—shame, guilt, and embarrassment. We also consider several positively valenced moral emotions—elevation, gratitude, and the sometimes morally relevant experience of pride. In addition, we discuss briefly a morally relevant emotional process— empathy.