I.3.2 Emotions and Ethics

Your ethical values will define with which emotions you will respond to an external trigger. They will define if you respond with anger, fear, disgust or shame to an event. However, we should try to ban these emotions from our lives, as they are responsible for creating a lot of stress. We should try to get in a state of mind where joy and sadness are the main emotions controlling our life. The goal should be to resolve our problems with joy and sadness, and try to abstain as much as possible from disgust, shame, fear and anger.  In our evolutionary past these emotions were necessary for survival, mobilizing our forces to fight the sabre tooth tigers, and refraining from eating spoiled food. However, the more civilization progresses, and the more our basic needs are covered, the less disgust, shame, fear and anger we need.

Figure 5. Response to negative emotions. A morally just person only experiences joy and sadness, but not anger, fear, disgust and shame in response to a social transgression.

Figure 5 illustrates what happens if somebody commits a “social crime”, deviating from established norms of society, for instance if two people of the same gender show mutual affection in public in a homophobic society – committing a social transgression. Based on their personalities, the two people might experience shame, and maybe also fear to be exposed, while the people observing their affective behavior might experience disgust and anger. Many people in more open societies in North America and Western Europe might agree that these emotional responses are unnecessary and only result in painful experiences for everybody involved.

Committing an ethical transgression, such as stealing money or cheating on the taxes, will lead to a similar emotional response, with the thief or tax cheater showing embarrassment and shame when being caught, and fear of punishment, while the public observers will be disgusted and angry at the thief for his unethical behavior. Most people would agree that this similar sequence of emotions is justified as a deterrent against such unethical conduct.

Shame and Disgust: According to moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum – laid out in her seminal work “Hiding from Humanity”  – disgust and shame result in discrimination of minorities such as Jews and homosexuals by the majority. As Nussbaum says in another of her books, “The Fragility of Goodness”, human goodness does not fully protect against peril and injustice, in particular, if somebody experiences “moral luck”, which means getting blamed or praised for something that the individual did not have control over. To reduce moral luck, we should reduce our morally based condemnation of “deviant” social behavior. Both disgust and shame are hierarchical, and lead to restriction of non-harmful activities, which means that whoever cherishes justice, fairness, and equality should try to avoid these two emotions when dealing with socially deviant behavior. The way to eschew them for an individual is to self-monitor what triggers disgust and shame and try to adjust one’s moral value system accordingly.

However, disgust and shame are essential as a punishment system for people violating ethical norms, for instance stealing and hurting others. In other words, recognizing shame and disgust in response to “deviant” ethical behavior will allow to flag people who are appalled by it, and thus more likely to themselves behave ethically. 

Fear and Anger: The people who have the most fear, are the angriest. This was the insight of my son and his girlfriend, both young doctors in the Covid wards in regional hospitals during the Covid pandemic. Among their patients, most of them well above retirement age, there were people who were calm and took every day as it came. But there were others who were constantly angry, complaining, and impossible to satisfy. But those were also the ones who were most fearful, fearful to catch additional infections, fearful to be intubated, fearful of discovering additional ailments such as cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. This means it is hard to separate fear and anger.  While in times of external crisis, fear and anger can be strong motivators to build up unexpected energy essential for survival, nowadays in our more placid times of abundance, fear creating anger leads to unnecessary stress.  People are particularly fearful of losing the things they value most, according to Maslow’s pyramid of needs these would be:

Safety – fear of losing their job 

Power – fear of losing their position of power and influence 

Glory – fear of losing their reputation

Love – fear of losing their loved ones

This means that the more somebody values safety, power, glory, and love, the more fearful they will be of losing them, and the angrier they will respond when these possessions are threatened. Creating an environment without fear will lead to much less anger and stress. By recognizing the restrictions inherent in daily life, and be accepting that these are all perishable goods, that are easily gained, and easily lost, we will get into a stage of mindful enlightenment where the main emotions governing our life are joy and sadness.


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