This post is based on a doctoral dissertation: “Just do it! Guilt as a moral intuition to cooperate–A parallel constraint satisfaction approach,” written by Thomas Stemmler at the University of Wurzburg. Stemmler does a good job of fitting together some ideas that I have been unable to fit together. Ideas of Haidt, Glockner, Lerner, and Holyoak are notably connected. He conducted five experiments examining guilt and cooperation to test, in the most simple terms, the hypothesis that making moral judgments is closer to making an aesthetic judgment than to reasoning about the moral justifications of an action, and that moral intuitions come from moral emotions. The hypothesis is based on Jonathan Haidt’s idea that the role of reasoning is literally to provide reasons (or arguments) for the intuitively made judgment if there is a need to communicate it. Part of the hypothesis is also that emotional intuitions in moral decision-making are the result of compensatory information processing which follows principles of parallel constraint satisfaction (PCS). I am going to largely skip over the results of the experiments, but note that Stemmler believes that they support his hypothesis. He notes that guilt is only one emotion, but points out similarly confirming results for disgust.
Decision making based on PCS principles reverses the logic of traditional approaches by assuming that there is only one compensatory decision rule that people can utilize in an automatic fashion, but deliberative processes influence what is processed (e.g., memory retrieval and attentional processes). Because PCS information processing integrates information from different sources simultaneously, it is considered a constructive process, and Stemmler uses constructionist process and PCS information processing interchangeably.
Constructionist approaches assume that emotion elicitation and decision making are two different outputs of the same process. The constructionist approach is seen as contrasting with the consequentalist approach where emotional experience is used as intuitive information in
an otherwise non-emotional, rule-based decision making process.
Stemmler writes that people can make decisions by sorting outcomes, as assumed by traditional outcome-based decision making approaches, but also by sorting “goals”. Since in PCS models, goals and actions do not strongly differ conceptually, a “goal” can be accompanied by an action tendency. Remembering a moral transgression may be accompanied by conflicting action tendencies related to cooperation and non-cooperation. This “conflict” can be solved if situationally salient information provides action tendencies in favor of one or the other action-option. Hence, information that provides action tendencies relevant to the underlying conflict can provoke a shift in one or the other direction, which makes a decision.
Since people do not seem to be aware of the underlying conflict of action-tendencies, they can only manipulate the PCS process by changing information that is experienced, i.e. they need to employ information that reduces the experienced self-threat. According to Stemmler, two different reasons for eliminating threat are reasonable: first, since guilt feels bad, people may cooperate because they want to feel better. Second, feelings of guilt result from a violation of reciprocal altruism and people have to fear (altruistic) punishment by others if they do not cooperate.
From a constructionist perspective, people cooperate in order to reduce threat, hence only emotion-regulation attempts capable of reducing blame by others should successfully eliminate guilt. For the consequentalist, unspecific emotion-regulation may indirectly influence cooperation by reducing the informational impact of guilt. Under PCS emotion regulation needs to be specific in reducing blame and hence reducing threat of being punished. Guilt can be conceptualized as both an intrapersonal phenomena and an interpersonal phenomena. From an intrapersonal perspective, if a person is not causally responsible for having harmed another person, there is no need to feel guilty. Thus, from an intrapersonal vantage-point, the possibility to externally attribute guilt should change the emotional experience and hence reduce its impact on decision-making.
From an interpersonal perspective, people often feel guilty even when they are not causally responsible. According to Stemmler, this may be understood in terms of evolutionary psychology. Moral principles are often linked to basic survival problems, and guilt is related to failures of cooperation and reciprocal altruism. Within biological systems, reciprocal altruism can only “survive” if people cooperate conditionally, that is, if people cooperate with other cooperators and exclude or punish free riders. Failures to cooperate increase the possibility to be judged as a free rider, and thus to be punished or excluded. From an evolutionary perspective, cooperation is following guilt if people cannot compensate for a moral transgression, e.g., by using the moral reputation of oneself or of others. In Stemmler’s experiments, directing attention to the self or to others influenced cooperation based on people’s moral reputation: if people have the perception of a positive moral reputation, they decrease cooperation. In contrast, when people (still) have the perception of a negative moral reputation, they increase cooperation. These findings indicate that people use a compensatory strategy for decision-making, since past moral behavior can compensate for current transgressions and even the moral reputation of others can compensate for own moral transgressions. For instance, I might decide to not cooperate because I believe I am perceived as one who generally cooperates. This compensation may not be directly related to the particular decision, but it still in effect makes the decision. This compensatory strategy is consistent with PCS.
Moral emotions like guilt may thus be regarded as an intuitive kind of information processing instead of intuitive information, used when a situation is relevant to an evolutionary problem like balancing cooperative actions. Stemmler suggests that this idea is analogous to the assumption that people use a universal moral grammar to infer the meaning of a situation. Viewing emotions as information processing structures designed to solve a specific evolutionary problem may also help to explain how metaphors influence moral judgment and decision making. If emotions incorporate a specific grammar and the grammar assigns value to an entity by categorization, then metaphors may be able to trigger a specific emotional grammar which leads to an emotion-consistent interpretation of a situation.Stemmler concludes that:
moral emotions may influence moral judgment and decision-making by providing a computational structure that helps to solve an evolutionary relevant problem. Linking research on emotion-elicitation to universal moral grammar may not only help to illuminate how emotions serve as moral intuitions, but also help to reconcile sentimentalist and rationalist approaches of moral judgment and decision making.