Ethical decisions are often highly emotive. When we think about animal suffering or slave-like conditions on farms, we are not simple engaging in abstract arguments, we are deeply moved.

We can rationally deliberate about what the best thing to do is, but without any emotion we would have no reason to care at all. Empathy of some kind would therefore appear to be the foundation for ethical action, if not for ethics itself. So what role should feelings have in ethics?

Recent work in moral psychology has shown that people make moral decisions differently depending on whether the dilemma they are considering provokes an emotional response or not.

For example, imagine a scenario in which if you do nothing, five people will die and another person will live. But what if you have the capacity to do something which would save all five at the cost of the life of the person who would have lived. What would you do? Now consider whether you would be prepared to shoot someone, even if it is legal, in order to save five others.

Some say yes to both. But for many people, the answers are different. The first scenario is presented abstractly and so most people do the “moral maths” and choose the death of one. However, when people imagine actually killing someone, their emotions kick in, and they are more likely to allow the five to die.

What conclusion should we draw from this? Is it that the right moral answer is the calculated, rational one and that emotions interfere? Or is it that when we think purely rationally we switch off the empathy necessary for moral action?

Philosophers are divided and there are reasons to think either answer is correct. For example, it seems wrong that people are more likely to make charitable donations when they see images of cute children or fluffy animals even when more people may benefit from donations to other causes. On the other hand, many are horrified by the cold logic of Hiroshima, in which thousands of innocents were killed in order to shorten a war and save lives in the long run.

Despite the absence of consensus, most agree that relying on “gut feelings” or raw “intuitions” alone is deeply unreliable.

We need to be aware of the emotions ethical dilemmas stir in us but careful not to allow them to guide our actions unchecked.

How exactly we do this is a matter of debate. We can, at least, stop and ask ourselves a few questions whenever we find ourselves responding to a moral dilemma.

  • Are my feelings making me leap into judgement too quickly?
  • Does my judgement here fit in with what I believe is right in other situations? Am I being consistent?
  • Are the people or animals facing the consequences of my actions better off if I go with my emotions or against them?