The Role of Emotions in the Development of Morality

There has been a long-standing debate concerning the role of emotion in our moral psychology. Sentimentalists hold that emotions are the primary basis for moral judgments. In contrasts, rationalists hold that non-affect-laden cognitive processes are the primary basis for moral judgments.

Now this talk of 'the primary basis for' is vague and ill-defined. What role do the emotions have to play in moral judgments in order for that role to be considered 'the primary basis of'? Well, on a more well-defined version of sentimentalism, the emotions play a necessary role in the understanding and use of moral concepts. This 'necessary role' is usually cashed out in terms of the relevant emotions being constitutive of moral judgments. This 'necessary role' could also be cashed out in terms of the emotions being necessary for the causal production of moral judgments. It is important to note that both the 'constitutive' claim and the 'causal production' claim are claims of synchronic necessity. Under these views, strictly speaking, one could not be making a moral judgment without the accompaniment of the appropriate emotion.

There are several sources of empirical evidence often cited in support of moral sentimentalism. Some of the more interesting evidence cited in favor of sentimentalism comes from patients with adult-onset bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC).

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is highlighted in red.

Damage to the VMPC leads to a flattening of emotions, especially the "social emotions," such as empathy, guilt, shame, etc., which are the sorts of emotions that are thought to be integral for morality. Damage to the VMPC also leads to a decreased ability to anticipate future rewards and punishment and also leads to a lack of inhibitory control (Damasio 1994). Consistent with the sentimentalist position, patients with adult-onset VMPC damage show disruption in decision-making and social behavior (Anderson, Bechara, Damasio, Tranel & Damasio 1999; Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio 1991; Shallice & Burgess 1991) and tend to give more "utilitarian" patterns of responses to moral dilemmas than controls (Koenigs, Young, Adolphs, Tranel, Cushman, & Hauser 2007).

However, patients with adult-onset VMPC damage retain factual knowledge of social conventions and moral conventions. Additionally, their disruption in social behavior appears to be a result of a more general problem with decision making, and these deficits in decision making do not manifest themselves as being strongly immoral or antisocial (Anderson et al. 1999). Lastly, the extent to which adult-onset VMPC patients differ from controls in their response to moral dilemmas is confined to a limited range of cases. On the whole, the moral judgments (and even to a large extent, the moral behavior) of adult-onset VMPC patients do not appear to differ wildly from that of "normals." This seems to speak against the sentimentalists position that the appropriate emotions are synchronically necessary for moral judgments.

However, the evidence still leaves open the possibility that the relevant emotions are diachronically necessary for the acquisition of moral concepts (and thus for the ability to make moral judgments). If the relevant emotions are developmentally necessary for the acquisition of moral concepts, one would predict that if a person had early-onset VMPC damage that this person would perform profoundly different than "normals" when it comes to making moral judgments and behaving morally. Though early-onset VMPC damage is rare, there have been a small handful of early-onset VMPC patients that have been documented in the scientific literature (Ackerly & Benton 1947; Anderson et al. 1999; Price, Daffjer, Stowe, & Mesulam 1990). In contrast to patients with adult-onset VMPC damage, those with early-onset VMPC damage show a persistence in inadequate social behaviors, demonstrate more severe inadequate social behaviors to the point where the behaviors could reasonably be described as anti-social and amoral, and they lack the ability to retrieve complex factual knowledge of moral conventions (Anderson et al. 1999; Anderson, Barrash, Bechera, & Tranel 2006).

Though VMPC-damage patients do not quite make the case that the moral sentimentalist wish to make (i.e. the emotions are synchronically necessary for morality), the evidence from VMPC-damage patients may support the claim that the emotions are diachronically necessary for morality. If this is right, then the emotions are important for the development of an understanding of morality, even if emotions are not necessary for the production of any particular moral judgment.

Want to cite this post?
Shepard, J. (2012). The Role of Emotions in the Development of Morality. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Ackerly, S. & Benton, A. (1947). Report of a case of bilateral frontal lobe defect. Research Publications Association for Research in Nevrous and. Mental Disorders, 27, 479-504

Anderson, J., Bechera, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A. (1999). Impairment of social and moral behavior related to early damage in human prefrontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 2(11), 1032-1037.

Anderson, J., Barrash, J., Bechara, A., & Tranel, D. (2006). Impairments of emotion and real-world complex behavior following childhood- or adult-onset damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Journal of International Neuropsychological Society, 12, 224-235.

Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes Error. New York: Grosset/Putnum.

Damasio, A., Tranel, D., & Damasio, H. (1991). Somatic markers and the guidance of behavior: Theory and preliminary testing. In Harvey Leven, Howard Eisenberg, & Arthur Benton (eds) Frontal Lobe Function and Dysfunction, New York: Oxford University Press, 217-229.

Koenigs, M., Young, L, Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Cushman, F., & Hauser, M. (2007). Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgments, Nature, 446, 908-911.

Price, B., Daffmer. K., Stowe, R. & Mesulam, M. (1990). The comportmental learning disabilities of early frontal lobe damage. Brain, 113 1383-1393.

Shallice, T. & Burgess, P. (1991). Deficits in strategy application following frontal lobe damage in man. Brain, 114 727-741.

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