Being a Good Person: The Moral Emotions

I'm still reflecting on the interface of emotion and theology.

Ever since the Greeks, most of the Western philosophical and psychological moral/ethical traditions have tended to focus on moral reasoning. This cognitivist approach is manifested in most ethics classes. In this tradition, emphasis is placed on excellence in dissecting moral conundrums: Hans' wife is dying and she needs a very expensive medicine. However, the local pharmacist, a man who loves money, will not give the medicine to Hans. Hans, in his desperation, steals the medicine. Did Hans do the "right" thing?

But the Greeks focused not on moral reasoning but upon character and "virtue." And recently, psychologists are mining that wisdom in their research.

What is virtue? What does it mean to be a good person? More and more evidence is now suggesting this: Virtue is emotions.

More specifically, virtue is the product of what psychologists are now calling the "moral emotions." The moral emotions are:

1. Empathy: The ability to vicariously feel the pain of a friend or stranger.
2. Gratitude: The ability to feel that one is in receipt of a "gift" or "blessing."
3. Remorse: Heartache over hurting a person.
4. Moral Indignation: Anger in the face of cruelty and injustice.

These, then, are character and virtue. If you have these, you're a good person. If you don't have them you are evil. And I’m serious about that. The diagnostic feature of psychopaths, the face of pure evil in the world today (more technically diagnosed as "Antisocial Personality Disorder"), is a complete absence of the moral emotions: No empathy, no gratitude, no remorse, no indignation.

Thus, what psychologists are teaching us about virtue is this: Goodness is in the emotions. Do you want your kids to be good? Tune their moral emotions. Do you want to be good? Tune your own moral emotions.

How can we do this? Well, there are lots of ways. Here is a recent example from my life...

Last spring I took some students to Memphis for a conference. Late one afternoon a student and I wandered over to the National Civil Rights Museum. What an amazing experience. It is housed on the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. In fact, the tour ends on that fateful balcony. At one point in the exhibit you get to sit on a Montgomery bus next to Rosa Parks while the bus driver (this is all simulated) screams at you to move to the back.

Needless to say, I was emotionally changed. Right now, as I write, I'm looking at the poster I bought at the end of that day. It is a picture of the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. I look at that poster every day.

Why do I tell you this? Because to be a good person I must attend to my moral emotions. And the Civil Rights Museum was good therapy. It tuned both my empathy and my moral indignation. I haven't been the same since.

So, if you are reading this, what kinds of "moral emotion therapy" have you found effective in your own life? What experiences? What movies? What books?

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

6 thoughts on “Being a Good Person: The Moral Emotions”

  1. I absolutely loved this post! Thanks for sharing it!

    I've made one of my own purposes in my life to strive to be "a good person," so many times, I find myself trying to focus more and more on the four "moral emotions" you pointed out.

    Most of the time I've found that my favorite movies are movies that inspire and drive me to be a better person. And I typically find with these films that I am lured into the role of the main characters and I find myself empatizing with them. By the end of the film I find myself wanting to love even more than I already do and being thankful for what I have and wanting to help others (that's probably a REALLY girly reaction to movies...HA!)

    It's movies like Patch Adams, Life as a House, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Remember the Titans, and others that give me this feeling. They make me want to love more and to truly appreciate people and relationships, no matter if people are rich or poor, black or white, heterosexual or homosexual, etc.

    I can only imagine how powerful the National Civil Rights Museum tour was for you! Those sort of experiences truly can go a long way with an individual who is open to experiencing a small glimpse of life in someone elses shoes.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  2. I remember watching Big Fish, that was a good movie :)

    I was looking on the internet to further prove to my friend (Alexx) that she is a VERY good person, and I think you've just help me do that.
    Thank you :)

  3. Thank you for such a wonderfully thought out and written piece!

    At times I struggle with mistakes or tough judgement calls that I've made in my life and sometimes they circle back to the essence of what my character really is...this essay has brought me to a clearer understanding and perspective.

    I'm grateful!

  4. I went to this web site to find some answers. I found something called anti personality disorders. I lost my father back in 1992.  He was a great father.  He believed in me.  Stood by me.  When no one else did.  My mother is very controlling.  She never believes in anything I say.  She has always been verbally abusive.  I married a man that is just like her.  
    We had a daughter who i love very much.  She was verbally abused by him as well. He Always preached  on how to do everything.  A Mr. know it all, with everyone. Through the years i gave my daughter positiveness to un do the damages he created. I believed in her the way my mother never did for me.  She never saw what he was doing to her until her friends brought it to her attention,  Today my daughter is very cold in side.  She treats me with no respect.  As he always did.  I cry over how little she loves me and yet she still sees her dad.  She will go months at a time not talking to me for what ever reason.  This hurts.  I feel I was a good wife and a great mother.  My family isn't there for me at all.  I'm alone and very confused.  I have tryed everything.  I don't know how to help myself with this pain. Can someone give me some advice.

  5. Susie, I know this is 2 years too late, but this broke my heart. The only advice I can give, should you ever see this, is to find a church that accepts you and loves you where you're at. They are out there...

Leave a Reply