Are moral emotions adaptive?
Moral emotions are experienced by everybody in some way or form and relate to how individuals respond to moral violations. Moral emotions may be critically important in understanding people’s behavioural adherence (or lack of adherence) to their moral standards (Tangey, Stuewig & Mashek, 1992). Kroll and Egan (2004) state that “Moral emotions provide the motivational force—the power and energy— to do good and to avoid doing bad”. There are many moral emotions that individuals experience such as sympathy, pride and embarrassment; however the moral emotion that is going to be the focus of this essay is guilt This particularly links to Kroll and Egan’s (2004) definition of moral emotions focusing on avoiding doing bad. By guilt we refer to an individual's unpleasant emotional state associated with possible objections to his or her actions, inaction, circumstances, or intentions (Baumeister, Stillwell & Heatherton 1994). There is substantial research into the topic of guilt, however it provides contradicting evidence to whether it is an adaptive trait or not. An adaptation can be thought of as a feature of an organism that has been shaped by natural selection such that it enhances the fitness of the possessor (Cartwright, 2008). Characteristics essential to adaptive behaviour are those such as maintaining survival and reproductive success. The essay question has been addressed by analysing research within different areas in psychology such as evolution, genetics, development, psychological disorders and behaviourism, and assessing whether the evidence found relates guilt to adaptive behaviour.
Evolutionary theorists, such as Trivers (1985), have suggested that in order to prevent individuals performing exploitative actions that could potentially damage their relationships, guilt emerged from natural selection. Guilt can enhance relationships in various ways such as motivating respectable treatment of partners, minimising transgressions and inequalities within the relationship and redistributing emotional distress. Treating partner’s well enables you to maintain a relationship with that individual – increasing your chance of reproductive success; if someone is getting mistreated they may look elsewhere. Maintaining a healthy relationship also increases your resources such as food, shelter and money – if a relationship breaks down it may have a detrimental effect on ones resources – which could possibly decrease ones fitness for the environment. It has been suggested that guilt feelings are invoked by individuals to apologize for wrongdoings. By apologising for misdeeds this elicits symbolic affirmation of caring and commitment and the social bonds in the relationship can be restored. The victim may see an implicit commitment not to repeat the offense if the transgressor acknowledges guilt (Baumeister, Stillwell & Heatherton 1994). Okel and Mosher (1968) induced students to derogate another student (confederate). Participants who were prone to guilt reported that if had they known how upset the victim would be then they would not have performed those actions; which provides evidence for the idea that guilt prevents one to repeat an offense – which is therefore beneficial for the relationship and one’s chance at reproductive success. It can be argued however, that guilt does not always serve its purpose of restoring relationships as in many cases individuals cannot forgive their partner for wrongdoings, such as infidelity for example, and the relationship breaks down straight away. This would be maladaptive as ones chance of reproductive success is decreased, as well as their resources. It could also be argued that guilt can decrease ones survival, as again if you told your partner about a wrongdoing such as an infidelity there is the risk of violence that could occur. Chimbos (1978) found that in most cases, spouse killings are the endpoint of a series of quarrels over extra-marital affair. This...
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